The 32-bit era was a dark age for Konami's beloved Contra series. It saw two installments - Contra: Legacy of War and C: The Contra Adventure - both outsourced to a French development team, and produced solely for the Western audience. The former was garbage; the latter was better, but only in relative terms. Since Konami wasn't up to task, it was up to other publishers to carry on the Contra name. Sometimes they came from unusual sources, like ASC Game's ONE for the PSOne, development by a relatively unknown American team. But one of the best was Sin & Punishment for the Nintendo 64, developed during the twilight years of the system just as the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 were hitting the market. It's the brainchild of Treasure, the same guys who puts together Gunstar Heroes some seven years earlier - so it's no surprise that Sin & Punishment does "Contra in 3D" way better than anything Konami ever produced.
Sin & Punishment isn't your typical 3D action game - it's actually more of a rail shooter, similar to Panzer Dragoon or Starfox. The main difference is that you control human characters rather than dragons/starships, so you can't fly around the screen. By default, the analog stick controls your crosshairs, while either the control pad or the C buttons controls your character's movement, and the Z button fires your gun. In other games of this type, both the cursor and the movement are handled with the same input, so dividing up the functions alone takes a bit of getting used to. To aid with this, there are two firing modes - free aim and lock-on. The lock-on mode will automatically target an enemy once you've moved the crosshairs over it, so you'll fire at it no matter where it moves. While this may seem simple, your shots are much weaker in this mode, so you need to get used to the free aim mode if you want to beat bosses within the time limit.
It only gets more complicated from there. Since the game is auto-scrolling, you can only move left or right. However, the shoulder buttons will make your character jump, which are really only used for a handful of sections with pits. You can also counter most enemy projectiles with your sword by highlighting an enemy with your crosshairs, waiting until the projectile is about to hit, then press Z to reflect it back.
That's a whole lot of functionality to take on at once - it's like trying to pat your head, rub your belly, chew gum, and solve trigonometry problems, all at the same time. Until you get to the stage where you master everything completely, you'll probably find yourself making a ton of stupid mistakes, like walking straight into enemy projectiles or routinely falling into pits. Thankfully, like most Treasure games, you have a pretty huge life meter, and can sustain quite of bit of damage before you croak. Even then, you get extra continues every time you kill one hundred enemies, so there's plenty of room for error. But once you do master them, every single other rail shooter seems simplistic by comparison. There is a "two player" option where one player controls the character movement while the other aims, which can potentially result in all kinds of hilarity.
Of course, like most Treasure games, it's the level and boss design that really elevate Sin & Punishment to classic status. There are technically only three stages (in addition to a brief a prologue level), although each is broken up into several parts. It's rare that a section goes on longer than it has to, and each is filled with boss fights that challenge your mastery of the control scheme. There are a few times when the perspective changes to a side scrolling view, which is a cool change of pace, but the highlight of the game is a stunning sequence where you zoom haphazardly around a fleet of battleships - riding on what appears to be a sheet of metal, being telepathetically controlled - taking down an entire fleet of carriers and fighter jets, until you ascend into the sky and destroy a gigantic flying fortress piece by piece.
There are a few times where you need to use your sword in boss battles, which are actually pretty cool. One foe, a malicious foe named Kachua, will hover in the middle of the screen, and use his psychic powers to toss tumbling enemy soldiers right at you. He appears with full health, but a single well timed sword slash will take him down instantly. At this point, he turns into a gigantic being, and Saki morphs into a gigantic Evangelion-style mech - he controls the same, but the scale is far more grandiose, with Kachua's form taking up nearly the entire screen. After defeating it, he hides under the surface of the lava, sending out crashing waves of death that need to be skillfully jumped over to survive.
In other fight against a dully-named enemy called Brad, you need to attack both him and his furry little pet companion. The only way to beat him is to wait until he jumps close enough, engage him in sword-on-sword combat, and mash buttons until you send him crashing through the windows and out to his death, regardless of his health. And that's the say nothing of the final battle, where you have to fight an entire planet. In an ode to Missile Command, is bombarding the Earth with ICBMs, forcing to you divide your firepower to protect the earth from damage while still fighting your primary foe.
Sin & Punishment is full of crazy set pieces like this, all told through one of the most absurdly convoluted plots in any video game. The whole story is told with terribly acted, terribly written English dialogue - subtitled in Japanese - but the game never bothers to introduce the world or the characters. There's something about genetic mutations due to blood transfusions, resulting in a group of enemies known as Ruffians. Your characters, members of the Saviour Group, band together to save Japan from this menace.
The main character for a majority of the game, he is the leader of the Saviour Group. He received a blood transfusion from Achi, which seems to have given him mysterious powers.
Another member of the Saviour, Airan was rescued by Saki, and fights alongside him. When Saki is taken out of commission, you play as Airan for a whole stage.
By the end of the game, very little of this will have made sense, but the game seems awfully proud at how nonsensical it is, and it's hard to dislike that kind of naive pretentiousness. All of it can be skipped instantly with a press of a button, so it may as well not exist if it bothers you. Plus, while the visuals are generally pretty fantastic when you're actually playing it, the angular, low polygon character models just can't accurately portray Yasushi Suzuki's artwork. The music is also a bit on the dim side, a blaring, meandering quasi-rock score that seems awfully disinterested in itself and is a poor accompaniment to an otherwise outstanding game.
Sin & Punishment was released near the end of the Nintendo 64's life cycle, and is one of the few Treasure titles published by Nintendo themselves. (Previously, Nintendo of America distributed Mischief Makers in North America, and Treasure was later commissioned to develop Wario World for the Gamecube.) The English dialogue seems to indicate that it was primarily intended for an overseas release, however, due to the flagging sales of late Nintendo 64 titles like Conker's Bad Fur Day and Perfect Dark, it was only released in Japan. It wasn't until 2007 when it was released on the Virtual Console for the Wii that North American and European gamers could experience Sin & Punishment without importing. The Classic Controller makes it a bit easier to control, and the enhanced resolution makes this the definitive version of the game. The menus are translated, as well as the tutorial and ending text although the subtitles are still in Japanese. Since Sin & Punishment is technically a Nintendo property, Saki also makes an appearance in Super Smash Bros Brawl as an assist character.
Sin and Punishment: Star Successor / Sin and Punishment: Successor of the Skies / Tsumi to Batsu: Sora no Koukeisha (罪と罰 ～宇宙の後継者～) - Wii (2009)
When Nintendo announced the motion control remote for the Wii, longtime gamers were skeptical that it could actually enhance the gaming experience. Indeed, this proved to be mostly true, as games using the Wii remote were more about flailing randomly than anything resembling actual skill. A small handful of games, like No More Heroes and Super Mario Galaxy, used the motion controls to enhance the experience, although in most cases they were extraneous. And so, it didn't seem like anyone was really using the Wii remote to its fullest potential.
That is, until Sin and Punishment: Star Successor came out.
Sin & Punishment is a totally ideal fit for the Wii - the nunchuck in the left hand to the control the character, the Wii remote in the right to control aiming. It's far more natural than any of the setups in the original Nintendo 64 game, and it's almost surprising that it took anyone this long to develop a rail shooter using these controls. Sin & Punishment 2 only took so long because Nintendo didn't realize the demand. It wasn't until they saw the Western sales of the Virtual Console re-release of the original Sin and Punishment that creating a sequel was of the utmost importance.
The application of the motion controls is obvious - it's smoother, more logical and far more approachable. From a technical standpoint, it's obviously improved too - as a native Wii game, it looks leaps and bounds beyond the foggy Nintendo 64 technology, and runs at a solid smooth 60 FPS at almost all times. The character models are a bit dodgy, but the incredible looking bosses more than make up for it, resulting it what is easily one of the best looking games on the Wii.
The fundamentals are pretty much the same. There are still two types of targeting cursors - an entirely manual one, and a lock-on which will reduce damage but make it easier to aim. You can also still reflect projectiles with a sword attack, executed by tapping the Z button. The biggest change is the ability to fly at all times, removing the need to jump. In its place is a dash roll maneuver, which lets you quickly dodge and gives you temporarily invulnerability. While this might theoretically sound like it would make things too easy, there's also a split second after each dash where you're susceptible to damage, requiring that you not only time them perfectly, but also make sure that you end up in a safe spot. You also have a charge attack, which deals substantially more damage than your standard rapid fire laser. After firing, it takes a few seconds for it to be used again, but careful balancing of dodging and charge shooting is absolutely essential to the mastery of the game. The original game also changed things up a bit by switching to a side-scrolling perspective on a few occasions. This sequel does the same on occasion, and a few boss fights zoom the camera out to allow 360 degree movement, similar to the shooter/fighter hybrid Senko no Ronde.
The story is a bit less insane than the original, though not by much. It takes place several years in the future, where it's become apparent that there are two dimensions: Inner Space and Outer Space. One of the agents from Outer Space takes the form of a human girl and invades enemy territory, only to be hit with a terrible bout of amnesia. She's rescued by a boy named Isa, the son of Airan and Saki from the first game. Having apparently forgotten her mission, she instead decides the side of her nemesis. This action angers a group of mysterious beings known as the Creators, who command a group of five beings known as the Nebulox (known as the G5, or Gathering of 5 Countries, in the Japanese version) to take them down. You can play as either Isa or Kachi, who possess slightly different abilities. Kachi's auto-lock is as powerful as her manual one and her charge attack can lock onto multiple enemies. Isa has a better firing rate and is more powerful, and his charge shot is a single powerful blast. Again, there is technically a "two player" mode, but the second player just controls their own set of crosshairs, without actually playing as their own character.
The North American and European versions include both English and Japanese voice acting. The North American version is subtitled Star Successor, while the European version it's Successor of the Skies, which sounds slightly better. The English script weakens some of the religious undertones - the "Creators" were known as "kami" or "Gods" in the Japanese version - although the uncensored English story was presented on the official European site.
The son of the protagonists from the first game, Isa is afraid of the powers he may have inherited from his parents. However, he takes it upon himself to protect Kachi from the forces who seek to destroy her.
Sin & Punishment 2 is also a much, much larger game than its predecessor. Sin and Punishment only included three full stages (and a single short one.) The sequel includes a total of seven full stages, in addition to similarly brief prologue stage, making it over twice the length. It also saves the game after every checkpoint and offers unlimited continues. Once a stage is completed, you can restart at any area, which is perfect for replaying favorite bosses or trying for score attacks. Sin & Punishment 2 is also substantially more difficult, even on the Normal setting, so to balance this it offers as many retries as necessary.
The scoring system is pretty simple. A multiplier slowly crawls up as you kill enemies - when you get hit, it drops a small bit. That's about as complicated as it gets, but many areas are filled with masses of popcorn enemies that fly out in the distance. They're not dangerous, but taking down these swarms will obviously help increase your multiplier further. It also offers online leaderboard functionality, if you want to compare your scores to other players.
The stage designs and bosses are of the highest caliber, of what one would expect from Treasure. Each checkpoint usually changes up the scenery or introduces new enemies, so you don't spend more than a few minutes doing the same thing. The scenery is varied, ranging from destroyed landscapes to underwater subways to Japanese forests to desert roadscapes (complete with jumping sand worms of course) to the volcanic expanses of Mt. Fuji. Bosses include all manners of battleships, flying monstrosities and other such behemoths. Most stages culminate in a battle against one of the members of the Nebulox, all of whom wield a variety of increasingly insane powers. In a fight taking place over the ocean, one will morphs into a series of deadly dolphins, who pull off a series of killer acrobatic maneuver. It sort of makes sense on context - the transformations show the evolution of sea life - but it's still bizarre.
A later section involves a boss whose hide is too thick for bullets, rendering it immune to regular attacks. Instead, your characters jump on a train, while a rear view mirror pops up on the top of the screen, showing the foe giving chase. The only way to beat him is by disconnecting the various train cars so they smash into your pursuer. After getting killed, it spews a small baby from itself, causing our heroes some slight guilt that the grotesque monster they destroyed was actually a mother. The baby crawls out of sight and, for some reason, mans a crane that snags your partner and threatens to toss him/her in the lava. This whole stage also involves a segment where you can fling a stampede of cow-like creatures into the horizon, destroying distant fortresses. During one of the fights against one other Nebulox member, your character is bound to him with a rope, forcing you to play a very simplistic 2D fighter-type game to beat him up. The final stage takes place after the heroes have transformed, similar to the giant robot form from the first game, as they approach the Nebulox base hovering in Earth's orbit. Here, the camera switches to the bridge as each member of the quintet teleports out to face you, a concept practically lifted straight from the climax of Gunstar Heroes. In other words, it's gorgeous.
Treasure has always had something of a spotty track record with sequels. Games like Gunstar Super Heroes, Guardian Heroes Advance and Bangai-O Spirits are all fine games, but they all falter in one way or another - Gunstar Super Heroes for stripping down its mechanics, and the other two for almost completely reworking the experience. Sin and Punishment 2, though, is probably the only Treasure sequel that not only stacks up the original game, but exceeds it, resulting in not only one the company's best titles, but one of the absolute must-haves for Wii.
Thanks to Anothergamer for the heads-up on the character firing abilities!