“They’ve done it again!” my friend exclaimed to me as we finished our first play session of Contra. I couldn’t agree more. Indeed, Konami is the developer to beat on the NES with hits like Castlevania, Gradius, The Goonies II, and Double Dribble to name a few. Their latest game, Contra, is a true masterpiece of perfection on the NES – one that we think is already a strong contender for 1988 game of the year. It really is that good! Its two-player co-op is the best we’ve seen on the system to date, and reason enough to add this Game Pak to your collection.
You play as two elite commandos: Lance – Codename Scorpion and Bill – Codename Mad Dog. They are on a mission to save the world from the evil forces of Red Falcon, one of the cruelest beings in the galaxy. He and his fiendish alien soldiers are threatening to take over the world and it’s up to you (and a friend!) to put a stop to his evil plans before it’s too late.
Luckily you’re armed to the teeth with cutting edge weapons. You begin the game with a standard gun, but soon you’ll see special power-up flying capsules floating through in the sky that if shot down will reveal a new exotic weapon. These range in power and effectiveness, but all of them are better than the standard issue. The Machine Gun will allow you to constantly spray bullets at your opponents simply by holding down the B button. The Laser packs a bigger punch, but fires slower than the other guns. The Fire Ball can fry your enemies to a crisp and the Rapid Fire speeds up your standard gun’s rate of fire. By far the most impressive gun of the bunch is the Spread – which allows you to fire multiple bullets that spread out in front of your to take out multiple foes simultaneously. You’ll want to seek out this gun at all costs if you hope to survive!
Never before in a NES action game has there been such precise gameplay controls. The way you move about the stage is buttery smooth, with each summersault jump feeling natural, making the platforming sections of the game almost second nature. Indeed your commando can laydown to avoid enemy fire, jump and fire his guns in all eight directions. You have unprecedented control over where your man lands and you can change directions in an instant to avoid incoming enemy fire. Some levels feature upper and lower platforms to traverse, and you can easily drop down from the upper to the lower by holding down and pressing the A button. This type of maneuverability throughout the game is something we haven’t seen on a home console and everything feels so smooth and fast. The action never lets up and each stage is more intense than the last.
Not content in just creating standard sidescrolling levels, Konami has included a couple of bases to infiltrate. These areas take place in a 3D realm that changes up the action in a wholly original way. Your view is behind the heroes and you can shoot into the screen at the enemies down the corridor. You’ll have to still jump and dodge incoming fire and other obstacles. Many times lying on the floor is essential to avoiding some of the chaos. Each new room requires you to take out specific targets to proceed. You’ll have to stay on your toes if you hope to survive – there are electric barriers that will instantly kill you if you fail to jump over them. As with every other stage, you’ll have to deal with a big bad boss at the end. Good luck!
Part of Contra’s appeal is the sheer amount of variety included in every single level. The first one takes place in the jungle and is a standard sidescrolling affair. The next level is one of the aforementioned bases, with a completely unique viewpoint and new challenges. If you make it through alive you’ll have to climb the cliffs surrounding a waterfall. This level moves upward instead of sideways, and is quite exhilarating to experience. We won’t spoil the rest of the game’s stages (there are eight in total), but suffice to say you’ll find some awesome environments and a slew of new deadly traps.
It’s obvious that Konami really put in the effort and work in the graphics department. This is one of the best-looking NES games to date and we’re extremely impressed that the game runs as smoothly as it does. Unlike the majority of games from other third parties (we’re looking at you Capcom), Contra doesn’t suffer from an obscene amount of flickering or slowdown. Granted, there are hiccups throughout, especially when playing the two-player mode, but the graphical problems that plague so many other titles are minimized here. We’re not sure what sort of technical trickery Konami has come up with, but it’s obvious their games are a cut above the rest. The game features detailed backgrounds, fantastic animation, and a wide spectrum of colors throughout. The last level is especially impressive!
After last year’s amazing Castlevania soundtrack we were hoping Konami would bring their A-game with Contra, and boy have they ever! There are some really rocking tunes in this title and you’ll be humming some of them long after you’ve turned off your NES. The audio fits the action on-screen perfectly and it’s not just the background music that’s impressive – the sound effects are fantastic as well. Every fire of the gun is satisfying and the high-pitched sound of damaging targets is strangely satisfying. The game doesn’t have the variety and breadth of some of Konami’s other games, since some of the levels do reuse some of the same music. That being said, what is here is sublime and serves to heighten the intense action from beginning to end.
If there’s one concern we have with the game it’s that it could be a tad too challenging for some gamers out there. Luckily there are ways to make the game more approachable. These include playing with a friend – you have double the lives to make it through the game. You can also use a NES Advantage joystick for even more precise control and the addition of turbo fire helps with many of the gun types (turn it off if you acquire the Laser). Despite the high difficulty, we anticipate some really loving the challenge presented here and the game isn’t impossible to conquer once you’ve memorized the stages. Later areas have some really awful enemy placements that will take you out with a single shot every single time if you don’t know precisely when to duck. These cheap deaths are unfortunate, but avoidable with enough practice. Don’t let the difficulty keep you from enjoying one of the best games ever created. You won’t find a better two-player experience on the NES. This one’s simply a must-have!