To put it simply, Contra is a game synonymous with both the Nintendo Entertainment System and the 8-bit generation. First released in arcades in 1987 before coming to the NES and Famicom a year later, Konami’s Contra is a run and gun action game inspired by films such as Rambo and Predator. It’s not just the action that’s inspired by the action and sci-fi films of the 80s, with the plot following suit. You play as one of two commandos from the elite Contra unit, Pfc. Bill Rizer and Pfc. Lance Bean. In 2633 as part of a plot to overtake the world, the Red Falcon Organisation has set up base on the Galuga archipelago, and its up to the Contra commandos to not only prevent their plans, but also to uncover the true mystery surrounding the Alien lifeform that has masterminded the plot. Whilst the plot is mainly used in order to set up the gameplay, various settings make up the basis of each level, allowing for a diverse set of areas to explore, each with their own gameplay challenges.
These gameplay challenges come in a variety of forms, such as altering enemies, environmental traps, and the epic larger than life boss battles. However, the biggest difference between stages, is the perspective in which you play. Whilst most of the multi-platformed levels play in the side scrolling dynamic set about in stage one’s jungle setting, the second and fourth levels switch to a head-on perspective, and the third level requires players to head up a waterfall. All in all the sets up a diverse range of gameplay mechanics, and means that the gameplay never becomes repetitive or boring. Nevertheless, the controls of the game never alter, meaning that despite the rapid environmental changes, you’ll always know what to do.
The controls are arguably Contra’s strongest point. From the moment the game begins, you’ll find the controls simple, intuitive, and importantly, easy to use with next to no learning curve. Within these controls Contra employs an eight way directional shooting mechanic. The shooting controls really shine through, allowing you to shoot in all directions, extremely useful given that enemies and bullets appear from literally everywhere. Contra also employees a ducking mechanism from which you can shoot whilst avoiding enemy fire. This becomes pivotal, and you’ll have to learn to duck in a split second to progress. Contra’s fluid and tight gameplay is something that many have tried and failed to copy over the years. For some reason Contra just gets this spot on, and this leads to an intensely satisfying experience.
This doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination mean that you’ll be flying you way through the Red Falcon’s forces. In fact Contra has become symbolic in the retro world, exemplifying how difficult NES titles could be. If there was just one word that described the difficulty, it would be “relentless”. There’s no health bar, it’s just one simple hit and you’re dead. Not only that but you’re only given three lives before it’s Game Over, and most on their first play won’t make it past the Jungle. This may see some duck out quickly through frustration, but most will find themselves wanting keep playing. In turn players will find themselves growing continually stronger, soon feeling like a real member of the Contra forces. Or you could just throw in the Konami Code at the start for 30 lives. Either way you approach it the game makes you want to play.
Despite not being allowed to slip up even once, the game does give you some help in your quest. This comes in the form of upgrades to your arsenal. There are multiple firearm power ups on offer, including turbo fire, the powerful but slow laser shot, and the spread shot which sprays bullets. However, you can only hold one at a time. This can be frustrating if you accidentally lose the one you are using, or can even be an added obstacle as you desperately try to avoid an unwanted upgrade.
Contra’s difficulty is not its only defining feature, as this is arguably the NES’s, or even 8-bit’s definitive 2-player experience. Within 2-player mode teamwork is key, as leaving a colleague behind will see their demise at certain points in the game. The multi-platformed levels also lend themselves to co-op play and teamwork, allowing both players to take a different approach to the stage. The game is excellent alone, but becomes an even better experience when played alongside a friend.
Graphically the game is highly detailed and vibrant, especially for a NES title, and despite being somewhat simple in nature, it really is one of the nicest looking NES games. Special credit in particular must go to the environments, and the look and feel of them. From the jungle and factory, to the drastically different Alien stronghold, the environments and the enemies within them really take you into world and battle of the Contra commandos. The same can also be said for the soundtrack which opens up with a classic chiptune theme from the NES catalogue, that you will take with you long after the game is finished. Sound effects also add to the experience and are never annoying or grating to the ears, even helping tell you that you’re hitting the enemy. They also add to the feeling that you are outgunned, outnumbered and in an overwhelming battle.
Ultimately Contra is a classic game from the 8-bit catalogue and one that you will not only want to keep playing, but one that you will want to keep coming back to, despite its punishing difficulty. It’s simple and intuitive gameplay, alongside its presentation, mean that it lasts long in the memory. Despite having to be near perfect in order to succeed, the game is so fun and rewarding that you’ll keep playing. Eventually finding yourself approaching the level of twitch control perfection needed to take down the Red Falcon Organisation. Contra is a classic childhood game for anyone from the 8-bit era, and one that anyone who missed it should definitely grab and experience for themselves.