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Contra: Run-and-gun fun

Contra exemplifies the classic run-and-gun genre of video games. The NES port is generally considered to be an improvement upon Konami's 1986 arcade game. It usually appears near the top of "best of NES" lists.

I may be one of the few people who, despite owning an NES, never played Contra or either of its two sequels. I discovered Contra only after playing these sequels on the NES and SNES Classic. Truth be told, run-and-gun isn't my favorite genre, in part because I don't often play with a second player. Where Contra shines is in its simultaneous two-player action. Even Ikari Warriors, the NES version of which is bad, received plaudits merely for offering simultaneous two-player at a time when that was rare on home consoles. Contra blows that game out of the proverbial water.

In Contra you control Bill (and Lance, if a second player joins). In the arcade and Famicom versions, the setting is an alien planet in the 27th century, but the NES port was rebranded such that it takes place in the present (1980's). This was done to capitalize upon the popularity of the movies "Predator" and "Rambo." The box art features Stallone and Schwarzenegger look-alikes with an "Alien"-style alien. Though purists may balk at this bald attempt to capitalize on someone else's IP, it was a master stroke of marketing. Konami has since disavowed this alternate timeline: the Contra Anniversary Collection situates the NES game in the 27th century.
One of the best things about Contra is the controls, which are intuitive, practical, and responsive. You can always handle whatever the game throws at you, so when you die, it's a fair death and can't justly be blamed on the controls. The control scheme is your standard A jumps and B shoots. Crucially, Bill and Lance can shoot in any of the eight cardinal and ordinal directions (though you can shoot straight down only while jumping). If you press ↓ and A, Bill or Lance will drop down to whatever is below him. In addition, holding ↓ causes him to lie prone on the ground, below the line of fire. This simple ability goes a long way to making Contra stand out.

Weapon upgrades (a trademark of the franchise) are copious and desirable. They appear in the form of falcon symbols with a letter. The laser (L) shoots a beam. The fireball gun (F) shoots fireballs that move in a spiral pattern. The machine gun (M) can shoot continuously. The best weapon is the spread gun (S), which shoots five shots at once that arc outward, potentially hitting many foes at once. There is also an R upgrade (for "rate"), which increases the speed of your shots (except for the laser). Lastly, the B (barrier) makes you briefly invincible. Rarely a flashing falcon will appear with no letter: touching it destroys all enemies on screen.
Contra is a short game, featuring just eight levels. Each level (except four) is unique, with a different background, theme, and musical score. The excellent variety in the admittedly small package is what makes the game stand out. Bill and Lance begin in the jungle, and things are basic. You mow down enemies and gun emplacements while making your way to the right. The boss is a wall with a man on top and several guns. It's appropriately easy for the first stage.

The second and fourth levels take place in a base and change the perspective to over-the-shoulder first-person. Enemies and guns appear a few feet in the distance, and our space soldiers have to shoot at them while dodging. A laser prevents them from proceeding until all targets are destroyed. Dropping to the ground is helpful for avoiding enemy fire. Once a corridor is cleared, the laser deactivates and Bill and Lance advance and turn a corner. The screen refreshes to the next segment. These two stages are more a novelty than anything else, but I appreciate the diversity all the same. In the arcade version, these levels had a short timer (no other stages are timed), but happily this was removed for the NES version. The boss of the base is a giant computer, with a moving turret that shoots a big, slow-moving circle at you. In addition, smaller gun embankments open up periodically, unleashing a spread of shots. The fight is challenging and fun. The fourth stage has a similar, but even more difficult boss, which can only be harmed when the two semi-transparents halves of the turret merge briefly into a solid target before splitting apart again.
The third stage involves a lot of jumping, as Bill and Lance ascend a mountain with a waterfall. The vertical platforming ups the difficulty slightly. The boss is a massive alien with two tentacles, but all you have to do is shoot him in the head as fast as possible (a task made easier by a turbo controller). Each of the last four stages also offers a unique setting and boss: a snow field, a futuristic "energy zone" with flamethrowers, a hangar, and the final confrontation in the aliens' lair. This final stage is especially memorable, as the enemies go from humanoid to horrifying insectoids. The backgrounds are vivid pinks and purples with flashing liquid. There are two boss fights: at the beginning an "Alien"-looking head, then at the end a huge beating heart.
Contra is fun. As I see it, it has only two shortcomings, the main one being that it's too short. Beating all eight stages takes about 30 to 60 minutes. There are no collectibles, secrets, branching routes, or bonus rooms. Once you've beaten it, the only replayability is trying to get a higher score (this is an arcade game, after all). The second problem is the difficulty. All hits are fatal. You get three lives and three continues, for a total of twelve attempts to clear eight stages. Although none of the stages is especially difficult in itself, getting through all eight with twelve lives requires a lot of practice. In short, it's "NES hard."
The Konami code, as seen in Disney's Wreck-It-Ralph (2012)

But, of course, this is where the Konami code comes in. Even moreso than Gradius, Contra made the most famous video-game code of all time. If you enter it on the title screen, your number of lives increases by a whole order of magnitude, from 3 to 30. With the code you get 120 attempts to finish, which should be more than enough. Using this code, I beat the game on my first try. This code was created by one of the programmers and was not designed for players. Had it been, the number probably would have been set lower. Indeed, in Super C you get just 10 lives.
Left: arcade; right: NES
Contra is a touchstone of 8-bit graphics and audio. The game's six songs (levels 1 and 7 share the same song, as do 2 and 4) fit the game's feel perfectly. The sprites and backgrounds are equally impressive, even if they can't quite measure up to those in the arcade version. Despite this, the NES version is better than the original game because, as short as Contra is, the levels were much shorter in the arcade. Konami beefed them up for the home version. 

Contra is the perfect run-and-gun shooter of the NES era. Not without reason was it one of the most popular NES games in its own day, which spawned two excellent sequels. It has smooth controls, clean level designs, and cool bosses. It looks and sounds great, and two players can blast aliens at the same time. Amazing!
Grade: A
Linked Review
"Presentation is top-notch with excellent stage themes, sound effects, and graphics. The very fun, two-player, simultaneous mode is the icing on the already delicious and nearly flawless cake."
— Pat Contri, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library, 5/5

"Contra offers the best shooting action on the NES and is also the console's definitive multiplayer experience. Contra deftly captures the spirit of the testosterone-fueled '80s summer blockbusters."
IGN, #12 of Top 100

"The home version of Contra is generally more robust, better and more fairly designed, and simply more fun than the arcade original. Above all else, it's simply fun."
— Jeremy Parish, NES Works


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