As a fan of Contra I was shocked to learn of the staggering number of bootleg and unlicensed games in the series created overseas. Most of these games were simply sprite hacks but a few like Super Contra X were completely original. One of the most interesting of these bootlegs is Contra Spirits, a NES port of the infamous Super Nintendo game. Why someone would go through the trouble is beyond me but then I remember there is an actual 8-bit version of Final Fantasy 7. As much as I wish I could say Contra Spirits is a good game it is not. At least it is better than Contra Force.
You’ll have to accept a few things first to appreciate this version of the game. Nearly all of the SNES game’s new mechanics have been excised. You can only carry one weapon at a time and so there is no switching. In fact there are only two weapons, the spread gun and the laser. That is a serious regression beyond even the first game. While the laser is the same the spread gun has been nerfed. It no longer fires a consistent wave of bullets but instead is random. Sometimes you’ll have rapid fire, other times there is a delay. The lack of weapon options is a huge blow to the game’s playability and I don’t understand why they were not included. Bombs are still present but you will barely have any use for them.
In terms of content most of it is present. The only level missing is stage five for no discernible reason. In its place the original stage three is repeated with a different color palette and a few enemies. The level order has been swapped around, much like in Super C. Stage three is now level two and that stage is now stage four. If you are wondering how the overhead level fares, it is pretty much the same outside of the lack of rotation. It also has no end boss battle. The cool hoverbike level is now the third. Amazingly they’ve retained much of the look although most of the boss battles from this level are gone.
Ah yes the boss battles. Contra III had a wide assortment of mayors at every turn. It was almost the precursor to Gunstar Heroes in that regard. No level epitomized this more than the Neo Kobe Steel Factory. This level fares the best and keeps every encounter with nearly the same mechanics. Sadly the impact of its final boss is lost. It was an iconic moment to see it rip the wall open and aggressively attack. Don’t expect any of that excitement. Slave Beast Taka at the end of stage 1 simply moves back and forth and doesn’t even attack. The final fight against Red Falcon was a brutal encounter but is much simpler here which, compared to the rest of the game, is a surprise.
Contra III was already a difficult game and Contra Spirits is more challenging. That comes down to a few factors. The controls are stiff and unresponsive. There seems to be a slight delay at times that always ends up fatal. The lack of weapon variety also means there are fewer drops. With that in mind don’t be surprised if you end up relying on the standard machine gun often. You can set your starting lives at nine but that is it. You get no extra lives for points and there are no continues. If you do make see this to its conclusion there is no ending.
A graphical downgrade was to be expected but the developers have remained surprisingly faithful to the original. There is a high amount of detail sprinkled around and few levels manage a layer of parallax scrolling. That is pretty much where the positives end though. You can see where corners were cut everywhere. Most enemies have been redesigned and barely resemble their 16-bit counterparts. Most of the boss battles suffer heavily from this. While I can appreciate the attempt some of the more fantastic encounters have lost their impact. Worst of the entire overall color palette in most stages is flat out ugly. The artists didn’t even try to work within the system’s limits and it shows.
As bad as the graphics are in spots the music is an absolute travesty. You would be hard pressed to even call the barely audible jingles music. You might recognize a familiar note here and there but overall it is flat out bad.
Contra Spirits is a valiant attempt at cramming the SNES original into an 8-bit cartridge. It manages to capture the broad strokes but completely misses the mark on many smaller details. The system is certainly capable of a better conversion of this. Considering the state of most unlicensed games it’s a miracle the game is actually decent. This review is more of a curiosity than a recommendation.