Published on May 30th, 2012 | by Nichomaxwell1
A Review of Contra: The Original “Gears of War?”
Year: 1988 // System: NES // Publisher & Developer: Konami // Directors: Shigeharu Umezaki and Shinji Kitamoto // Genre: Run and gun
>>>I look at Nintendo games as the “big experiment of gaming.” Their developers were pioneers in programming playable experiences on a gaming system, most of them designing their very first titles while other key individuals, notably Yoshiki Okamoto and Shigeru Miyamoto, hailed from the arcade sector. There were very few blueprints from which to derive ideas and layouts, so for the most part, game creators for the NES were the first to do such-and-such, OR the first to do such-and-such well.
Contra was the first NES title to feature a run-and-gun adventure in which the main character could fire at enemies in all directions, the first shooter to alternate between a side-scrolling mode and a perspective from behind, the first true title to offer an extremely tough but surprisingly fair difficulty, and the first to execute all of the above innovations to perfection.
Although the plot feels like a messy conglomeration of action-hero and sci-fi movies from the seventies and eighties (or Alien and Terminator meet Rambo and Commando, the core game play experience serves up the meat and potatoes of Contra. The player weaves his/her shirtless muscly gunner, be it Bill “Mad Dog” Rizer or Lance “Scorpion” Beam, in and out of eight insanely challenging levels. Three things make this game extremely hard: the main character dies the first time he gets hit, the game moves at a blistering pace, and multiple gunners rain bullets and bombs on your character from all directions. You only have a moment to breathe in between levels, and during parts of the levels in which the camera focuses on the character from behind. The bosses at the end of each level offer no mercy…if you weren’t moving fast enough before, you’ll pull all the muscles in your thumbs while trying to keep up. Should you use up your lives, you go back the beginning of the current stage, but given the relentless challenge of each boss, using up a continue feels almost as bad as starting the whole game over again.
But while gaming sites have cited Contra as the “toughest game to beat” on the NES, Contra also stands out as one of the fairest games in comparison to both the AI and the versatility of Bill and Lance. The two commandos would be broken if transferred to any other NES engine. Super Mario Bros. Crossover provided one example where Bill Rizer proved too powerful for SMB’s AI to handle. Yes, storms of bullets peppered the screen and required you to act faster than was humanly possible, but no character to that point could fire up, down, left, right, AND diagonally, with certain commands like hitting the ground and firing while midair becoming crucial for the player to learn later in the game.
Contra stayed fun in the face of a brutal series of aliens and machines due to groundbreaking abilities and movement. However, in order to truly become the tough on-screen, you had to become a tough guy off-the-screen. You had to train your thumbs, memorize certain patterns until they were burned into your hippocampus, and master the art of patience. You had to accept that you were going to die more than you’d prefer, and in knowing that death would come, you’d become more excited about finally evading death and beating the level.
One thing I gathered was that the enemies moved in predictable patterns. Other titles like Kid Icarus and Metroid seemed to throw a series of enemy movements at you that were hard to track because they offered a series of possibilities. The eggplant wizard didn’t always fire at your head. The ceiling-grabbing metroid would follow you to the next screen. The AI in those games felt randomized, while in Contra, it was mainly pre-set. The player could track movements in Contra much easier than they could in, say, Castlevania.
Because of this, the original strong man’s game for the NES transformed into a high-octane thinking man’s title. Also, figuring out the first step to beating a boss broke the back of NES convention. Usually, when a player beat the first form of a boss, a harder, second form took shape, driving up the speed and frustration level of the final fight. But in Contra, with the exception of a couple boss battles where extra targets appeared and attacked you with even more firepower than you were already fending off, dismantling the arm of an alien or blowing up one of the main guns made the boss battle easier to complete. You weren’t just rewarded with a stage complete after defeating a boss…you were rewarded AS you were laying down the law! This aspect may be one of the most overlooked features of the fighting engine in Contra, and the reason that the hard-as-nails boss segments felt justified.
I loved the alternation between the two in-game perspectives, even if the two third-person shooter levels felt interchangeable and repetitive. You did the same thing in both levels…you blew up the sensors to break the doors, allowing you to progress to the next room. Complicating your simple goal of unlocking doors with your trigger finger were limitless waves of enemy reinforcements and rolling canisters that swept across the floor, forcing you to jump into the air while firing at the sensors.
The two-player mode stands as one of the classic examples of a successive co-op mode on the NES. The only true issue facing co-op play in Contra is that the screen will not scroll forward if one player lags behind. Even so, this issue doesn’t detract from the game play as several other games, particularly Streets of Rage and Golden Axe, have done the same thing to ensure the progression of both players. The creators’ decision to prevent the screen from scrolling forward actually emphasized the importance of the two players working together very closely in order to ensure the success of the mission at hand.
Contra, like most NES games, may have been an experiment, but today it stands as an experiment crafted to near-perfection. Few games maintain the legacy upon which the classic run-and-gun entry stands. Even today, people will call Contra the hardest game to ever exist. Although it may not be the toughest game out there, it was the hardest one out there that made its difficulty worth overcoming.
Challenge: 10/Classic: Overcoming spiked walls and slipping under crushing hooks, dismantling lethal machinery and blowing up flashing sensors, dodging in and out of bullets in an era where “bullet time” did not exist, and doing all of this with a reckless dude who forgot his shirt. Yep, this was the positive epitome of “Nintendo Hard” back in the day.
Handling: 10/Classic: Rick and Lance controlled better than just about every single other NES protagonist out there. Either shooter could fire in eight different directions, shoot while jumping, control his midair velocity, and hit the ground to evade mid-level lines of fire coming after them.
Innovation: 10/Classic: The implementation of multi-directional fire did for the Nintendo what Devil May Cry’s Dante did for the Playstation 2: it amplified the action. Everything felt faster and moved with a greater intensity due to the higher degree of movement. Aside from taking on enemies on all sides, Contra also factored in a perspective switch, changing the game from a hard-nosed platformer to a rail shooter, but with jumping and ducking.
Core Experience: 9/Outstanding: Only one problem stood out to me: the two third-person shooter levels felt no different from each other in goals or in design. Aside from the increased number of rolling canisters in Level 4, both 2 and 4 assigned the player the task of blowing up doors in order to move to the next room. Other than this minor plight, Contra served up six of the best side-scrolling levels, complete with relentless bad guys and an engaging line-up of traps and pitfalls for your hero to outwit.
OVERALL: 9.8/Outstanding: I didn’t expect it to happen, but Contra quickly became one of my all-time favorites, if not my current favorite for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Yes, it’s the hardest good game out there. So? All the more reason for you to play it and say, “Yeah, I played (and beat) Contra.” Saying that feels more rewarding than saying, “Yeah, I saw Citizen Kane.” Seriously.