There are few legends. Some greats do not stand the test of time. Our recent play through of Contra convinced me that Konami’s masterpiece achieves legendary status.
As a kid, I never had enough money for Nintendo Power. Thankfully, my neighbor owned a subscription that I could borrow for a peak at games and codes. I poured over maps for Mario levels, Mega Man and other titles. I loved seeing secrets that I had no idea existed before. Once I got a hint, I would go back and try my hand at getting in on the secrets. The first code I ever entered was the famous Konami code. We recited it as a chant or hymn. You are probably already saying it in your head. Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, b, a, select, start! The repetition ingrained Konami and Contra into my mind.
In today’s review I am not going to waste time arguing if this game is good or not, but explain why I believe Contra has become a legend that endures.
Konami’s 1988 Contra is a run and gun action game. It features Bill and Lance, two contra unit commandos that are tasked with infiltrating the alien’s base to stop them from taking over the world. There Bill and Lance discover the true nature of Red Falcon, the entity controlling the aliens.
The NES version of Contra is a port from the arcade. The NES version features a few longer levels and different bosses. For technical limitations it also simplified the sprites of the Bill and Lance to red pants and blue pants (the original Red vs. Blue!). A few of the power ups also were tweaked for the NES version.
Thankfully, the American NES version includes simultaneous 2 player action (Europe did not get that!). It is this co-op that really makes Contra shine at a time when very few games allowed co-op. Most games required that you sit and watch your friend play (now we have Youtube for that) before you got a chance. Contra simply instead sings “Welcome to the Jungle” to both players right from the get go.
The game play is classic. Many have modeled themselves after the Contra formula. Contra features platforming elements. Power-ups change your gun and allow you an easier time to kill the multitude of enemies. The big change up that Contra throws at players is the pseudo 3d action. Two levels consist of running in a base and shooting down a hall/room at enemies and targets. At the time, this change of perspective blew players minds as they got a chance to play a “3D” game. The action in these 3D sections amazingly still hold up today. These levels do not feel like simply add-ons but natural as each level seems to bring new and unique challenges. Bosses are a great example of this. Each one is very different, from a giant jumping alien, to a heart, to fortress fronts. Each boss presents unique elements to dodge and patters to discover. Solve the pattern and you can easily pass.
Contra is often called a hard game. While it is true, it never feels insurmountable. In practicing for this game, I was able to beat it by myself without any codes or cheats on my first try (then with Crosstix helping it takes us over 180 lives!). With the NES, scaling difficulty is crucial. The early game should train the player so they are able to take on the bigger challenges. Contra accomplishes this well. In the very first level, players begin jumping platforms, but should they fall they then stand in the water. Later, the game has the bottomless pits that kill you. The difficulty ultimately is what brings satisfaction when you are finally able to beat it, without the code.
There maybe other better NES games, but few have the lasting impact as Contra. The Konami code had a part in this, but I believe it is this difficult great game that popularized the code. The code is still referenced in media such as Wreck-it-Ralph. Other games pay it homage often. The most astonishing thing is that even young gamers know the code.
The NES brings many limitations, especially to sound. Contra simply laughs at those limitations and provides some of the best mixes in gaming. Not only is there a variety in music (from the opening, to different levels, and even death/game over), these songs still sound great. This was confirmed for me when I heard many remixes on a variety of websites. Where most games of this era do not have any remixes (or just a few), Contra has many that all sound great. Check out our Boneyard episode here to listen to just one amazing remix of Snow Field.
Lastly, Contra has replay value. For an NES game to accomplish this is incredible. 8-bit games are notorious for being good for only a single play through. Here the co-op presents new challenges and experiences. The difficulty also gives you a challenge to beat it without the code. Each level has multiple routes and platforms to test out and master. It rightfully feels like a personal trainer encouraging you to come back for another round and push yourself rather than slogging through a bucket of candy corn.
Each element of Contra, gameplay, music, difficulty, replay value, longevity, raises its status to legendary. It is a must play for every gamer out there. No matter the age or skill, this game needs to be experienced to enrich your own gaming experiences. If you do not own it then pick up a NES Classic when it comes out so you can enjoy this great gaming legend. Your only choice now is blue or red pants.