Thursday, May 13, 2021

Contra: One of the Best Video Games Ever Made

I'm currently working on a new series of posts, but I've got a few lighter ones until we get there. This time I want to talk about one of my favorite video games and series. The subject will be Contra on the NES, a genre classic.

In 1987, during the Golden Age of video games, Konami was on top of the world. With games like Time Pilot, Twinbee, Yie Ar Kung-Fu, Gradius, Devil world/Dark Adventure Shao-Lin's Road, Goonies, Jackal, Life Force, Blades of Steel, and Castlevania, they were showing themselves as the masters of just about every genre under the sun, both in the arcades and at home. that familiar logo was just about everywhere.

If you had an NES then you are fully aware as to just how good Konami was at this time, contributing especially well to the rising shooter, beat 'em up, and platformer, genres. They only got better at it as the years moved on. It felt as if their ideas were as endless as the new games they were putting out. Next to Capcom, they were probably the most trusted third party developer of the time period, which is saying quite a lot. There isn't anyone else who came close in the level of consistent quality and varied ideas that Konami did.

One such idea was the Contra series, a run and gun game fashioned after 1980s action movies. It's hard to imagine now, but few companies tried as hard as Konami did to turn such things into video game fodder. There were attempts, but they always felt half-hearted. This series? Not so much. 

Contra isn't the first run and gun video game, but it is the first one to really solidify how the mechanics should work and how much the player should have control over their character in order to achieve feats. The original arcade game released in 1987, and was decently popular, being a big looking game with surprising gameplay variety that ostensibly allowed players to become action movie heroes. There was a lot of shooting, dodging, and tough enemies to battle, which made it tough to walk away from. Needless to say, it was a hit.

However, it was in 1988 with the NES home version that Contra cemented itself as a true classic. When people talk about the original Contra, this is usually the game they mean.

Though the graphics couldn't be as powerful as they were in the arcade, the game manages to look much better than the original version. The simplistic art style allows easy visibility of enemy attacks and bullets without any of the clunk found in the arcade original. It's an all around better playing experience. The music also uses the NES soundchip to create a far more energetic soundtrack than the original, allowing for sharper and clearer sound effects on top of it. Then there is the player movement and the controls which are both far tighter here than in the arcade version. The characters can aim and jump in every direction with speed and ease of maneuverability that the genre would use as a base for years to come. No one who has played both is going to argue that the arcade original is superior.

The NES version is also longer. Though it has 8 stages compared to the arcade's 9, many of the arcade stages were short and were combined into one on the NES which then expanded whole segments of the final arcade level into four separate full stages. There is also no time limit in this version. In other words, it's also a longer game on top of being a better playing one.

All in all, whenever anyone talks about how great Contra is, they are talking about the NES version. And so will I.

The NES Contra is still regarded as a classic today. Let us start with why that is.

So what exactly is Contra about? Well, it is a run and gun game: a run and gun is combination of two specific popular genres of games from the 1980s. That being the platformer and the shooter. Contra uses both of these halves to form the bulk of its gameplay time. You are tasked with playing as two action heroes as they avoid enemy fire and slaughter the villains, not unlike Arnold in Commando. you are the ultimate male!

But the story and setting add a bit to the flavor. It isn't just Commando meets Predator and Aliens starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, even though that is the main gameplay hook, and what the box sells you. There is more than you might think.

The plot, as told by wiki:

"Contra is set in the distant future of the year 2633 A.D., when the evil Red Falcon Organization have set a base on the fictional Galuga archipelago near New Zealand in a plot to wipe out humanity. Two commandos, Bill Rizer and Lance Bean of the Earth Marine Corp's Contra unit (an elite group of soldiers specializing in guerrilla warfare), are sent to the island to destroy the enemy forces and uncover the true nature of the alien entity controlling them. The promotional materials for the US arcade version downplays the futuristic setting of the game, with the manual for the later NES and home computer versions changing the game's setting from the future to the present day and the location from Galuga to the Amazon Jungle."

Why North America tried to retcon this awesome setting is beyond me, but they put it back by the third game, Contra III: The Alien Wars, after first attempting to say the game starred Bill and Lance's descendants Jimbo and Sully (Why they did this I don't know) before giving up and admitting they are all futuristic shooters with an obvious timeline.

It actually makes for an interesting setup. you aren't just dealing with terrorists or aliens. You're dealing with alien-infested terrorists with possible demonic ties as you attempt to save the human race. In a lot of ways, it is not too dissimilar from Castlevania in how it pulls inspiration to make something new. The two series actually do have quite a bit in common, but that is from mostly being made by the same company.

In the distant future, an alien force called Black Viper has slipped into Earth undetected and is slowly amassing power through the darker parts of society. They create the group Red Falcon run by their puppet human terrorist organization to sow chaos around the world. Bill and Lance, guerrilla combat experts, are sent in to stop this supposed human group. What they find is something much worse than they first expected. Each entry reveals more and more of what Black Viper really is, escalating the series as time goes on into one of the spirit of good against the twisted machinations of unknown evil. At least, before the canon goes right off the rails, but that's a whole other conversation.

What Black Viper actually is, aside from a vague alien force, is never actually stated, though they are definitely meant to be demonic terrors far beyond normal enemies. Putting the player up against something so obviously evil and frightening gives the added bonus of having them want to succeed even more. Few people give up after their first Game Over in Contra for a very good reason. these alien freaks are going down!

Konami knew what they were doing.

Nonetheless, Contra is fantastic because of two key reasons. The first is that it is an A+ platformer and the second is that is also an A+ shooter. On their own without the other half they would be great games. Combined they make up a classic gaming experience unmatched in the genre. Even without the rest of it boosting it up, Contra could get by with the fact that it is just that good gameplay-wise.

The tighter controls allow for more precise platforming, though the game rarely kills you for missing a jump like in, say, Super Mario Bros. Instead, being good at platforming simply allows you height advantage and better positions to shoot at the oncoming enemy forces. The game rewards you for being better at the controls by turning you into an unstoppable force of nature.

The shooting, too, is fast paced and sharp. It helps tremendously that most enemies die in one hit--just like you do. Aside from the bosses and enemy vehicles, you are actually on even footing with every obstacle in the game. The only difference is in numbers. This feeling combines with rising stakes and ramps up into the outright obstacle courses you are faced with by the end.

As for the bosses, they are perfect in their simplicity in attacks and patterns and yet retain a foreboding toughness regardless. Every encounter feels like a battle to the death. The first boss is iconic in video games: the giant wall with carefully placed laser sentries and oncoming guards. You must master each enemy's pattern on this obstruction in order to walk out unscathed towards the next level.

Or walk in to the next level. This is another nice touch the game offers.  After you destroy the gargantuan monolith, you walk into it into the opening you made and down towards belly of the base, the second level. This interconnected feel pervades throughout the entire experience.

This stage is done from a third person perspective, not too unlike the pale imitations that Sony pumps out these days, where the camera locks behind you as you shoot forward down the wide open halls of the steel tunnels. As you clear out sections you advance forward into the next room, following a clear path towards the center. However, the difficulty is no less harsh here. You will never forget you are in a Contra game, simply because the game will never allow you a moment to realize it. always move forward, never stop. Let's Attack Aggressively!

The base stages, though few in number, represent a refreshing change of scenery from the sidescrolling levels, allowing the player to sharpen their reflexes by altering their entire perspective on where they can get shot from. You thought you knew where all enemy fire was coming from, but you were wrong! Even the boss for this stage has you shooting up towards it while enemy attacks come down at you, a reversal of the usual left and right situation found in the first level and boss. You must completely change your approach on the fly.

This isn't only brilliant design, but it is the perfect curveball to throw at gamers that might be frustrated at the difficulty and keep them interested enough to see what might be just ahead of them if they only continue that one more time. As I said: no one quits Contra after one Game Over. You always continue that one more time.

And we did continue for years to come. Contra is still known as a classic to this day for a very good reason.

The powerups are not the best they've ever been in the series (those would be the ones in Contra 4) but they do add a good wrinkle to the gameplay and the risk/reward system. You're not going to want to go into this gauntlet barely armed.

By blowing up the floating powerups you can upgrade your gun into something better than your standard peashooter. The first is a far faster machinegun that does heavy damage to bosses and can wipe out waves of enemies quick. however, it suffers from being harder to aim at a distance, meaning you have to get close to really use it to its fullest potential. Then there is the flame gun which shoots in a corkscrew pattern, allowing for easier distant shots but not much in the way of power. You can also collect baser power-ups to make your default weapon stronger and to give you a barrier for defense, but these aren't much to talk about.

Lastly, of course, I have to mention the greatest gun powerup of all time, which comes in the form of the Spread Gun, a legendarily overpowered weapon that offers aid to anyone that can't aim. How? By firing a spread wave of bullets that covers the majority of the side of the screen. You will most likely kill everything coming before it even knows what hit them. I'm not overexaggerating the effectiveness of this gun. The spreader is the most difficult weapon to miss an enemy with, which makes it the go-to for many Contra players.

unfortunately, it also has a glaring weakness in that it is the slowest weapon in the game. Should you miss your shot, it takes much longer for the next one to be fired. By then, in a game like Contra, you might already be dead. Unless, of course, you master the game.

And while I made the powerups seem rather overpowered, they all vanish when you are hit once. Unless you are good at the game you won't be using them much, which incentivizes learning everything. This is what good game design should do. If it kicks you down the game should make you want to get back up and give it another shot. How else will you get satisfaction out of conquering it?

Contra is master at this, and why it has remained a classic for over 30 years.

They knew their audience.

As for the future entries of the series, you might be surprised to learn that despite being over 30 years old, almost every entry in the Contra franchise is a quality game. That is impressive. Not even Castlevania has managed the concentrated quality that Contra has had.

The sequel to Contra was Super C (Super Contra in the arcades) which came along in 1990 (Again, 1988 for the arcade) which similarly improved on the original version. Super C is a more focused experience, lacking the variety of the original entry for a shooter-focused challenge. The levels are primarily shooting galleries and left to right affairs. There isn't as much platforming, but that is fine for what this entry wishes to do. People who prefer the sequel tend to like the purist shooter focus. It might not top the original, but it is still a top tier shooter.

Then came a Game Boy entry in 1991 entitled Operation C. This simplified the action even more, especially being that it was on a smaller portable system and screen, yet the action is no less frantic. It's a short game at only 5 stages, but for a bite-sized portable experience it as good as it could be. To be quite honest, shooters on the old Game Boy rarely get better than this one. That they managed to include a game that stacks up so favorably to the original games is very impressive. It is only a shame this series has so few portable entries.

Now we reach what many consider the pinnacle of the series in 1992 with SNES entry Contra III: The Alien Wars (It was even called Contra IV before release) which was a tonal change in focus for the series. What was once a bunch of levels defined by challenges became an attempt to mimic the very action movies it was based on. In essence, every level is a set piece. What they tried to do was turn it into the visual equivalent of playing through an action movie. Not like today's AAA slop, however. There is no story focus or dialogue--it is just in the presentation.

From wiki:

"Contra III was developed by Konami with a team led by Nobuya Nakazato. Although this was Nakazato's third year at Konami, Contra III is the first Contra game he worked on, having only previously done informal playtesting for Super C (1990). He believed the original arcade version of Contra (1987) was difficult to play because of its vertical screen, but he did enjoy the Famicom port. Nakazato's team worked in Konami's new offices in Tokyo, seated next to the arcade team that had developed Contra. Nakazato shared progress on Contra III with the arcade team and received positive feedback. In early coverage, the game was known as Contra IV. Nintendo Power reported the name change to Contra III in its coverage of Winter CES in 1992.

"Nakazato believed Contra had a low-budget movie theme. To emphasize this, he asked the sound team to change the music as the stages progressed to give a cinematic style. He also believed the action in earlier Contra games is too realistic, so for Contra III he wanted to include more comical elements. He was concerned the change may upset series fans, but believed it would be more entertaining. One scene added to accomplish this is a sequence where the player hangs from flying missiles. This strains the Super NES's sprite capabilities, so the team used background tiles to draw the helicopter and missiles in the scene. Making the graphics appear to move like sprites in the foreground required clever programming tricks. The Super NES allowed for "raster scrolling", which allowed the programmers to change the graphics for each scanline. The programmers shifted the vertical sync and cut off the sprites at the scanline. The restriction is that graphics can only move horizontally along the scanline to achieve the illusion that they are actually sprites in the foreground.

"Nakazato was concerned the traditional pattern of weak enemies followed by a boss fight was becoming mundane and did not want players to feel "in for the long haul" every play session. To combat this, he established a key concept for something interesting to happen every three screen scrolls. This made the game content feel more dense and gave it a "boss rush" type feel. Nakazato believed Contra III's fast-paced action was going against the trend of home console games shifting to slow-paced strategy and role-playing games, and is good for quick-starting stress relief.

"Contra III was released in Japan on February 28, 1992, and North America on March 26. In Europe, the game was retitled Super Probotector: Alien Rebels and released on September 12, 1992. In Super Probotector, the gameplay and story remained mostly the same, but the player characters were changed to robots. Due to technical differences in PAL SNES systems, Super Probotector's gameplay is slightly slower."

And it did work. Contra III: The Alien Wars remains one of the best games on one of the best video game systems. They added a new wrinkle to the formula, and it was exactly what was needed for the burgeoning 16-bit era.

Contra was already based on action movies from the 1980s, so deliberately designing a game that played like the over the top sequences it was based off was an ingenious idea. This gives the presentation a cohesive feeling of escalating tension as challenges also get tougher as you descend deeper into the alien menace. As a result, there was really nothing like Contra III when it released, though many take inspiration from what it did to this day.

But the series wasn't done there.

After the success Nakazato had with Contra III, he moved on to the rival 16-bit system, the Sega Genesis. Yes, even Contra contributed to those old console wars. Here he created the flipside to his original idea, that being a game called Contra: Hard Corps. which was released in 1994.

Unlike Contra III, Hard Corps wasn't designed after an action movie. They took a different inspiration. This one was instead fashioned off of serialized television shows and comic books with cliffhangers. At the end of every stage you are tasked with making a choice (like a cliffhanger hook) that will change the level progression and even the resulting ending you get. The levels you end up going through are different every time you play.

Unfortunately, the North American of this game has pointlessly tweaked difficulty. The original has a health bar and unlimited continues while the NA version has the usual one hit kills of the series and a five continue limit. Why they did this I have no idea, since this was not part of the design, but it was meant to be a spin-off for a reason. It is also the first instalment to not have Bill or Lance as the main characters, but a team of characters with different abilities. This gives it a different sort of replay value the other games don't have.

By this point, Contra had become a legendary video game series with clout to spare. It was on top of the world.

The Anniversary Collection features every game I've mentioned so far.

So far so great. It is easy to see how Contra became one of the most respected video game series. But what I haven't talked about is the elephant in the room, the one that nearly killed every legacy franchise. Yes, I'm referring to the increasingly-maligned 32-bit generation.

This would be considered the darkest era of the franchise's history. In fact, between 1995 and 2002 there were more canceled Contra games than actual series entries. Instalments for the N64, Gamecube, PS2, and Xbox, never managed to get off the ground, while only two PS1 and a single PS2 entry released in that time frame. And only one of these was even good.

For some reason, Konami treated Contra like trash after 1994. It happened to a lot of classic 8 and 16-bit franchises. No one really knows why. The franchise was handed to external teams, b-teams, and had weird ideas attached to them (In no universe does a Contra Online make any sense) and none of it worked out. All of this can be seen in the two PS1 entries that actually did release and were declared non-cannon as fast as could be done.

Instead of fast-paced 2D games, these entries were clunky and slow 3D games that missed everything making the original games such enduring classics. These two PS1 entries came out in 1996 and 1998 and did a lot of damage to the franchise's legacy. Much like the 3D Castlevania games damaged that series, the same was happening to Contra. By the time the PS2 released, it was in danger of being forgotten.

Konami then grew a brain and brought in Nakazato to direct a Contra game in an attempt to salvage this mess, which is exactly what he did. Contra: Shattered Soldier returned the series back to its 2D roots, a fast paced shooter, though this one was more of a boss rush than ever before and the story is typical '00s era Konami silliness filled with stupid retcons to series lore and pointless convolution that would only continue into Neo Contra, the PS2 sequel. While these were good games that did much to re-right the ship, they still had plenty of flaws they shouldn't have had.

All it did was highlight how much gaming had changed. Electronic Boutique's at the time were getting tons of returns on Shattered Soldier because the game was "too hard" and it being in a 2D perspective was a big no-no to game journalists. Because of this, it felt like it was already too late for Contra. The industry wanted it out. the deafening silence on the franchise after Neo Contra seemed to confirm that it was finished. It was time to move on to AAA garbage only.

That is why 2007's Contra 4 for the Nintendo DS was such a surprise. It was against every single thing the modern industry was heading towards. It was a deliberate return to roots, long before the 2D indie onslaught happened.

Konami even got a studio known for quality 2D games to do it! Contra 4 was made by WayForward Technologies, creator of the Shantae series, and was a deliberate attempt to shed all the stupid baggage the series had accumulated since the early '90s. And, boy, was it welcome.

The game is a simple straightforward run and gun game with plenty of platforming. There are some set pieces like in Contra III, and they even included improved weapon stacking and upgrades from that entry, but otherwise the game structure more clearly resembles that of the original two games. In fact, it clearly uses the NES version of the original Contra as its biggest inspiration. It learned all the right tricks. Deliberately calling it Contra 4 was a smart move as it not only harkened it back to the simpler gameplay and aesthetic of the most well known entries, but it allows the game to have a focus the series hasn't had since the 16-bit wars ended.

Contra 4 is possibly WayForward's best game, and one of the best in the series. It is only a shame it has never been re-released in near 15 years. It was the shot in the arm the franchise needed.

Unfortunately, it wasn't too popular. We all know what was happening in gaming during 2007, and a game like Contra 4 was simply not in vogue at the time. Because of this, the series faded from focus as gaming moved away from being about challenge and instead about lackluster D-grade stories. It's a shame, but it is what it is.

And after this point the series more or less became niche, putting out a game every now and then (though sometimes, like with Hard Corps. Uprising, they still manage to be top shelf) not unlike other seminal Konami franchises such as Gradius or Castlevania. Classic gaming was kicked to the curb, but it doesn't matter.

True classics will always be classics.

Hard Corps Uprising is a prequel to Contra: Hard Corps., and manages to live up to it.

So while the original Contra for the NES is one of the best games ever made, so too are most of the other games in the series. There aren't many long-running franchises with as few entries as this that still manage to have near a dozen titles worth playing, but Contra is one of them. Chances are, if it says Contra on the box you are going to have a great time . . . unless it's in 3D, that is. Then your chances aren't so good. Otherwise? It really gets better than this.

Are you a gamer in need of challenge, the likes of which you've never seen before? Then Contra has exactly what you're looking for. Don't sleep on this classic series!

The best games challenge you to better yourself and top new seemingly insurmountable odds one after the other. Few do it as well as this series does. Most of all, this contributes to making the series one of the most fun you can encounter.

And isn't this is what gaming is all about?


  1. Contra is one of my all-time favorites. Although I learned how to play it with the 30 lives code, I got to the point that I was so good that I no longer needed the code. I remember I once decided to see how long I could play it, but I got bored and turned it off somewhere around the fourth or fifth loop because it just wasn't getting any harder. I played it a year or two back and could still whup it once I dusted off my memory.

    I think Konami for some reason seemed to overthink the series after the 16 bit era. The appeal for me was the gut level premise - Arnold and Sly vs. Aliens, with really fast, exciting gameplay - and getting too far beyond that starts cutting into the fun.

    1. I agree. That is why the best games after the 16-bit era are Contra 4, Contra ReBirth, and Hard Corps Uprising, the games that deliberately fashioned themselves as old school gameplay first. Naturally, they're also the ones that are hardest to get a hold of today.

      There are some genres that can only work when they are pared down to their essentials. Run and gun games work best the more they focus on the running and the gunning.

      Everything else dilutes from that experience.

  2. Great post. Incredible how many giants were killed after the 3D Craze started.

    1. The worst part is that a lot of us saw it at the time, but there was nothing we could do.