He’s a shirtless marvel who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger and has to front-flip when he jumps. It’s a futuristic machine gun that can be customized with a variety of destructive modifications. Together, they fight alien invasions!
Released in 1988 by Konami (Look, after several false starts, it’s our first “proper” Konami game!), Contra has nothing to do with the 1980s political scandal. Rather, it’s the heartwarming story of a shirtless man (Or two!), his gun, and their friendship-building journey to destroy the vile Red Falcon and save the universe. Contra is actually a port of an arcade game, a fact which was likely forgotten for years until the arcade version turned up for purchase on XBox Live Arcade in 2006.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: This is not a game that you’re playing for its gripping story and lore. No one, including Konami (More on this in a bit), really cared about the story at the time of its release. But for completion’s sake: The original Japanese version of Contra centers on an alien invasion hundreds of years in the future. The vile Red Falcon has set up camp on Earth, and it’s up to Bill Rizer (Joined by Lance Bean in 2-Player Mode) to tear off his shirt, grab his gun, and front-flip his way through eight levels of run-and-gun action to save the universe. Amusingly, Konami’s US division modified the plot to take place in the present day, which led to Bill and Lance magically changing to descendants “Jimbo and Sully” for a time beginning with Contra III, where the plot was (mostly) unified worldwide.
Again, though, you don’t care about the whys of blasting everything that moves, and a lot of stuff that doesn’t. You just want to know if said blasting is fun. Good news: The answer is “Yes! Yes!” It’s very fun! The eight levels in the game range from jungles, to 3D-style bases, to snow fields. Each level throws something different at you–the bases, as mentioned, have a different perspective, a waterfall level scrolls vertically instead of horizontally, and there’s an energy zone with timed lasers you have to dodge. To help even the odds, you’ll find power-ups scattered throughout the game. These range from auto-fire, to a laser (A childhood favorite), to a spread gun that obliterates pretty much everything.
Also helping you on your trek to eliminate the alien menace is the game’s upbeat rock soundtrack. The jungle theme is regarded as classic, but the entire soundtrack creates a sense of urgency to the proceedings while simultaneously urging you on to blast alien behind. Of particular note is the final level’s theme, which draws as much from jazz as rock, with its changing time signatures and descending scales.
Contra has a reputation for being one of the hardest games on the NES–IGN actually voted the game as the toughest to beat, EVER, in 2007. And while I remember, as a 6-year-old Emptyeye, using the Konami Code to multiply my lives by 10 and still not beat it, I feel like people (Including IGN) who call it one of the hardest games ever are relying on their memories of 20-plus years ago. The game is mostly memorization, and once you know where a lot of the obstacles are, the game is not that bad compared to one of the other titans of NES difficulty, like TMNT or Pretty Much Any Rare NES Game.
Being a port of an arcade game, Contra isn’t a very long game. On a casual play, it can be beaten in 20 to 30 minutes, and a top-level speedrun is more like a 10-minute affair. Where the game’s replay value comes in is in working your way up to the level to actually be able to get through the whole game. While it’s not the most difficult game in the world, it’s not easy either–your three lives and three continues will disappear quickly your first few attempts.
Contra is rightly regarded as a classic on the NES. It’s not a complicated game, but it’s a challenge that you can take on alone or with a companion. Unfortunately, the original NES game was re-released as an unlockable in Contra, 4 and, oddly, as part of a collection for PC (EDIT: Originally, I wrote that the only re-release of the game was the PC collection. Turns out the Contra 4 unlockables are the NES version, not the arcade like I thought. Whoops.). It’s worth tracking down if you don’t have it, though.