25 Years of NES Part 20: Contra
Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, (select) Start.
That of course is the Konami Code, popularized but not originating in Contra (It was first used in Gradius.) That is probably the longest lasting part of Contra’s legacy. The bulk of the game is most likely unavailable to the average player without it. While the Konami Code would go on to be a well known part of gamer culture, there is much more to Contra than the code. Contra also popularized other NES staples, like the run-n-gun shooter and 2-player simultaneous co-op. Contra is an essential NES action game.
First, take a good look at that box-art. What do you see? Yes, that is Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone brandishing assault weapons in front of an alien from the Alien movie series. There is nothing more 80’s than Contra or its box-art. Unlike plenty of NES games, the box actually does tell you what to expect from the game. You will take control of an over-muscled commando of sorts and shoot your way through tons of extra-terrestrial scum. (Those who recognize Gears of War in this game description must be aware of exactly how far video games have come in the last 20 years.) Contra is the perfect 80’s action movie in video game form.
Contra is a “run and gun” shooter, which is primarily like the average scrolling shooter (Gradius) in action game clothing. Instead of controlling a ship, the player takes the role of a soldier, but the fundamental gameplay is the same. The player needs to learn (read: memorize) the attack patterns of enemies and dodge their way through 10 or so levels. Avoiding enemy fire is the most important skill to learn, because one shot will fell the player’s studly warrior. Knowing where to be is more important than knowing where to shoot. Like in any shooter, Contra is most satisfying after picking up a power-up. Sure, some are useless, like the laser, sure, you lose your weapon when you die, but there is something perfect in the fleeting feeling of invincibility you feel when you pick up the spread gun and mow down enemies. The other big part of the game is the boss battles. Huge, screen-filling enemies the sight of which fill the player with a combination of awe and dread, boss battles are essential to Contra’s appeal. The bosses from the NES game may not be the best in the series, but they are still good. The need for if not memorization at least some foreknowledge and the one-hit kills can make Contra a frustrating game for beginners, especially with the Spartan life allotment: 3 lives per continue, 3 continues. That is why you have the code. You learn the game by using the code, and then challenge yourself to beat it without it.
While the game is fun alone, Contra is best played with a friend. It offered something that would become standard for arcade ports: 2-player simultaneous co-op. There is no better feeling than mowing down tons of enemies with a friend. Especially if you and your partner have a great partly helpful partly antagonistic relationship. While the goal needs to remain finishing the game, you have to do your best to show your friend up on the way. If he lags behind on the waterfall stage, it is your duty to scroll him off the screen; he should hurry up. This type of game does not work as well with the internet, because a large part of the appeal is the ability to reach over and punch your friend for being a dick, like when he scrolls you off the screen to your death. The ability to play with a friend holds no small part of Contra’s appeal.
Contra is the perfect NES game. Best played with a friend after school, it is beatable but still challenging. It is short enough that it can be conquered in an afternoon, but hits that perfect one more try appeal. If you want to kill things with a friend, there are few better options than Contra.