Contra III: the Alien Wars

If I had to sum up Contra III in one sentence it would be an action movie in video game form.  Many shooters that have tried distilling the high octane thrills of a two hour blockbuster into a video game. Very few have done it as well as the Alien Wars.  By the time 16-bit came Contra was a known commodity and highly anticipated. Konami wasted no time bringing it to the SNES and it did not disappoint, adding another classic to their legendary output on the system.

From a gameplay perspective there have been a significant number of additions, some worthwhile and some superfluous.  Every button on the controller has a function although they aren’t all mandatory.  The A button uses up a screen clearing missiles while X switches weapons.  You can hold two at once and switch at any time, convenient when you don’t want to lose the spread gun.  Holding L & R fires both weapons simultaneously, which looks cool but is functionally useless.  Last but not least you can hang and climb nearly any surface.

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There are a few new weapons that are worthy alternatives to the spread gun and laser.  For those that can’t aim the heat seeking missiles are for you although they lack power.  Speaking of power the strongest weapon are the Crusher missiles.  They lack rapid fire but their power and splash damage can’t be beat.  The flamethrower only sees heavy use in stage three and almost seems as though it were included specifically for that level.  One last addition are screen clearing bombs which aren’t much good against bosses but will save your life against fodder enemies.

The weapons are strong and the game’s mechanics are sound which when combined with the masterful level design combine to create an action roller coaster.  The levels are a collection of awesome set pieces strung together with each more spectacular than the last.  Stage three is a perfect example; alien insects try dropping your to your death and is followed up by a mini boss.  After its defeat it comes back for more, pelting you with missiles before transforming for round 2.  This is almost immediately trailed by another boss, a gunship that drops the familiar bird soldiers from the original Contra.  The level climaxes with a battle against two very obvious T-800 inspired mechs.  When you think its over the walls part to reveal the true end level boss I won’t spoil.  And the next level is even better.

Like any great action movie it stops to breath.  Stages 2 and 5 are overhead levels that task you with destroying five enemy checkpoints.  Here the screen is rotated using L & R in an impressive display of Mode 7.  The action is very slow in these parts and can be confusing but no less intense, especially when dealing with their bosses.  These stages are controversial; mechanically they are sound but a gratuitous use of special effects.  I feel they add some variety although the complaints would be less if the game were longer.

As great as the majority of the game’s content is there simply isn’t enough of it.  Six levels is a perfectly fine length however when the game is this good it practically begs for more.  It’s also a step back as the prior games in the series topped out at eight stages.  To some it is made worse due to stages 2 and 5, which are a call back to Super C.  Personally I don’t mind these stages but I do think Contra III would have been stronger a few more traditional side scrolling stages.  It seems Konami agreed as they tried just that with the Gameboy Advance port, although it was done in a half-assed manner there.

Despite its length Contra III puts up a mean fight yet always remains fair.  The bosses have clear patterns and the margin for error is low enough that you can make mistakes.  The addition of bombs for a last minute hail mary really helps as well.  To see the true ending however will require completing the game on hard and it definitely lives up to that moniker.  Enemies are more aggressive and willing to take shots, bosses are tougher, and the game is faster in general once the difficulty has adjusted.  There’s no Konami code to fall back on as it was removed for the international release.  Only the truly skilled will complete the game at its highest level but the reward is worth the attempt.

In Closing

Two and a half decades after its release Contra III is still one of the greatest action games ever made and possibly the best game in the series.  It has some of the most iconic moments in action game history and rarely lets up.  There aren’t many games that hold up so well and Konami should be proud of what they created.  Buy this game.

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