Here’s my ten awesome things about Konami’s popular run-and-gun series, Contra, which turned twenty-five years old this 2012.
When film historians look back at the 1980s, they’re sure to notice a bold trend of testosterone-fueled action movies staring extremely buff dudes carrying large guns that shot more bullets than spoke actual lines of dialog. And when video game historians do the same, they too might notice a similar infestation among the 8-bit crowd.
During a brief time when the brutish antics of Arnold, Sly Stallone, and their equally muscle-bound imitators were popular at the box office, the video game scene tried following this similar blue-print as well. There were many attempts at this (both good and bad), but I’d say only one truly defined its genre like the series we’re here to salute. The Contra series.
Arriving in arcades back in 1987, and then gaining nationwide appeal when Konami released the NES version, Contra introduced a generation of gamers to great, run-and-gun eight-way arcade shooting, a cunning variety of gun power-ups, and the thrill of surviving an unrelenting onslaught of bullets.
This February – sadly, to little fanfare, and not even so much a Hallmark card – marked the twenty-fifth birthday of Super Soldiers Bill Rizer and Lance Bean’s first guns-a-blazing mission, and as a fine birthday gift to the series, I thought I would pull together the ten most awesome things about the Contra series. Let’s lock and load, shall we?
1. The Origins of Multiplayer
What’s the first thing you remember about Contra? I bet for a lot of us, it’s partnering up with a pal, Lethal Weapon-style, to take down the alien forces of the Red Falcon Organization, thanks to the game’s two-player simultaneous game play. It’s a feature during that time – late 1980s – was genius and never before seen (though Double Dragon would later 1-Up it by adding co-operative play), and something today we wish a lot modern games could include.
2. Immaculate Weapon and Savior of the Horribad Gamer, the Spread Gun
Ah, the mighty spread gun. So sought after by players for its proficient enemy eradicating abilities, but once obtained, impossible to hang on to due to Contras’ super strict “switch back to the default Normal Gun after a death” rule (oh, how I hate that rule). I’m not quite sure if the original Contra was the first to use such a bullet-scattering weapon – but then again – when most people think of the Spread Gun, the game they typically associate it with is always Contra, so there’s that.
3. The Konami Code
Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A.
This above arrangement of NES button taps should be second nature to most gamers growing up in the 8-bit age, and likely used more times in connection with the Contra series than any other. Because, honestly, without the Konami Code, no one, except those who have the grace of a god, would stand a chance against Contra’s hellish difficulty. If hell was an actual realm to which all of humanities’ worst fears and evils reside, Contra would be it.
Interestingly enough, Contra wasn’t the first Konami game to use the famous cheat code; that distinction goes to the 2D arcade shooter, Gradius. Although just like the Spread Gun, it too, has become forever Grandfather-linked to this series.
4. Bill & Lance’s Excellent Adventures
Bill Rizer and Lance Bean are intended to be 8-bit copies of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone (that gif up there proves it). And if you’ve studied your film history well, boys and girls, this surely means their portrayals from the movies Commando (1985) and First Blood (1982). Which is infinity times cool, because who else would you want to save the world from an army of aliens? Colonel John Matrix and John Rambo, that’s who. Psssh, The Expendables. I want this unbeatable tag-team instead, Hollywood!
Oh sure, Schwarzenegger and Stallone both shared screen-time in that 2010 all-star action romp (which destroyed Scott Pilgrim vs. the World at the box-office, by the way), but Arnold’s appearance was only brief and nowhere as spectacular as his secret cameo in Contra. Huh-wha? You didn’t know about that? Oh, then here’s video proof…
*Yes, of course it’s fake.
6. Holy Alternate Dimensions, Batman! The Tale of Probotector
You know that scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson are discussing the differences between what they call certain McDonalds’ food items in France? The famous “Royal with Cheese” scene as it’s popularly known. Well, think of that for the way Contra was handled in the PAL Territory when it was first released, where Konami changed the name to Probotector, switched out Bill and Lance with two robots, named RD008 and RC011, along with most human enemies in the game.
A censorship policy in Germany, which banned the graphical depiction of human beings killing each other in video games, was behind these changes, and later Contra titles over in Europe, all carrying the Probotector name, became this sort of side-split for the series. Not gonna lie though, I think I might prefer this skewed version of the Contra series better. For reals. Sweet-looking robots shooting at other sweet-looking robots? I’m so there, I don’t even need to pack any bags!
7. Aliens, everywhere!
What’s up with all these aliens trying to take over the earth using a small island located in Pacific? Possibly, it’s another tie to a different pop-culture phenomenon from the 1980s, the Alien’s franchise. If not the original 1979 film directed by Ridley Scott or its sequel shot by James Cameron, these movies too had huge impact on media thereafter; every baddie you come across in Contra could be a stunt double in any Alien flick.
And hey, if you’re going to steal movie tropes, you might as well steal them from the best is what I say.
8. Brad Fang from Contra: Hard Corps
A genetically and cybernetically altered wolf-like humanoid with cannon for an arm; if that don’t make the recipe for the best character thought up by mankind, I don’t even. Don’t bother guys, the game is over, and the Jell-O’s cooling in the fridge.
9. Sweet Sounds of Guns & Explosions: The Music of Contra
That was just a track from Contra 4, but I totally recommend listing to the soundtracks to the following honorable mentions: Contra, Contra III: The Alien Wars, Contra: Hard Corps, Hard Corps: Uprising.
10. THANK YOU, ALL CONTRA STAFF
I’ll be negligent (and scolded by my gaming peers) if I didn’t mention the people who worked tirelessly on the Contra series, and there have been a lot, including some important faces that went on to contribute significant projects within the video game industry.
Shigeharu Umezaki oversaw the direction of the Contra series on the NES and left much later to start up his own company, Good-Feel, which why-hello developed both Wario Land: Shake It! (a great forgotten gem) and Kirby’s Epic Yarn for the Nintendo Wii. From Contra III: The Alien Wars, there’s Nobuya Nakazato, a long time Konami employee, who also helped in the creation of Rocket Knight Adventures and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
On the Contra: Hard Corps staff list there’s the surprise find of artist Yasuomi Umetsu as the game’s Japanese package artwork, or a.k.a. the guy who was the character designer and animation director for the cult Anime OVA, 1986’s Megazone 23 Part II – watch it, I dare you. Heck even “we’re not worthy” composers Michiru Yamane (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night) and Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill) both spent their time creating music for one Contra title or another.
I hope you liked my review of twenty-five years of bare-chested, guns-firing, alien destroying fun that the Contra series has given us a plenty. Please, oh wonderful Konami overlords, grant us the wish of a new Contra game every year. Hard Corps: Uprising was a great start, 2D graphics and that classic bread-and-butter game play, but there must be more!