The legendary Contra has always been known for its Konomi code for 30 lives and its one hit deaths, but beyond that, its an engaging, 2D run and gun platformer. If you have a friend with you, the two of you can play simultaneous cooperatively. It was one of the first few games to offer such a thing.
You play as either Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, at least that’s who they look like. If you’re player one, you’re Mad Dog and if you’re player two you’re Scorpion. Unless of course you’re playing the European PAL version of the game, then you’re a pair of robots. Contra has had one confusing history when it comes to ports and versions.
Contra was originally an arcade game back in 1987, but I never knew that until 2007. Like everyone else out there, I only knew it for the classic NES version that was released in 1988. It quickly became one of the staples of great games for the system and offered both action and difficulty.
For anyone that cares about story, you’re there to shoot through the Red Falcon’s army. Fighting through waves of humanoid soldiers and aliens alike. The real story here is that you have 3 lives and limited continues unless you use the famous Konami code that nets you 30 lives. Each time you die, you drop back into the level. Every continue starts the level over. Its possible to complete the game with only 3 lives, because you keep gaining lives when you hit certain score benchmarks.
The game is simple, you keep moving to not die. You can jump and shoot in 8 different directions. When you jump you can shoot downward otherwise, you’ll just shoot from a prawn position. Contra is all about mobility, because your enemies relentlessly shoot at you from all angles and come running after you from one side of the screen or the other. Because of this, you’re agile, nimble and you can even drop down to lower platforms if you hit the jump button while in that prawn position I just mentioned.
Part of the fun is the guns. What a shooter be without the guns? You start with a standard rifle that you’ll need to rapidly tap the B button for each bullet. Its a pain, but that’s why there are better weapons. You’ll find these better weapons flying in pods across the screen and in wall mountings that open and close. You’ll find M for machine gun that fires a steady stream of red bullets when you hold the B button. R is for rapid fire that seems to increase your rate of fire, but overall it feels useless. Speaking of useless, then there’s the fireball that sends a swirling mini fireball. I suppose its good for those without aim that don’t want to stand and fire their gun. Then there’s the laser, which is powerful, but you only get one beam at a time. Every time you fire the gun, the beam restarts out of your barrel. I’d rather have it like this, than what it could have been, which is waiting for the beam to leave the screen. Finally, there’s the most decimating weapon in all of gaming history, the spread shot. This thing fires so many bullets at a wide angle that the NES can’t even keep up with it. Just think of a wall of bullets from your gun. S is for skill cannon of course!
You’ll need these weapons, especially the spread gun, because the enemies just keep on coming. You’ve got standard soldiers that run and jump. They never stop coming from both sides of the screen. Then they start to fire guns in later stages and even duck and shoot. These soldiers gang up on you and its easy to be overwhelmed where your tactic becomes jumping over them and shooting them. Eat your heart out, Rush’n Attack! There are snipers, wall turrets, bomb shooting scuba men, shielded bazooka men and much more.
Later stages get into environmental hazards, things like flame tongues that shoot out at you. Some are triggered if you walk into them while others have patterns. After that, you’ve got stabbing ceiling spikes that come in both patterns and triggers. Some will even trick you and stab twice. There are bombs thrown from snowy trees. Its all part of the challenge. Not to mention pits. Normally pits aren’t a problem, but if you’re on a vertical level and your partner gets too far ahead of you, the screen scrolls up and the ground you were just on turns into a death pit.
Each level is diverse and interesting. You start in a tropical jungle with bridges that explode as you walk on them. In the water below, you can dive under to not get hit by bullets. Then at the end of the level comes the legendary wall with turrets, a sharpshooter and a node to destroy it. From there, the game only gets crazier. Then there’s a waterfall that you’ll climb with a giant headed alien at the top. After that, you’ll be in snowy forests taking on crushing vehicle bosses and areal defenders. From there its on to a fiery techno base with a giant robot at the end. You’ll go all the way into the alien hive to finish the game and stab at the literal heart of the Red Falcon.
Some bosses feel like an afterthought. A bunch of soldiers leaving a room only to get slaughtered by you. But there are still big, inventive and crazy bosses. Things like two pair of alien eyes that can only be hit while aligned as one. Flying saucers that throw discs along the side of the screen that glide along the floor all while firing projectiles down at you. Its some craziness that will test your agility with a controller.
To break up the 2D run and gun, there are third person shooting segments that lock the screen in place and have you facing down a hallway. Its essentially the same thing, you can only move left and right, but now you’re faced upward from the player’s perspective but down a hallway to the character’s perspective. If you try to advance, you’ll get zapped, but not killed by an electrical force field. To take out the force fields and advance, you’ll need to destroy a special node on the far wall. Enemies stand in your way and there are turrets as well. Both of which can be destroyed. The enemies fire guns, throw grenades and even launch rollers at you that force you to jump. You still have your ability to easily duck, dodge and jump. Each one of these stages has several rooms, before you fight the boss at the end.
The game is NES beautiful with graphics that still stand up today. Its got a rainbow of a color pallet. Lush greens and blues to even browns and whites. You’ll go through every color of the rainbow by the time you’re finished. The sound is like other Konami games and you might recognize some. As for the music, its top notch for Nintendo. Some of the more upbeat songs still stand out as some of the system’s best. The title theme and opening song are both memorable. The songs are powerful with good beats. It has to be, to match the action’s pace.
Contra is still a classic to this day. While I’d much rather play Contra 3: The Alien Wars, the original Contra is still a gem of a game and one of the best on the system. It didn’t just start a franchise, but it made a code famous and we’ll never forget either one.