Contra: Nostalgia Review

Controller Spiking Fun

NES| Konami | February 1988

Nostalgia Reviews look back and highlight the greatest games of previous generations. The review is rooted in fond memories and appreciation of the game during that era. There are times when memories differ from reality or modern techniques are superior to earlier design.

Did you know that the blue commando and red solider have names? They are Bill “Mad Dog” Rizer and Lance “Scorpion” Bean; their mission is to stop Red Falcon, an alien race or terrorist group, depending on which version you play, from taking over the world. None of this matters. The story in Contra is nonsense, there are no character arcs and the purpose of the mission does not need to be revealed. Gameplay is the most important thing in videogames, and Contra is the best run and gun entry created.

Originally an arcade game, with a built in time limit for each level, Contra is designed to eat quarters. Players die from one hit, lava pits or touching the enemy. Foes flood the screen, shots come from all angles and if your partner climbs the mountainside faster, death is imminent. The port to NES did not pull any punches. The game remained extremely difficult. Even with the famed Konami code, it takes an impressive amount of skill to win.

What is a Critical Hit!

A revolution of its time, Contra allowed players to shoot in eight directions; up, down, left, right and any diagonal. This quickly expanded the capabilities of Bill and Lance on the battlefield, but also increased the locations enemies could attack from. Instead of just coming from right to left, enemies would strike from all sides. This approach meant players would never know when they would be attacked or from where. It creates a frantic pace, where the over-zealous soldier can squander their initial three lives.

The starting weapon was a machine gun that was a good balance of range and power throughout the game. Players could beat the final mission without ever grabbing an upgrade, but the more powerful laser gun, spread gun and rapid fire drastically increased a commando’s death kill. Once an upgrade is equipped, any additional powerup replaces the current weapon; meaning that if you have your favorite gun, avoiding ‘helpful’ items is as important as dodging incoming fire.

Each of the stages in Contra is different than the last. Players start off in a lush forest level, but through a tour of the island encounter a variety of areas. The winter stage, mother ship or mountain areas are accompanied by a change in music and enemies. With new enemies, come new attack patterns. The lessons learned in previous levels help you in the campaign, but don’t mean that you know if the flying alien will drop a bomb, kamikaze or shot a spread attack.

Contra constantly shifts the perspective of battle. While traveling to the stage boss, typically the player moves from left to right. But the bosses appear overhead, instead of jumping over attacks, the game’s verticality make it feel akin to Galaga Players shoot up, search for vulnerabilities and constantly avoid an assault of large fiery explosions. After defeating bosses, the heroes find themselves in a locked room where waves of enemies attack from the background of the screen. This change in perspective changes how attacks, dodges and counters are animated, but the controls translate for each scenario.

What is Not Very Effective…

Contra is one of the best couch co-op experiences available. Players work together to move forward, can “borrow” lives from each other and coordinate attacks. If a lone gamer goes through the level, there is no change to the enemy encounter or boss’s health. This game was designed for multiple players and becomes difficult for a single commando to conquer.

Even with two players this game is hard. The controls are responsive, the intro level prepares players for what to expect and the game is possible to beat. But it is still really hard, with huge difficulty spikes in certain areas. When you die it is your fault, but it is still punishing to miss the jump, not find the one safe spot in the room or miss a critical enemy.

Status Summary

Contra is the only run and gun game that you need to play. Each entry in the series and imitation titles were not able to capture the challenge, controls or fun of the original release. If you enjoy difficult co-op games that require twitch reflexes, precision placement and destroying waves of enemies, then this game was designed for you. If you prefer your game to have a story, character progression or an easier path then you don’t need to bother entering the Konami code.


Score: 9.0 /10

+ Great Gameplay
+ Original Soundtrack
+ Enjoyable Co-op
+ Konami Code
– Repetitive
– Single Player Not as Fun


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