System: Nintendo Entertainment System
Review written May, 2001
Finally getting Contra was a bittersweet experience for me.
One of my first NES memories involved Contra. A childhood friend of mine had an NES, but I only played it once because we spent most of our time playing outside. I only recall playing four games on that occasion: Kung Fu, Super Mario Bros., Baseball and Contra. I owned no videogame systems at the time, so naturally I was not very used to those games. Previously, I had heard some good things about the Atari 7800 (seriously). However, despite that I only saw the first few moments of each game (my friend, after playing to perhaps stage 3 on Contra, turned off the NES and insisted we go outside), they made a big impression. I knew I wanted an NES.
A little bit later I went to the house of another person I knew, who also had Contra. Again, I didn't get to play much of it. The friend put in the 30-man code, played it to the end, and turned it off. I don't remember what we did after that.
I had a little book, probably well known to NES aficionados, called How to Win at Nintendo. It had entries for many NES classics, Contra among them. In the closing comments for Contra, it said that no other game required such "blink-and-you're-dogmeat concentration". I had a good friend with whom I talked at length about videogames. He finished numerous NES games in rental periods. He rented Contra, finished it, and scoffed at the line from How to Win at Nintendo. Still, I was curious.
I went for years without playing Contra, until I played a few hours of it at my girlfriend's house. I decided it was time, at last, to get Contra.
And so I did. I had heard a few mixed messages about the game: some, as my friend, said it was easy, others said it was literally impossible without the 30-man code. Never one to shrink from a challenge, I decided I would make an effort to beat it legitimately. I was prepared to try, die, try, die, and try again and again until I beat the game.
The night after the game arrived in the mail, I beat the game. No codes, and with one credit, no less. Suffice it to say, the game is beatable without the code.
Let me imagine that you have no idea what Contra is like and need a description. You, or you and a friend together, take the role of a commando sent to a tropical jungle to eradicate an alien threat. For most of the game, you run to the right across platforms, shooting bullets across the screen to destroy any enemies in your way. In two base stages, the view changes to behind your commando's back. The stages look 3D, but you are still constrained to move left and right (until you blow out the room's back wall... but as you move forward, you will not be attacked).
With the basic description out of the way, it's time to dig deeper into the game. For that purpose, it's best to examine why at first it seems so hard to so many people, but in fact it really isn't.
In Contra, one hit will kill you (unlike in some platform games - consider Castlevania, where you can safely absorb at least 3 hits). Plus, as you shoot at enemies, they shoot at you, so an enemy across the screen can kill you quite quickly if it shoots and you don't avoid the bullets. With only 3 lives, I can imagine many people won't get out of the first stage on their first try. Also, there are limited continues, so however far you get, if don't actually beat the game, you'll be sent back the beginning, erasing all your progress.
Perhaps what most crucially makes this game seem difficult to some is the 30-man code. As the Game Genie made some people soft, I would have to think the code ruined many people for this game. If someone starts 10 games of Contra and doesn't beat it any time, perhaps the temptation of the 30-man code being there will dissuade players from putting in 10 more legitimate tries... one of which might lead to success. You might think playing with the 30-man code could be a form of practice for the game - and it can be - but it's also easy to play sloppily when there's no incentive not to.
However, there are numerous reasons why Contra isn't really all that hard. First of all, most bullets are not that hard to avoid. They don't move particularly fast, so you can jump over them, or duck under them, as the case may be, or often even just run away from them (the last works best when the bullets are moving diagonally). Your character controls exceptionally well, so it's very easy to guide him over a few bullets. Further, although some who aren't used to it may become overwhelmed, the game never becomes truly intense with enemy bullets flying all over the place - the game is no Mars Matrix. Usually, 5 or 6 enemies bullets are the most you'll need to deal with at a time, and even then they're usually clumped so you can easily duck or jump over all of them at once. Most of the challenge comes from the stages themselves, such as flames that will come out of pipes, or spikes that crush from above - not enemy bullets. The flip side is that a few random deaths might come from stray bullets if you know the stages but aren't paying close enough attention. At least one hit kills keep you on your toes.
Another factor in your favor is the overwhelmingly unbalanced Spread Shot. Your gun normally fires one bullet at a time, but you can get several upgrades in the game. The most powerful by far, however, is the spread shot. As you run right, the spread shot can basically take out almost all enemies in front of you, even when they're somewhat higher or lower than you are. Also, gun turrets can only fire at certain angles. With the spread shot, you can stand in a position that the turret absolutely cannot hit you in, while you can still damage it. Also, each bullet the spread shot fires is roughly as powerful as a single shot from your normal gun. At close range, then, you're about 5 times as powerful with the spread shot. This can help kill some bosses pretty quickly. It also aids in defense. The stage 2 and 4 bosses are far above you, and fire down projectiles. With your normal gun, you would have to move around a bit to hit the projectiles or dodge them. Aiming straight up with the spread gun, however, will usually take out all the projectiles. It's true that if you die, you'll lose your spread shot. However, it's so powerful that if you can keep it, your chances of dying are significantly less! Even if you do lose it, any area of the game can be beaten with the normal gun.
Also, much of the game is patterned. Enemies run on to the screen somewhat at random, but stage features are always in the same place, as are turrets and other obstacles. Sure, when you make it to stage 7 for the first time you may find yourself running through the stage only to have a huge spiked wall come up in front of you, and you run right into it and die. But those spikes are in the same place every time, and if you die enough there I would hope their location would sink into your brain so you wouldn't die there anymore! Their locations are rather predictable, anyway. They are usually placed in straight sections where people who don't know they're there would be most tempted to run.
Because you reappear right when you die, you don't really need to know how to get past every single obstacle in the game - you could sacrifice a live and fudge a few areas (especially since you will likely get at least 1 extra life for your points per stage). I imagine this might catch up to you, especially if you do that too often in the early stages. Once I noticed I died a couple of times on a certain spot in stage 3, and, rather than use my next life to skip it, I decided I would keep trying that one part until I got it right (I think I purposefully killed myself and then continued, to try stage 3 again). I think it only took a couple of tries to figure that section out, and it was worth it.
I notice some people complain about the hit detection in the base levels. They probably are too concerned with the "depth" of the bullets, which really doesn't matter. Just pretend the enemies are above you, firing down at you. If the bullets overlap your sprite, unless you're ducking, it counts as a hit (I previously would have thought that would be intuitive, but perhaps it's not).
Also, the final stage is arguably the easiest in the game. If you make it that far, you likely won't experience the frustration of being sent back to the very beginning of the game. Of course, you should try to beat the game without the 30-man code, but you could use it to see what lies ahead so you're prepared when you make it to certain areas fairly.
I think people who complain that this game cannot be beaten on your first try, or that it's too hard, aren't thinking very clearly. Let's journey back in time to 1988, when Contra would have cost you $40. Bargain movie tickets would have cost $1, and would have guaranteed at least 90 minutes of entertainment. A $10 music tape would have lasted 40 minutes at the absolute least. Contra, an 8-stage game, would have lasted all of a half hour if you could beat it on your first try. The game, like virtually all NES games of the era that were at least decent, was designed to require repeated play so the $40 price would give some value.
In fact, that's my biggest complaint. The graphics are fine, so is the music, the control is accurate and intuitive. The game was original enough to almost invent its own platforming sub-genre. There were shooting platform games before Contra, like Mega Man, but playing Contra is really not like playing Mega Man. On the other hand, the first thought to go through my head while playing Gunstar Heroes or Metal Slug is, "Contra Clone!" But there just isn't enough to do with the game. After beating it, I played it and beat it again, and then some more. It's true that playing the game after I've beaten it is somewhat fun (with the exception of the base stages... spending most of your time ducking to wait for an open shot is not fun. Also, the tanks in stage 5 are irritating... Pounding on a button is not fun, either, and it's a lousy excuse for gameplay, anyway), and the game can be played to relieve stress, which is one reason I go back to games I've beaten. But after actively looking for more depth to the game, I can see the replay value just isn't there - I really had done almost everything there is to do with the game the first time I finished it. Once you've memorized a few patterns, the game is all over. There's not even a second quest (the second loop is just a repeat of the first). That I waited so long to get this game only magnified my disappointment when it was over so quickly. I could try to come up with different challenges for myself when I play the game, but I think my time would be better spent on games that have more depth to begin with.
Contra is a two-player game, and that can add more to the experience. However, the game is really better as a single player game. When two players play, enemies sort of "pop up" at the boundary of the screen, rather than moving on smoothly as in the one player game, throwing off your timing.
I won't recommend anyone to buy any games. I would imagine that anyone with any interest in reading a Contra review already has the game or has considered buying it, anyway. I will make a different recommendation, here, however: If you already own Contra, but have dismissed it as "impossible" to finish, I recommend taking it back out again and devoting at least a week to try to beat it legitimately. You know you would be willing to sink a week into an RPG; why not an action game? I think before that week is up, you may find Contra's not so hard after all, that you'll have become a better gamer, that you'll have more appreciation for an NES classic, and that you'll be ready to move on to better games.
Note: Though I encourage you to not use it, the Konami code is Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A.