Ask me to name the most memorable video game I’ve played and I’ll probably follow my answer with, “Remember ‘up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, b, a’?”. To those who haven’t clued in to the title of this post or the hint I gave above, that game is Contra, Konami’s side-scrolling action shooter that was ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988.
Contra is the “story” of two muscular dudes – Wikipedia says they’re named Lance and Bill, but let’s just call them Arnold and Sylvester – who are dropped into the jungle with nothing but a machine gun and a pair of pants. Your task? Who knows? In fact… who cares? Just shoot everything that moves and don’t get killed. It’s as simple as that.
Wait, did I say simple? I guess it would’ve been if they had given you more than 3 lives… but that’s what that code is for, I guess. Throughout the game, you’ll do battle with nameless, faceless goons, turrets and aliens in your quest to defeat the Red Falcon… but again, who cares? Just. Kill. Everything.
Why this game is awesome
There are tons of games on the NES that will elicit nostalgia from gamers and non-gamers alike, but only a few will get folks to nerd out on a friggin’ cheat code. Like many games of that era, the game was tough, with bullets flying everywhere and everything out to kill you – even your partner could kill you if he wanted to be a douche (remember that waterfall level?) or steal your lives when they died. But that cheat code, the Konami code, added an element of fairness and helped many gamers feel like they accomplished something when they beat the game. Remember, unlike games of today, you didn’t get any sissy achievements for beating a level or killing a bunch of enemies. Achievements came in the form of beating the game and knowing that (with a little help) a video game wasn’t going to own you.
I keep talking about the code, but don’t get it twisted – it wasn’t just about that. The code just allowed you to play more of the game without getting too frustrated – always a plus in my books. The levels were top-notch, the controls were tight and simple, the music was epic, and the gameplay was fun, varying between side-scrolling, to a behind-the-person view, to a top-scrolling chase (that waterfall level again).
It’s not a stretch to say that this game was influential in video gaming history. The game spawned a few sequels over the years, most notably Super Contra (or Super C if you’re cool) for the NES, and Contra III: The Alien Wars on the SNES, but it also inspired several Contra clones such as the long-running Metal Slug series and the downloadable game Shank.
Contra was one of the first notable co-op games of its time, when most games were focused on alternating two-player modes. It was also one of the first good games to give the player a variety of gameplay types, not just sticking to the tried and true side-scroller. Many modern games try to vary their gameplay in order to keep the action from becoming stale and monotonous. Games like Uncharted, Call of Duty, and even Halo will switch between either platforming, shooting, and vehicular action to keep things fresh for the player, and I’d argue that games like Contra paved the way for this.
Finally, the game propagated the badass hero with big guns stereotype that was so prevalent in 80’s action flicks starring the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Nowadays, you don’t have to look further than Gears of War to see these kinds of characters, but they’re pretty much everywhere, from Modern Warfare, to Duke Nukem.
What Contra taught us
- If life is too hard, use a cheat code
- Shotguns are the ultimate weapon, at any range
- When climbing mountains, it’s never best to be the last person up
- All you need to be bad ass is a pair of pants and a matching bandana
- Do a front flip every time you jump for maximum hang time
- When it comes to bosses, always, ALWAYS shoot the glowing orb
- Beware of massive alien brains that hatch out scorpions
As difficult as it was, it definitely wasn’t impossible, as shown in this awesome speedrun
Probably one of the more memorable soundtracks on the NES, here’s a tribute on the synthesizer