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An Interview With The Developers of Contra: Operation Galuga

On September 14th, 2023, KONAMI and WayForward announced that a new Contra game, titled Contra: Operation Galuga, would be released in early 2024. I had the pleasure of interviewing three lead developers for this game: Tomm Hulett, director at WayForward; Akiyoshi Chosokabe, director at KONAMI; and Shohei Tada, producer at KONAMI.

Tomm, as a huge fan of WayForward, I’ve covered many of your company’s games on this site including some you’ve participated in such as Vitamin Connection and River City Girls 2. But I’m especially excited about your newest game, Contra: Operation Galuga and I’d love to talk more with you about it. I greatly appreciate you and Akiyoshi and Shohei taking time away from your work to answer some questions.

What an exciting time for fans of the Contra franchise! It’s been a long wait for a truly promising game in the series and Contra: Operation Galuga looks to cure that itch. It sounds like the wait will end in early 2024, which is right around the corner. I’m curious as to how long this game has been in the works. How far back would you say that this idea started and became what it is today?

Akiyoshi Chosokabe: About three to four years ago, producer Shohei Tada and I were discussing the idea of rebooting the franchise, going back to the roots of the first three Contra titles: Contra, Super C, and Contra III: The Alien Wars.

We wanted to return to the essence of what made Contra exciting, but at the same time start a new evolution by rebooting it. The concept was originally called “Contra Reboot,” and the planning and development of the project officially launched from thereon. Once the major direction of the game had been established, the product, worldview, storyline, and character art were drafted within KONAMI.

From early on, we had decided that the game would be a side-scrolling run-’n’-gun game and knew we wanted to enlist the help of a company with experience and a proven track record in this genre to produce the game. This led to approaching WayFoward to see if they would be interested in producing a new Contra title. Fortunately, WayFoward showed interest, so KONAMI presented the concept of a rebooted Contra game and asked them to propose a game system. The WayFoward production team started work a few months later. From then to the present, a close collaboration began between KONAMI and WayFoward that has lasted for several years.

The character trailer that was recently released shows six playable characters, some of which should be familiar to Contra fans, and some which may not be. For example, Probotector is a nice call-back to the European release of the original Contra game, which replaced our human heroes Bill Rizer and Lance Bean with robotic soldiers. Lucia also has a very interesting history in the series, to say the least. But two characters are making their Contra debuts in this game, Ariana and Lt. Stanley Ironside. What can you tell us about these new characters and how they were created?

Tomm Hulett: When the project began, KONAMI had an overall story bible that helped contextualize how we were expanding the original storyline. Included in this were two new characters, Ariana and Stanley. As we collaborated on the game, we fleshed out these characters in both gameplay and story capacities.

Ariana is a native of Galuga Island, where her people have lived for thousands of years. Her village was overrun by Red Falcon soldiers following a meteor shower six months before the game, and she’s been surviving on her own since then, doing small raids on enemy outposts. She has a better sense of what’s going on than Bill and Lance do when they encounter her.

Stanley is the leader of the GX Army Special Forces. They have a bit of a rivalry with the Contra unit, so he’s not thrilled to see Bill and Lance (nor are they to see him) but everybody can put their differences aside for the sake of the mission. Stanley fights inside futuristic powered armor, which allows him to hover short distances.

Akiyoshi Chosokabe: First and foremost, we wanted to bring back the legendary Contra duo, Bill and Lance, for this title. After all, KONAMI’s Contra games had been without Lance for a long time. We believe that when Bill and Lance are together…that’s what we call a true Contra title. And so, while bringing back familiar heroes, we also wanted to add new female and male heroes to enhance the world of Contra.

When we initially started brainstorming female heroes, we came up with the idea that Galuga Island, the main setting of the first Contra, may have originally been inhabited by natives. As a result, the indigenous warrior Ariana was born. Ariana is a type of female character that has never appeared in the Contra series before. We hope to be able to expand the world of Contra through her addition.

Stanley, on the other hand, addresses a question for me. Is every character in the series a Contra Soldier? I have always wondered — are all the playable Contra characters Contra Soldiers? Is it possible to have a character who is not a Contra Soldier? Stanley was born out of that question. He is a good soldier, but he is not Contra. Stanley belongs to the army, and by wearing a military power suit, he can increase his fighting ability and fight on par with Bill and Lance, the Contras. Stanley’s presence complements the story’s theme of “Who and what is Contra?”

Tomm, this is certainly not your first rodeo with the Contra series. I find it fascinating that you’ve served as something of a bridge between KONAMI and WayForward. When Contra 4 was made, you collaborated with WayForward as a producer at KONAMI. Then you eventually joined WayForward and helped create a spiritual successor to Contra by the name of Spidersaurs. Now everything has come full circle in a way with your collaboration with KONAMI as a director at WayForward for Contra: Operation Galuga. Please tell us more about those work experiences and what they’ve meant for you.

Tomm Hulett: They’ve all meant a great deal to me, and they are interesting benchmarks along my career in games. I was originally brought into the industry based on my skill at action games, but then for a long time (both in personal and professional projects) I was involved with RPGs. So when I first came to KONAMI to be more hands-on with game creation, I was so fortunate to be given Contra 4 as my first project. I got to work with a great developer in WayForward, and we all studied Contra and classic action titles to create the game.

I worked on a variety of genres after that, but many years later I was offered Spidersaurs, and that was the first original WayForward game I got to direct. Not only was it a run-‘n’-gun title, allowing me to evolve the ideas we had used to create Contra, but I also got to write a more humorous story, which was a lot of fun. There is a sort of established WayForward “vibe” so it was fun to have a twist on that.

And then almost immediately afterward, having KONAMI work with us on Contra: Operation Galuga felt perfect! It’s been over a decade and a lot has happened in gaming trends, and we get to reinterpret Contra again by bringing those classic fundamentals to the current generation. It feels like every time WayForward works on a classic brand like Contra, they level up! And for me personally, it feels like a final exam, since now I’m the one who has to guide the development team.

While we’re discussing influences, I have to say that the original Contra for the NES is maybe one of the most influential video games of my childhood. I played it many times over, memorized the famous KONAMI code and everything. So I’m super excited to see Contra: Operation Galuga, which looks and feels like a re-imagining of the classic that I grew up playing. What were your favorite games growing up, and how did those inspire your work?

Tomm Hulett: I think I had all the same favorites as every serious gamer from the 8-bit era. The short answer is anything from Nintendo, KONAMI, or Capcom, I played and probably completed. While not necessarily my favorites, I do gravitate toward the odd-games-out such as Simon’s Quest and Zelda II. They don’t quite fit in with the rest of their series, but they have very specific flavors and you can learn a lot from examining them on a deep level. I have a real soft spot for games like that.

One game that had a massive effect on my own output is the original NES Ninja Gaiden. As a kid, I struggled with the challenge but loved the story and presentation (and music!). It came out on Wii Virtual Console right as Contra 4 development was beginning, and I gave it another try and ended up mastering it (to the tune of completing it without dying). The game is built in an antagonistic way, and it’s probably not fair, but I think it’s perfect. When you understand why those decisions were made, and learn how to overcome them, it’s perfect.

Challenge Mode sounds interesting. It features 30 action-packed missions, including speed runs and survival challenges. What can you tell us about this mode, and can you share your favorite Challenge Mode mission?

Tomm Hulett: Challenge Mode was a big hit in Contra 4 so we brought it back. Each Challenge is a small snippet from one of the stages, with a custom enemy layout to facilitate a specific goal. For example, we have Speed Run challenges where you’re racing to a goal, or Horde challenges which are just overloaded with enemies. This mode reminds me of puzzle games I used to rent and grind through over a weekend, with really short levels that might take you a long time to figure out. I left the details up to the level design team so I could play them fresh and experience them like our players will. (Then of course I had a lot of feedback, haha).

I don’t do any speed running myself, because I don’t have the time to master an entire game – so my favorite Challenge type is Speed Run because it lets me experience that type of play in a small, digestible chunk.

Music is the soundtrack of our lives and the heartbeat of the games they’re played on. Some of my favorite gaming soundtracks of all time come from both KONAMI and WayForward. Having the two companies come together to make a game seems like a musical marriage made in heaven. How would you describe the musical direction that your team aimed for with Contra: Operation Galuga?

Tomm Hulett: The soundtrack is one of the elements I’m most excited about people experiencing! Our approach to the stage music was to go in a more cinematic direction. It’s still adrenaline-pumping and referential to the Contra NES score, but it would sound at home in a big summer blockbuster too.

Akiyoshi Chosokabe: The basic concept, similar to the gameplay, is a return to Contra’s roots while evolving into something new. That concept was adopted for the soundtracks. The basic soundtrack is intended to sound like a modern action movie or video game but with the characteristic phrases from Contra’s previous works blended in.

This technique has been used in many Hollywood movies’ reboot soundtracks, and we believe it worked well too for Contra: Operation Galuga. As a result, I believe that we were able to retain a sense of nostalgia, while at the same time reincarnating the sound of Contra into something exciting and relevant, fit for now.

With this newest addition to the Contra series, what makes it stand out the most from its predecessors? How do you most want Contra gamers to remember this game in particular?

Tomm Hulett: When you’re working on a franchise like Contra, which has gone many, many years between classic entries, I think it’s important to re-establish the foundations. We could have gone nuts with all kinds of modern ideas and mechanics, and I think we would have done a great job, but fans of Contra 4, or even Hard Corps or Alien Wars, would be left thinking, “That’s fun and all, but I wanted to recapture the feeling of this boss.” Even if the game is great, without that classic feel, some players would come away disappointed. We wouldn’t have been satisfied with that.

To that end, my hope for Operation Galuga is to fully encapsulate the classic Contra spirit from across the series. So it should serve two purposes – for new players, it is a full introduction to the exciting action of Contra, and for veterans, it fully delivers on their expectations. Both groups can feel satisfied in playing a true, uncompromised Contra game.

What advice can you give to those who are looking to do what you do for a living?

Tomm Hulett: Two major things have been useful for me.

First, pick a genre of game and examine what games in that genre have in common and why that might be, and then for the games that stand out or people like, what are they doing differently? It doesn’t need to be your favorite genre or even a genre you want to work with (it might even help if it’s not). You need to be able to examine games like this to create them. I of course grew up playing classic KONAMI games in the 8- and 16-bit days. And later worked at KONAMI. However, many of my recent projects required me to study those classics. Even games I had played 10, 20, 30 times already. As a result, I think I have an even deeper understanding of those classic KONAMI games, which has benefited Operation Galuga.

The second piece of advice is to pick up several board games or deck-builder-type games and play them with your competitive friends. When one person truly understands the rules, it forces everyone else to adapt and increases their understanding of the rules, which continues to drive strategic changes. If you haven’t experienced this before it’s cool! This is useful both in understanding the types of rules your games should have, and how players can interact with them, AND in understanding game development. You need to be aware of your resources and their capabilities and position them properly for the goal at hand. Good luck!

Any closing thoughts you wish to share?

Shohei Tada: “What should the future of Contra be like? What kind of ‘Contra’ do the fans want?” KONAMI and WayFoward worked together to find answers to these questions, which led to the birth of Contra: Operation Galuga. I believe that we have created a title that not only meets expectations but also exceeds the expectations of Contra fans. We hope that this title will be a new step forward for Contra. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the game! 

Tomm Hulett: If you haven’t tried a run ‘n’ gun before, please don’t be intimidated! Contra: Operation Galuga has several features and difficulty levels that should allow you to learn the ropes and improve your skills without being frustrated!

Thank you all so much for your time! The highly anticipated Contra: Operation Galuga releases early this year and will be available on the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and Series X/S, and PC via Steam. You can follow @ContraSoldier, @Konami, and @WayForward on their social media platforms for more details as they come.

Will you be playing Contra: Operation Galuga when it comes out? What are you most excited about? Please let us know in the comments below. Thanks for reading and happy gaming!

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