Operation Hardcore is the tale of aliens coming to invade Earth and killing everyone, and how some people aren’t okay with this. Rather than simply lay down and die, a group of four self-proclaimed badasses decide to go take out these awful aliens themselves. Armed with an endless supply of ammunition, a limited supply of whiskey, and a nonvisible amount of cigars, the badasses set out to defeat the alien race and save the planet. While not the most original storyline of all time, it’s nonetheless an entertaining one, so onward with the show.
After you and a friend choose one of four visibly different (but similar skill-wise) characters, you head out into the 2D, sidescrolling shooter that is Operation Hardcore. The first level is dedicated to being a tutorial of sorts, giving you the basic rundown for what needs to happen: aim and move are the same stick, so the L button exists to “brace” you for shot directionals. The R trigger is strafing, so that you don’t turn your back on who you’re shooting at (usually aliens) and you can double jump. The double jump is interesting because it can start from a fall, so walking off a ledge and then jumping twice is a bold strategy to occasionally get hard-to-reach item drops. And, of course, there’s shooting: ammo isn’t a problem, so you can just hold down the button as long as the weapon allows.
As for weapons, Operation Hardcore does a fairly decent job of creating a more dynamic system. Besides the standard pistol, there’s also four “bonus” guns that you can either find in the wild or buy in the shop between levels. These weapons have modifiers you can also purchase that change the gun somewhat, such as creating burst mode on the machine gun instead of a slower (but steadier) fire rate. I didn’t totally understand the purpose of these modifiers, simply because they seemed more like a money sink than anything else. Additionally, if you lose all three lives (which we’ll get to in a moment), everything you purchase is deleted when you continue. This means the modifiers, the pistol mods (“permanent” changes to your standard weapon) and the whiskey (which ups damage) are all for naught should you be unlucky in life. Plus the upgraded guns themselves disappear as soon as you die once, so you really need to judge if you’re competent enough to get through a stage without dying once or if you’d rather bank your coins to buy precious shields or 1-Ups. The shield, which can be toggled on and off, were incredibly helpful to keep alive.
The death rate of Operation Hardcore is a weirdly inconsistent thing, and I can’t tell if it’s a design idea or if it’s a flaw. Basically, there’s three ways to efficiently die: fall down a hole, get shot or run into enemies. Falling down a hole is an instant loss, and it happened to me during the tutorial, so that sucked, but it’s understandable. The shot damage vs. collision is what confused me. When you run into most enemies, it’ll do anywhere from 2-10 damage, depending on what’s going on at the time. Then, if you successfully shoot an enemy and kill them, they gib and you can pick up the meaty chunks to replenish health (charming, I know). However, if you get shot, it will often take close to fifty health points off in a single go. This means if you’re chilling at half health or lower (which is very common in stronger difficulty settings), you’ll be down and out in a split second if you’re out of shield or not fast enough. This really didn’t work so well for me, because, as a “badass”, your only recourse is to shoot enemies, and even the smallest grunt usually takes about six shots to go down. Think about that. You’re this supposed ultimate tough guy (and friend, if you do two players) and you can handily get killed in the blink of an eye. I think this is supposed to drive home the “hardcore” concept, but it just felt frustrating and unfair even at easier difficulty levels.
But the real devil of Operation Hardcore is that it’s just inherently boring for a vast majority of the game. The retro presentation can’t decide if it’s more 8 or 16 bit, so it just floats in the middle, creating sprites and settings that are kind of floppy, a little rough, but distinctly generic. You walk back and forth, shooting stuff and then shooting more stuff. The levels change (city streets, spooky forest, up and down a mountain) but the song remains the same: shoot the enemies. There’s some variety in the enemies (I especially liked the creepy fish and the random missile strikes), but attack patterns and ideas feel recycled as early as the third stage. Due to the way damage is handled, you can’t, logistically, have huge waves of enemies because then there wouldn’t be any gameplay to speak of, just you dead all the time. However, in the same swing, this means that you deal with a few enemies, usually a bit tricky but not overwhelming, that you have the leisure of picking off when you can. There’s a kickback mechanic to the firing that’s probably meant to be a consideration of “realism,” but it just becomes annoying when you’re taking aim at the bosses and you slowly get pushed off the ledge by your own shots.
To their credit, the devs, Cosmocat, did their best to implement some things to try to keep the game going even when you weren’t playing. The challenges that exist are designed for twitchy players, and even the simplest ideas require some creative thinking and fast reflexes. Competition mode offers up a cool leaderboard idea that makes the game inherently more challenging and keeps the enthused more invested and on their toes. And I love the concept of the multiple story paths and hidden levels: I haven’t found them all yet, but I can see the locked routes on the map and am curious how to get there. So, if you get hooked by the concept of the game, there’s so much here for you to feast on and enjoy.
But that’s the inherent problem: if you add a bunch of bells and whistles to a car you just straight up don’t like, then it becomes a fancy car that you don’t like. Some things land with some people, and some don’t. The soundtrack felt pretty mundane, the graphics were middling, and the game itself just never grabbed me properly with the dynamic intended. Too frustrating to be a relax play, too simple to be a truly hardcore experience. At the end of the day, Operation Hardcore simply doesn’t deliver the experience that the prologue promised, and, as a result, I’m left a bit disappointed.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.