Contra is a man's game. A manly game for manly men. It features men killing things in manly ways. It's so manly I had to look in a thesaurus to find a word manly enough to describe its manliness. And you know what I found? "Twofisted." Hell freaking yeah. Contra isn't just manly. Contra is freakin' twofisted. Don't be jealous.
Contra stars Bill "Mad Dog" Rizer and Lance "Scorpion" Bean on their quest to go kick some ass. One's a blue-eyed blonde-haired all-American, and the other is a blue-haired blonde-eyed all-Anime warrior. Of course, in the game itself they're both sporting reddish brown hair, but by that point who cares? Even the name of the game is manly. It's really just a Latin prefix meaning anti or against, and it doesn't actually make sense without some sort of target object. But forget that man, these guys are Contra! And if you got a problem with it, they'll be contra you next. Believe me, you don't want guys named Mad Dog and Scorpion coming after you. It can't end well.
The game takes place in present-day South America (so, 1988) on an unnamed island. Mad Dog and Scorpion are the two man (some might say twofisted) strike team sent by the US to put an end to the terrorist organization calling themselves Red Falcon. They get dropped off in the jungle by helicopter, shirtless and armed only with their crazy jumping skills and a rifle filled with infinite bullets. The US fully expects this to be enough, and you don't want to make your bosses look bad, do you?
Well tough cookies son, because this game is going to take you to school. Contra practically defines hard. You might have infinite ammo, but you die in one hit. That's right: if anything touches you, you are dead. Like a real man. And the enemies are going to spawn infinitely at you, so don't think you can just sneak by the firefights as they come along. You let your guard down and you are jungle food, you hear me? And here's the great thing about it all: it's fair. I can't emphasize enough how absolutely critical that is to the gameplay experience. Contra is crazy hard and will test your memory and reflexes alike, but you will never complain of a cheap death. There's never going to be some glitchy pit or some unavoidable enemy to steal a life from you; if you die, it's on you. Take some responsibility for your failings. Like a real man.
Konami did two things to help you get through the game though. The first is that they removed any all and time limits. You can take as short or long a time as you need to take care of business, and the only penalty is seeing some more enemy soldiers appear along the way. But as they all die in one hit as well, so if you stay alert you can handle it. The second is the infamous Konami code. They'd used it before, but Contra made this thing legendary. You see, there is a sequence of buttons that can be pressed on the title screen that will grant you 30 lives at the start of the game, and 30 more after each continue. Considering that the game normally gives you 3 lives, and only 3 continues, this is huge. The code is famous because it's the only way most people were able to beat the game. Now, I went ahead and cleared it without the code (like a real man!), but it did take an awful lot of practice and memorizing. Doing it legit is not for the faint of heart. Or those with actual things to do.
To that end, the game displays your current extra lives as medals in the upper left corner of the screen. But it won't display any more than four. It's like the developers didn't want to waste precious lines of code displaying something you'd never attain anyway. "You know you don't have that many lives, kid. Don't even argue." When you do inevitably die, you'll at least come back right where you were, with a few seconds of invincibility to get your bearings back. You'll lose any gun upgrades you acquired though, which can make it quite the uphill battle to make further progress. More on upgrades in a bit. For now I'd like to point out the image above and ask something in earnest: How the blazes is there an arctic forest on the same small island as a tropical jungle?! I saw that ice covering the ground and almost drenched my undies. As if the game weren't difficult enough without skidding all over the place. Blissfully, I needed worry not - your traction is unaffected. Contra doesn't need gimmicks to beat you. See? Tough, but fair. Like a real man.
The level design itself is really standout here. Contra blends a few different kinds of gameplay into its stages, keeping the challenge high (by forcing you to adapt) and preventing the game from ever becoming boring. The first stage is a typical run-and-gun sidescroller, but the second level actually switches the entire perspective. At that point the camera shifts to the back of your hero as he moves forward through an enemy base. Then attacks come from the back of the screen instead of one side or another, and boy do they keep the obstacles coming. After that stage's boss, you'll have the waterfall level, which is an up-scroller (if I may coin the term). You have to keep jumping to progress, and you can't head back down without dying. Getting to the top earns you another base level, but you finish with four straight sidescrolling stages after that (albeit with totally different designs and challenges). One thing that bothered me about the enemy base levels: the main enemies you'll keep seeing there are these dudes wearing green spandex suits. For some inexplicable reason, they do little ballet hops across the screen while they shoot at you. You can just sit there indefinitely if you want to watch a whole ballet performance, what with the infinite enemy spawns. Why would you dance at me? That's not manly at all. It's contra-manly.
What, really? The bosses too?! Come on big robot man, you can do better than that! This guy is like the head general of the whole organization, and this little wimpkick is his only attack. Unless you count running into you at normal speed an attack. Is this what the Red Falcon terrorists do in their spare time? Just practice ballet? It's like that prison in the Phillipines that taught its inmates the Thriller dance. Just too much time on their hands. Anyway, it's a good thing that every time you press jump you do crazy high flips like a real man, or you'd never be able to avoid this dude. Seriously, just jump over him and shoot him while he ballets the air. The other bosses though are mostly just automated defense systems, which is a nice change of pace from the usual "here's yet another big dude who won't die" mechanic that these kinds of games can fall back on a bit too often.
The weapons are the real defining point of the game's action, though. Throughout the game you'll find upgrades, either by shooting down little balloon things that fly by or by shooting falcon emblems in the levels. The upgrades are all just big letters between a pair of wings, so you know they're gonna be awesome. "M" gives you a machine gun, allowing you to hold down the fire button instead of having to press it for each shot. "F" gives you a flamethrower with slower shots that loop in a wide radius, letting you set up and trap enemies. "L" grants a laser, which fires a long beam of energy. There's a slight learning curve on it because rapidly pressing fire actually will make it totally ineffective. You've got to place shots carefully and let them connect fully. "R" is rapid fire, which increases your maximum firing rate with any gun. There's also a "B" which makes you completely invincible. Since "invincible" obviously doesn't start with the letter B, I'm just going to guess it stands for "Badass mode." There's a glowing falcon too that will blow up every enemy on the screen, but you'll almost never find it.
But who are we kidding, really? There's only one weapon you'll ever really want or need in Contra: the Spread Gun. It's so good I capitalized it. It's so good people tattoo its emblem on their shoulders. It's so good they named an entire collegiate football offensive system after it. This badboy shoots five full-power bullets at a set of angles that's basically guaranteed to hit anything in front of you on the screen. And the closer you are to an enemy, the more of the bullets hit, giving you double, triple, quadruple, or yes, quintuple damage. You can fire this from a safe position and just annihilate anything that comes your way. Even the random enemy soldiers will outright explode from one of these shots, just like a real man. You know what the best incentive is to avoid death in Contra? It's not to save continues. It's not even to beat the game. The best reason to not die is that you get to keep the Spread Gun. For real! You die with this thing and you're bummed about losing it far more than you are about dying in the first place.
What terrorist could possibly stand up to you when you're packing heat like that? With all its benefits you'd think the only limitation is an inability to fire into the third dimension. Yet when you enter an enemy base level the gun fires its spread horizontally instead of vertically. That's right - it actually converted its mode of fire to fit its surroundings. Gracious. Those Red Falcon boys are going down. Let me just get through these bases and kill that ballet general and...
WHOA MY GOD THAT'S A BIG ALIEN! What's happened here?! My whole sense of reality is a-shambles. One minute I'm fighting terrorist forces in a frosty rainforest, and the next thing I know there are aliens barfing fireballs at me. Sad but true, it's our worst fears realized: alien-financed South American terrorism. Apparently Red Falcon isn't just the name of the organization; it's also the codename for the head alien itself, pulling all the strings. Of all the sneaky... But hey, I guess it all works out in the end, right? I mean, the developers were basically trying to make a video game that combined Rambo and Schwarzenegger's Predator, so mission accomplished. And when you destroy the alien hive, you get treated to a lovely cutscene of your single helicopter blowing up the entire island. Like a real man.
Contra is an absolute blast to play. It's that brilliant blend of challenge and timing and avoids practically all the usual pitfalls that approach can create. You can even play as a two player simultaneous co-op, though be warned: if one player lags behind, you'll probably both get killed. Really the only complaints are the ease of the bosses relative to the rest of the levels, and specifically how anti-climactic the final fight is. It can also occasionally be hard to see an enemy bullet flying at your face, but again - these are just little nitpicks. It's good to see that Konami learned its lesson from Castlevania (which was hard for all the wrong reasons). That game surely could have used a little Contra in it. Heck, I'd play that game. Contravania. Make it happen. Like a real man.
Bottom Line: 18/20