(Review archived from July 29, 2015)
After finishing Sonic, I started up Contra on a whim, as I hadn’t played it for a while. I had forgotten how short this game is (even by the standards of its time)! Any time spent with Contra is time well spent though.
One of the things I love about this game is just how tight it feels. The controls are precise and responsive in the best possible way. And that’s good because this is a game that requires, nay demands, precision from the player. To an extent, this sort of precision further requires pattern and placement memorization of the part of the player, but to this extent it never feels tedious or grinding. Perhaps that is due in part to its short duration, but I would say that to an even greater extent it’s because it rewards the requisite precision and memorization with spectacle and wonder. Especially at the time of its release this was a game of spectacle. The bosses are larger than life and tough as nails. The levels are constantly changing not only in their scenery but in their rudimentary compositional mechanics. You have horizontal side-scrolling one minute, followed by rudimentary pseudo-3D, followed by vertical scrolling. From a gameplay perspective this constant shake-up keeps you on your toes, as you never quite settle into a groove before the game turns the tables again. It keeps the player slightly off balance, but continually eager to see what it will throw at you next. Contra is a game that inherently understands its tonal makeup and absolutely knocks it out of the park without fail. It represents so much of what was awesome about the outrageous 80’s and reflects it across the span of time through an 8-bit lens.
I really need to make special mention of the music and sound effects here as they’re quite remarkable. The sound of the gunfire combined with the intensity of the soundtrack propels this game forward with an unstoppable drive. It’s the type of game that feels like you’re doing it wrong if you try to take it slow, or take your finger off the trigger. Even the dying sound is badass, although I suppose that’s a good thing as it’s something you’ll likely be hearing often.
Although this game isn’t the progenitor of the Konami code, I think it’s the game that popularized and imprinted its muscle memory as an unforgettable sequence for many of us in the U.S. This was some of the first “arcane video game lore” that I was ever aware of, passed down from Nintendo Power and onwards from kid to kid in the form of secret oral history.
All told this is a game that’s exceedingly satisfying when you find your groove as a one-man army, and equally punishing should you slip out of that groove for a moment. If you’ve not played this game, you really owe it to yourself to check it out. It truly is one of the very best action oriented titles on the NES.