Contra’s amazing march to mythic status began in the arcades on February 20, 1987. But to many, it’s major popularity explosion occurred when it hopped over to the NES thanks to Konami’s incredibly solid port. Today, it still represents one of the very best games on Nintendo’s system and helped introduce a generation of players to one of Konami’s most memorable titles outside of the arcade.
The port joined Nintendo’s rising tide of success in ’88 roughly a year after Contra’s big brother made its arcade debut. Contra also popped up on PC systems from Japan’s MSX to the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64.
Contra pulled players into a side-scrolling run ‘n gun where they shot their way through seven stages of enemies to put an end to the alien menace that lurks in its eighth and final stage. What the game did differently from many other shooters was not only offer up a variety of weapons but also varied the stages.
Players started off running from left to right, scrolling through the stage and blasting bad guys until they made it inside a base taking on a third-person view from behind as you battled your way through the hallways. Then it changed again into a vertically scrolling jumping climb as you hopped from ledge to ledge while battling your way upwards.
The NES port’s work in copying the same stages was limited only by the hardware. Even though the NES wasn’t on par with the dedicated power of Konami’s arcade board which sported a Motorola M6809 with sound generated by a Yamaha YM2151, it did an exceptional job in coming close enough to retain the kinetic insanity of its action, fantastic soundtrack, and smorgasbord of backdrops especially with the final alien stage. There were still differences. The Famicom version back in Japan apparently benefited from an additional piece of tech called the VRC2 which was a “multi-memory” controller beefing up the capabilities of the NES via the cart.
The result was that the Famicom version could incorporate items like cut scenes and more visual effects with its version of Contra unlike the NES version…a hint of things to come later as Nintendo carts would bank on the same technique such as with the FX chip for the SNES’ Starfox enhancing its polygonal visuals.
But one of the best things about both the arcade and NES version of Contra was the same screen co-op (although arcade release of Contra in Europe, Gryzor, apparently could only do alternating co-op).
Two players could plunge through the chaos together using lasers, machine guns, and my favorite, the spread fire gun which wrecked everything in front of it with a wave of angry pellets. If one player picked up the weapon, though, that left the other player scrambling for something else leading to a subtle sense of competition between players — especially if they used the Konami Code.
Special codes used to access functions in these early games on the NES was something of a backdoor that developers left in to make testing easier. In Contra’s case, the Konami Code popped up first in the Gradius port for the NES thanks to Kazuhisa Hashimoto who was porting it. Because he found the game difficult, he put the code in for himself to give himself all of the power-ups. It stayed in the game when it went to production and was eventually discovered by players.
Some would make it into the final product, but not all of them would become as famous as the Konami Code. The code was input using the d-pad like this at the title screen: up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, then hit the start button. In Contra’s case, that started the player off with 30 lives. If two players were playing, you finished the sequence off after A by hitting “select” and then “start”. But there was also an interesting side effect — if one player ran out of extra lives and hit start to begin again, they would pull from their partner’s pool of lives instead. That led to some interesting co-op moments.
Contra was also a tough game. In the arcade, players continued right from where they died as long as they had enough tokens or quarters to keep feeding the machine. The home version was the same way, sending you back into the fight right away as opposed to a checkpoint. But the arcade version limited how many times you could actually continue whenever you ran out of lives. After continuing so many times, it was simply “The End”. Same with the home version — you could only continue so many times before you were done.
One thing that the ports over the arcade version was an allowance for more presentation. Contra’s NES manual had a full blown, text heavy intro describing how a mysterious object crashed from space into the Amazon in 1957 with mysterious rumors of an “evil” force emerging from there since then. Instead of bathing the area in napalm upsetting “current political stability”, two super soldiers are sent in — Lance and Bill. It’s up to them to stop Red Falcon, the galactic bad guy who arrived all those years ago, from using the Earth as a stepping stone towards even worse things.
Konami hit a home run with Contra and it spawned a series of follow ups over the next several years such as the acclaimed Contra III: The Alien Wars on the SNES. Not all entries were created equal, however, and after Alien Wars, hit titles in the series were few and far between as they struggled to reach the bar set by its earliest entries. It wasn’t until 2007’s Contra 4 on the Nintendo DS that some felt the series had turned a corner with an entry heavily reminiscent of the series’ past glory with following titles, Contra ReBirth in 2009 and Hard Corps: Uprising in 2011 continuing the trend. Hard Corps, in particular, was intended to start a new franchise but it has been years since then with only Contra Evolution (a remake of the first game) appearing on mobiles in 2010 and actually making it into Chinese arcades in 2011. Given Konami’s current attitude in regards to big game releases for consoles, the chances of another Contra title for consoles aren’t looking good.
Contra remains as hard as ever. The years haven’t dulled its brutal tests or the edge of its soundtrack in following your moves across its panorama of side-scrolling and 3D hallway wrecking chaos. Today, it an be found in a variety of offerings from collections such as the Konami Classics Series: Arcade Hits on the DS to the MSX2 version appearing on the Japan’s Virtual Console for the Wii and the Wii U. An iconic game reminding us of when a prolific Konami continued its ascent to greatness in those heady NES days, Contra continues to hold that benchmark high generations later.