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Contra – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Based upon the famous 1987 arcade port developed by Konami, the release of Contra for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) established the series as a formidable side-scrolling shooter for its time. Contra, in many ways, revolutionized the action shooter, a genre of gaming that had previously dominated the NES only through the inclusion of slow paced shooters that did not exactly capture the genuine essence of the word “action”, to say the least. The term “action shooter”, when applied to video gaming, elicits the necessity to move from one place to another rather quickly, defeating enemies, overcoming obstacles, and avoiding death along the way. Contra was one of the first games to provide that sense of fast-paced gameplay necessary through an accessible albeit extremely difficult fashion.

With a basic storyline chronicling the adventure of two commandos, Bill “Mad Dog” Riser, and Lance “Scorpion” Bean, as they attempt to prevent the criminal terrorist organization Red Falcon from, as you can probably guess by now, from completely taking over the world. Why are these two commandos essentially being sent on a suicide mission that requires them to fight hundreds of enemies on their own? There really is not a clear indication as to why, but who really cares? This is Contra after all, where shooting first and asking questions later…well, perhaps just purely shooting is the main concept here. Contra at its roots is a side-scrolling action shooter, but it nicely combines elements of platforming as well. You control one of the two characters as the screen advances towards the direction in which the characters moves. As you move along in the game, levels alternate between the classic side-scrolling perspective to that of of a third-person viewpoint. This choice by designers Shigeharu Umezaki and Shinji Kitamoto to include this element of game design is yet another atypical approach towards addressing the side-scrolling genre as a whole, in turn offering diversity to a genre that had often been allocated to the simple gameplay mechanics of the period.

The game is undoubtedly about pure shooting, a facet of its gameplay style that is expressed all so effectively. The control system is quite simple considering how much carnage you experience when playing, with the B button assigned to shooting and the A button assigned to jumping, and with the addition of crouching and being able to shoot in 8-directions, that was it in terms of controlling the actions of your character on screen. The controls are extremely responsive, and is perhaps the most important contributing factor in making the game enjoyable to play despite its crushing difficulty. To alleviate some of this challenge, players are given infinite ammo, but such ammo stock is necessary considering just how many enemies you will fight throughout the course of the game. Players are also initially given only three lives as well – unless one uses the famous “Konami code” which offers them 30 lives – with the latter code perhaps the only feasible solution for most players being able to complete the game. The game also features the option to have two players appear on screen simultaneously, which is one of the first games to actually implement such a gameplay dynamic. But one of the potential downsides to playing two-players is that whomever you are playing with will have to keep up with you, or vice versa, as the screen advances forward if one of the two players decide to continue onward, with the player lagging behind placing both players in some rather precarious situations quite fast.

But while the learning curve of the game is quite easy, Contra simply comes down to how well you can react as a player to the incoming projectiles, enemy counter attacks, and absolutely ruthless boss battles. The skill needed to complete the game is considerable, all of which adds to its appeal as a punishing experience that is worth playing through. You essentially encounter hundreds of enemies throughout the course of the game, and one has to think quickly on their feet in order to survive the exhausting onslaught. Enemies are often placed in hard to reach locations, which can be a nuisance at times as well as some levels unfairly filling the screen with dozens of seemingly unavoidable projectiles. It is a game where at any moment you could die due to the game’s one-hit death gameplay mechanic, so being quick to respond and adapt to situations is absolutely necessary to survive amidst the massive enemy waves being hurled at you at a relentless rate.

While the initial stage of the game may seem tolerable enough, as one proceeds through the later stages, the amount of frantic on screen action is intense, satisfying, and extraordinarily grueling throughout playing it. This is one aspect of Contra that may seriously dissuade some players from actually finishing the game, but it also adds to the excitement of beating that level you had trouble with or finally defeating that difficult boss – and this is what makes Contra such a highly amusing gaming experience. One knows just how demanding this game can be, but the need to complete that last challenging stage that whooped your butt is an exhilarating experience to say the least. You slowly begin to want to exact revenge for all the wrongdoings the game has committed against you for killing you in a variety of rather unfashionable, and yes, at times extremely irritable ways. And while it may be immensely taxing at times, the pure unadulterated gameplay that Contra provides not only produces a memorable experience, but also one that paved the way for future action shooting titles for years to come.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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