As a Nintendo-starved youth, I endeavored to wrap my mitts around that boxy controller whenever possible, and there were few games I wanted to play more than Contra. The past 20 years haven’t been the kindest to run-and-gun shooters, but Plague does its best to rekindle the magic. It clearly can’t stack up to the greats in terms of pure gameplay, but it does manage to gloss over its deficiencies with a healthy coating of nostalgia, making it an entertaining adventure for fans of the genre or retro gamers in general.
Plague works because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The general premise is pretty ridiculous: you play as anthropomorphized antivirus software that is fighting against the virus on the last uninfected computer. For whatever bizarre reason, that means you command one of four selectable characters, but their variations are merely cosmetic. The story is pushed along with occasional banter in between levels, but its general purpose is to break up the action.
The computer angle of the story feels somewhat relevant early in the game, but it feels a bit superfluous as it progresses. It’s really just a convenient excuse for the game to visit some familiar locales such as the Mushroom Kingdom, a World War 2 battlefield and a generic fantasy setting. Yeah, that’s right, it’s a 2D shooter that has a level in a fantasy setting. Ever want to blow apart a stampeding troll with a shotgun? Now is your chance. The only other element that is present are the annoying Matrix-y enemies that pop up through all of the levels. The rotating locations help the game feel very fresh, but they could have been harvested for more specific references and less of the annoying green computer enemies. Speaking of which, entirely too much of this game is green, which led to plenty of occasions where I didn’t detect enemies since they kept blending into the background, at least until they fired at me.
The game rests heavily upon its retro roots, which are evident in the gameplay, the landscapes, and even the guns themselves. There are plenty of weapons to pick up, and the developers clearly had some fun devising the goofy arsenal. Where else are you going to find a guns that fire exploding Lemmings, asteroids that shatter into pieces, and controllable centipedes? I was initially disappointed that weapons don’t have unlimited ammo and you could only hold one at a time, but the feeling subsided when I saw how generously they were scattered throughout the levels.
While Plague does a great job of dipping into the well of retro references, the actual shooting leaves a bit to be desired. There’s a lack of precision to the combat that really detracts from the overall experience. Enemy fire can be impossible to avoid at times, and a lot of battles require soaking up damage in order to get into the proper position to shoot something. It’s not that the game is hard; it’s just imprecise, but it makes up for this by providing a copious amount of life.
Bosses appeared epic in scale, but in reality they tended to be pushovers. I understand the desire to ensure people don’t have to repeat an entire level if they die on the boss, but these guys are total wusses. Do you want to know their super secret weakness? Guns: pretty much any weapon chews through their health like Cartman through Cheesy Poofs.
The wimpy bosses were probably due to the fact that I played most of the game on easy. I know, it’s embarrassing, but most of the actual levels felt sufficiently challenging on baby mode, but then the bosses were made of Jell-O. I think the wonky balancing is because Plague supports 4-player simultaneous co-op. That is an awesome feature, but one that I was unable to take advantage of since said multiplayer doesn’t support online play. It’s a shame that the single-player balancing really suffers because of the multiplayer focus. I could see this feeling something like Super Smash Brothers meets Contra in the right environment.
Plague isn’t exactly the most original game on the block, and it doesn’t do anything better than a lot of its predecessors, but the fun weapons, occasionally clever enemies, and retro touches make it a fine game in its own right. If you’re a fan of retro gaming, you’re definitely going to get your $1 worth of gaming out of this. If you have a group of friends to play with, you can easily add a star to the rating.
Plague was purchased for $1 from the Xbox Live Marketplace.