There is something about that innocent period before video game magazines proliferated the market that I kind of miss. Back in the day before Nintendo Power and EGM you bought games based on the back of the box. While there was always the potential to pick up a dud it also meant you could be pleasantly surprised. Contra was a game my family picked up after trading in Star Voyager, a real piece of work. With no prior knowledge of this now legendary classic we were completely blown away by the side scrolling action and graphics. There was simply nothing else like it on the NES at the time. What makes it even more amazing is that it still holds up wonderfully after all these years.
Originally released in the arcade in 1987 I’m sure for most their first exposure to the game came when Konami created the NES port in 1988. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are still many who do not know of the original arcade game. Konami’s marketing for the home port certainly made it seem like it was a licensed tie-in to a movie you’d never heard of as they, “ahem”, used the likeness of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone to portray the game’s protagonists. While it doesn’t look as good as the coin op I think the NES version of Contra is a better game than its parent as it is more fully fleshed out.
There were a lot of reasons to love Contra; its fast paced action, its resemblance to the big dumb action movies of the time, or even just its mindless fun. For my money it all comes down to the weapons. For an action game the list of weapons is really small: rapid fire, a machine gun, the useless fire, the spread gun, and the laser round out the list. Let’s be honest, it all came down to whether you preferred the laser or were a spread gun guy. If you had any common sense the spread gun was the winner. Fights ensued to decide who would pick it up first. The game does a good job of introducing each in the first level with the only other two items missing being the rare barrier and the screen clearing mass destruction.
Comparing the two Konami has done an excellent job of bringing the arcade game home and improving it. The levels are longer; not so long that it becomes annoying but the perfect length. A number of the areas that composed the final level in the arcade have been fully expanded into individual stages. The biggest change comes in Areas 2 and 4. Rather than mazes with a strict time limit these have become linear tunnels with cores that need to be destroyed. Neither option is all that better than the other although it is interesting to compare.
As great as Contra is it becomes even better in multiplayer. 2-player coop in a non-competitive setting became incredibly popular on the NES and this is one of the games that really helped push that concept. Navigating the tough platforming tasks with a friend was incredibly challenging but immensely satisfying when both players were in sync. Sharing weapons, moving at the same pace, even sharing (or stealing) lives to get your partner back in the game, these were skills that were fairly new but would become eventually become second nature. Even I loved tag teaming the game and I’ve almost never been one for multiplayer gaming.
For its time Contra is noted for being particularly difficult and in many way that is true. If you miss an important power-up or die unexpectedly it can be pretty dire. The default pistol is barely adequate and chances are you will die repeatedly after that, especially later in the game as the enemies become more aggressive. This domino effect is similar to shooter like Gradius and be tough to avoid. Yet in spite of that my family and I were still able to beat the game the same day, in coop no less. And this was long before anyone even knew about the legendary Konami code.
Ah yes, the infamous Konami code. Though it wasn’t the first game to utilize it (that honor goes to Gradius) Contra certainly popularized it. To this day I still don’t know where the knowledge of the code came from but it was legendary. With a simple button sequence (Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A) 30 lives were yours. To my 8-year old brain it was mind-blowing. It didn’t matter how sloppy you played, you had enough lives to spare. As shocking as it may sound there are legions of gamers who can’t finish the game without the code. How sad is that?
As one of the first run and gun action games for the NES Contra set a standard that all subsequent games in the genre would follow. Even today it remains highly playable and is a blast to run through in quick sessions. Relive the magic for a few bucks and experience a piece of gaming history, you won’t be disappointed.