Consider Yourself a Hero: A Retro NES Review of Contra
Contra is a huge nostalgia game for me. I have many fond memories of sitting in a dark basement with a friend blasting away at this and Super C for hours. This is the first run-and-gun game I remember playing, and it was mind-blowingly fun, especially in co-op. It was also my (and many other people’s) introduction to the Konami Code, and to cheat codes in general. That feeling of powerful insider knowledge was so cool in an era before hacks and cheats got so common (and so easily found online).
Apparently, the two playable commandos are named Mad Dog and Scorpion, though you would never know this from the game. You know what else the game has very little to do with? This brochure image for the arcade version. I don’t know who that lady is, or why she’s playing this game dressed like a commando packing grenades and a combat knife (not in the game).
Your mission is to take down the “vile Red Falcon,” an “alien war monger.” Ol’ Red has the obligatory army of foot soldiers and gun turrets as well as aliens of various types (some look a lot like those from the Alien movies).
The strategy in Contra is to shoot everything. When you finally beat the giant alien egg-hatching heart (…is that Red Falcon?) and “save the universe,” you are told that you can now “Consider yourself a hero.” Thanks, Contra, for implying that since no one else is going to make a big deal out of my universe saving I’d better do it myself. You will not spend a lot of time thinking about story in this game, but it matters so little that apparently the North American version is set in a present-day South American jungle while the Japanese version is set in the future and possibly near New Zealand. Because no one really cares.
You play Contra for the classic side-scrolling run-and-gun gameplay and the nostalgia. It’s not easy, but unlimited continues and the Konami Code’s 30 lives make the console version beatable even on single player (though co-op makes life easier). Contra is a great old-school two-player experience where you work together to ward off enemies and avoid killing each other by causing the screen to scroll at a bad time. The movement and shooting mechanics are dated, of course – you can only shoot down by jumping first, for example – but in my replay, this reminder of how gaming used to be was more fun than annoying. The system works and things move quickly, so I found myself caught up in the action and only occasionally frustrated by control issues. Remembering how to game the angles at which you and enemies can shoot was quick and enjoyable.
Contra is a classic arcade-to-console port. The difficulty comes not from game length (it’s only eight levels long) but from how often you are going to die. Which will be often. Contra is designed so that you learn by dying. You will inevitably wind up jumping only to find that, as the screen scrolls, you have jumped right into some death or other. You will die a few times while figuring out workable strategies for tough areas and bosses. You will die as you and your co-op partner accidentally cause the screen to scroll and doom the other player. But (until you’re out of lives) the game drops you back in right where you died, so this usually isn’t that frustrating (with the Konami Code, anyway). Losing your good guns upon death does hurt, though.
Contra features several gun power ups: rapid fire (R), machine gun (M), laser (L), flamethrower (F), and a spread gun (S) whose bullets fan outward in front of you. Spread is my go-to in this game because it can neutralize so many threats at once. The laser and flamethrower are stronger, but they require a lot more precision and don’t cover as much of the screen. In co-op, you and your friend may face some difficult decisions when faced with one good power up that you can’t share. In addition to the gun upgrades, you can also get a B than makes you invincible (bulletproof vest?) and a falcon-shaped power up that destroys all threats on the screen. Where do the power ups fly in from? Maybe from your sponsors in the Hunger Games, I don’t know.
There were so many parts of this game that, when I got to them again, I suddenly remembered really well, even though I hadn’t thought of them in over twenty years. This nostalgia payoff was huge. There wasn’t a level of this that I didn’t enjoy – an advantage of designing 8 good levels instead of 50 uneven ones.
Graphics and Sound:
Good enough. They’re nothing special now, of course, but they’re not distractingly bad. They have that 8-bit charm, and the Alien-like creature and level design is cool sometimes. The nostalgia factor of rediscovering enemies and locations that I had long since forgotten about was a big plus for me.
This game was as fun as I remembered it. Often when I return to a game from my childhood, the pace is painfully slow, but that didn’t really happen here (though dying and retrying sometimes got old). Playing with a friend and strategizing together when you’re stuck will help ward off monotony, too. The game is hard but rewarding, short but sweet, and the gameplay is still fun over 25 years later. Plus you get to input the Konami Code on an NES controller again. And at the end you can consider yourself a hero! But then, you were always a hero to me.
Game Score: 8.0 Out of 10
Release Date: 1988
Genre: Shooter / Run & Gun
Console: Nintendo NES
Player: Single, Multi-player
Section: NES Review