Remembering the Greatness of Contra
Posted by Kris Randazzo on Aug 8th 2018
While procrastinating at work (I do that a lot), I came across a Facebook post from the folks at ARGcast asking about people's’ favorite Contra games and memories, and it really got me thinking, I REALLY used to love Contra.
At first, I just thought about the regular stuff from Contra III: The Alien Wars, which is more or less my go-to when people bring up Contra. It’s my favorite in the series and the one I’ve probably played most recently (Thanks SNES Classic Edition!). But then I put just a little bit more thought into it and this flood of great Contra memories hit me like a ton of weird red emblems with letters on them that give you new weapons for some reason. So here are five of my favorite Contra memories.
Homing shots on the go
The first thing that popped into my head was the rarely-talked-about Operation C for Game Boy. Back in the GB days, it wasn’t uncommon for popular console games to get ported to the handheld so you could play your favorites on the go, but just as often companies opted to instead just make a new, original game. Mega Man in Dr. Wily’s Revenge, Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters, The Castlevania Adventure, Metroid II: Return of Samus, Wizards & Warriors X, Super Mario Land; some may not have managed to reach the heights of their full-color cousins, but most were at the very least interesting, if not exceptional in their own rights. Operation C took a lot of inspirations from Super C and added some great visual effects (for the time) and some pretty innovative changes to the existing Contra formula. The one that stuck with me the most was the homing shot, which eventually evolved into my favorite Contra weapon ever in Contra III: The Alien Wars. Having a homing shot in a Contra game, even one as slow-moving as this one, really changed things up. You still had to aim to a certain degree, but being able to spend more of my mental energy on dodging enemy attacks made the whole experience just that much more enjoyable for me. There was also the stackable Spread shot and the great GB remakes of some of the most iconic Contra songs, but that homing shot was the bee’s knees, and the thing I remember most when I think of Operation C.
Dual screen grappling
Speaking of portable Contra games that don’t get enough respect, Contra 4 for Nintendo DS was nuts. I was so into the original Contra games back in the day I actually considered buying a Sega Genesis just so I could play Contra: Hard Corps (and a handful of other games) which for me at the time was a pretty big deal. But following its release in 1994 all the way up to 2007, the Contra franchise repeatedly failed to connect with me again. The series didn’t manage the transition to modern hardware in a way that resonated with me, and while I still paid close attention whenever the Contra name was applied to a new game, I felt pretty confident that the days of traditional Contra were behind me. Then WayForward made Contra 4 on Nintendo DS and it was like I never left. It looked and played like the sequel to Contra 3 I always wanted. I followed WayForward and the game’s composer Jake Kaufman pretty closely after that and its lead me to some really great games, but back to the point, Contra 4 is amazing. I was working at Game Crazy at the time and we all bought the thing so we could play together. Beating the various difficulty modes was a blast, the weapon stacking system wa super-cool, and the grappling hook, wow. I loved it when developers found cool ways to integrate the unique features of the DS into their games in subtle ways, and the grappling hook/extremely vertical level design was so well implemented it’s shocking that few side scrollers had done it before or since. The Sonic Rush games are the only other ones I can think of that did a great job of using both screens simultaneously to create a larger playfield, and as much as I love those games (they’re still some of my favorite Sonic games) Contra 4 did it best.
What the heck is this?
Working at FuncoLand was one of the most memorable times in my life. One of the best things about it was always those little newspaper price lists. Not only was it fun to see what prices changed month to month, but it was also fun to comb through the listings to find games I didn’t know about. It was on these sheets that I first discovered a game called Contra Force. I was sure I knew every Contra game there was, but lo and behold, here was a listing for a 3rd Contra game on NES that I had never heard of before. Not only that, but it was pretty darn expensive by NES game standards, even back then. Month after month I watched this game’s value go up little by little, calling other stores in my district to see if anyone had gotten one, but to no avail. One day though, that all changed. A copy of Contra Force showed up in my store, on my shift, and I had a really hard time hiding my excitement. As soon as the customer left, I grabbed the cart and put it on hold for myself to buy at the end of my shift. I was so excited. It was the cart and the manual, and the cover art looked unbelievably cool. The cart looked like a traditional Konami cart except instead of silver on the label, the background was all black. Sure, that meant it wouldn’t match my other 2 Contra games on my shelf at home, but I didn’t care. I finally had the missing Contra game all to myself.
It was a busy day so I didn’t have a chance to pop it in one of our interactives to give it a try, meaning I was going to have to wait till I got home to give it a go. When I did, I believe the first words that came out of my mouth were “What the heck is this?” Contra Force isn’t a very attractive game, nor does it look or play like a traditional Contra experience. At least, I don’t think it does. I stopped playing it pretty quickly. The opening cinematics were pretty rad, and the music was 100% Konami through and through, but that’s more or less where the similarities end. This game doesn’t feel like a Contra game. I’ve never gone back to it, but I keep thinking that I should. At the end of the day, Snake’s Revenge isn’t a great Metal Gear sequel, but it is still a pretty cool game once you get into it, right? Perhaps Contra Force is a similar. Either way, finally getting my hands on that game was a heck of a thrill.
I mentioned earlier how impressed with Contra: Hard Corps I was, and really, I don’t think I can appropriately express what a Nintendo-specific jackass I was back then. I was so fiercely loyal to Nintendo that I would never, ever admit out loud just how cool I thought some Sega Genesis games were. Being a humongous Blaster Master fan, Blaster Master 2 being on Genesis instead of SNES hurt. Sonic the Hedgehog may not hold a candle to Super Mario World, but there was no denying how great those original Genesis games were. Altered Beast at home? That X-Men game? Comix Zone? There were definitely cool things on my console rival, but it wasn’t until Konami started pumping out Genesis games that my Sega jealousy reached its fever pitch. Rocket Knight Adventures stands to this day as one of the absolute best Genesis titles. Castlevania Bloodlines fascinated me with its take on Castlevania mythology and amazing visual effects & music. But when I first saw Contra: Hard Corps in action my jaw hit the floor. To this day I still think the SNES is the better system. Graphics and sound to my eyes and ears are better in almost every instance. But when I saw that highway scene with the giant robot chasing you around in Hard Corps I was amazed. I had no idea the Genesis was capable of that level of awesome. Unfortunately, I never managed to pick up my own copy of the game back then, so I’ve only played very little of it at friends houses. If only I knew of a website that sold EverDrives for the Genesis. Oh wait…
Now I’m playing with super power
For as awesome/interesting as all these other Contra experiences were, there’s a reason I always default to Contra III: The Alien Wars. The game is positively stunning in nearly every regard. That 8-bit to 16-bit evolution is still one of the coolest things I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Going from Metroid II: Return of Samus to Super Metroid, or Mega Man 6 to Mega Man X, we just don’t see evolution like that anymore. The leap from Super C/Operation C to Contra III was seriously amazing. Super Castlevania IV is lauded as a technical showpiece from Konami, but for my money Contra III is way more impressive. That giant swinging chandelier is great, but the jet that drops the missiles in the first level is way more impressive to my eyes. But if there’s one thing in Contra III that sticks with me, it’s the giant robot skeleton boss. You get to a room and fight these two cool-looking Terminator guys and that could have been it. But no, these two claws rip through the wall and the biggest, most badass boss you’ve ever seen comes busting through the wall, breathing fire and shooting eye lasers in every direction. This was a decent amount of time before the legendary Kraid battle in Super Metroid, so bosses of this magnitude were really something else when they were pulled off well, and Contra III pulled this whole scene off WELL. The folks at Konami would do this battle perhaps a little better a few years later in Rocket Knight Adventures, but at the time, this was one of the very coolest things I had ever seen.
Having spent this much time reminiscing about my time with the Contra series, it’s become apparent to me that there needs to be a complete Contra anthology. Like the Mega Man Legacy Collections, expect with the Contra games. Think about it. Volume 1 would be Contra (arcade), Contra (NES), Super Contra (arcade), Super C (NES), Operation C (GB), Contra III: The Alien Wars (SNES), Contra Force (NES), and Contra: Hard Corps (GEN). Konami would run into a similar problem Capcom did with their X Legacy Collections, with volume 2 being a much harder sell than volume 1, but it would be worth it. Contra; Legacy of War (PSX), C: The Contra Adventure (PSX), Contra: Shattered Soldier (PS2), Neo Contra (PS2), Contra 4 (DS), and Contra ReBirth (WiiWare). They could even toss in Hard Corps: Uprising and the GBA Contra: The Alien Wars EX as bonus content. I’d buy it, and I’m sure I wouldn’t be alone. And of course, that could potentially lead to a Mega Man 11-style Contra sequel. A proper Contra V? Tell me you wouldn’t buy that. I know I would, no matter how little I think of Konami these days.
Contra used to be one of the biggest names in gaming. I would love to see it return to glory, and running and gunning through its history would be a great start in getting there. Not to mention giving new gamers a chance to experience the classics the way we did first.