I don’t know anybody who had a Nintendo Entertainment System who didn’t own the game Contra. In fact, Contra must wear the crown for the most common game to be so damn expensive nowadays. Even though every single NES owner had it, the game still commands upwards of $35 on eBay…and that’s just for the cartridge!
Because Contra is just so damn perfect. We all know it, we all love it, but let’s take a closer look as to why it’s so good. And we’ll start with the biggest reason.
1. Deadly. Accurate. Control.
A great game will draw you in, but Konami’s Contra grabs you off of your couch and throws you right in the damn jungle. It does this with a spot-on control scheme that translates your every touch on the controller into accurate on-screen movement.
You can shoot in all 8 directions, and you can even do it while you’re running at the same time. When you’re firing, the pulsation of the gun is subtle, but realistic, and makes you feel like it’s in your own hands.
When you jump, you can wiggle back and forth however much you want. Is it real-world physics? Of course not! But, that ability to move back and forth during a single jump allows you to avoid bullets flying at you from all directions and when you do it’s just so satisfying. The feeling of sprinting through a stage and avoiding everything that’s flying at you is exhilarating!
You can dive on the ground as a sort of ducking maneuver. When you do, though, you can’t move. Have you ever ducked to take aim at one enemy while another is running at you from behind? Maybe a few bullets are headed towards you from above. That inability to move while ducking leads to some on-the-fly calculus as you scramble to decide which enemy requires the earliest attention.
Above all, the controls allow you to do all of this quickly. Your character runs swiftly, jumps immediately, and gives you the flexibility to utterly dominate the game with practice.
Games that failed at this: Ghost n’ Goblins forbids changing jump trajectory which is unfortunate because you’re asked to make many jumps completely blind! Super Mario Bros. integrates momentum into your running which is tricky for beginners to get a feel for on small platforms. Balloon Fight has a frustrating trajectory system that makes simple movement often unpredictable.
2. Rich Environments
As early video games broke from the confines of their single-screen imprisonment, many games introduced scrolling environments using a tile-based system. Tiling is an efficient way to create a larger world with just a handful of graphics that are repeated as sets of squares, hexagons, and so on. Most gamers can identify the tiling very easily (subconsciously or otherwise) and it can prevent them from becoming fully immersed within the game.
Contra breaks that pattern.
Look at all of the different environments in the game: the jungle, underground lairs, waterfall, snowfield, hanger, and alien lair. They all look so different and, while there’s some tiling here and there, it’s all broken up by extra elements that pull everything together. It’s hard to notice the connecting floor tiles because everything arounds them works so hard to break up the boundaries.
Whoever designed the levels for Contra did it with tender loving care. Simple tiles would’ve overwhelmed the senses while the player blurs their eyes trying to keep watch on all the projectiles being fired at them. Taking the screenshot above as an example, note that the jungle is not just all green. There’s brown rock that contrasts well with the white bullets to give the player a hand and those snowy peaks in the background add some variety. Important elements here are in red, including the power-up and enemy, which helps them stick out.
It’s all so beautiful to look at.
Games that failed at this: The Legend of Zelda used a tiling system that was very squared off and repetitive. Hydlide was extremely grid-based and visually boring.
3. You Gotta Earn Those Power-ups
My favorite aspect of the game is that the power-ups are not always so easy to get. You don’t need to search for them and you don’t have to reach a certain score to get them (aside from 1UP’s), but they’re nonetheless tricky to obtain.
Let’s take a step back and talk about the challenge in playing a game like Contra. You’re in control of a soldier who’s running from one side of the level to the other while sniping enemies, avoiding bullets, dodging projectiles, leaping between platforms, and watching out for surprise attacks. To be successful, you have to sort of blur your eyes and use your peripheral vision to get through it all. Focusing on one spot is an easy way to get yourself killed. Your hand-eye coordination has to be responsive and instinctual.
And all of this is going on when the power-ups appear on screen! There they are twirling in sine waves and sometimes they can make it halfway across the screen before you even register that they’re there. You fire at them but they dance away! You only have the regular gun and you really need that Spread! Your last desperate shots obliterate the pod and there it is, the Spread! It’s freed! But it’s falling into a pit!! Quickly, you leap, reaching out for it while simultaneously avoiding a couple bullets the dude in the water shot at you when…you miss it and fall to your death.
Even better, there’s the power-ups you don’t want (we’re looking at you, Fire) that have fallen on top of a platform you absolutely need to advance forward. Is…is a long jump possible to get over it? You’re gonna try, you’re gonna try to make that looong juuuuuump…AGHHH! You died.
I freakin’ love the power-ups!
Games that failed at this: Metroid spreads out all of its power-ups throughout the maze-like labyrinths in such a way that you’re forced to constantly search for disappearing entry-points, secret rooms and destructible blocks. I’ve always felt this breaks up the flow of the game as you spend your time shooting at all of the walls like an idiot as you advance forward instead of focusing on combat and navigation.
4. Tough…But Fair
There’s nothing more frustrating than a game that’s so brutally hard as to be impossible to beat. Contra is such a game, but it’s forgivable because of how fair the game can be. It gives you a fighting chance: accurate controls, strategic power-up decisions, and AI predictability. Keep practicing, keep playing, and you can do it!
Even better, there’s the Konami Code. Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A. What a great little invention! Not only did every NES owner have Contra, but they also had this code memorized as it gave the player 30 lives. A fighting chance! And whether intentional or not, this was the gateway drug into the game. It allowed you, at the very least, to get deeper into the game than you could’ve otherwise. All the more incentive to try to get even further!
Still, the game is gonna be balls hard. But as soon as you’re dead you’re gonna start it all over again!
Ultimately, when you could beat the game with that 30-man handicap, you would make it a life goal to beat the game without it. In fact, a conversation about beating Contra can’t exist without qualifying the beat as “with the code” or “without the code.”
Beat the game without the code? Great. Now beat it without losing a life. What’s fantastic is that it’s totally possible (and desirable) because of the great controls and replayability that Contra offers!
Games that failed at this: Chubby Cherub is a frustrating example of how a game can be made extremely difficult by crippling the player’s controls and changing the rules late in the game to effectively make it practically impossible. The rare beat you can find online is usually done by playing the game in a way that doesn’t resemble how it’s supposed to be played. It ruins the gameplay experience.
5. Great Co-Op Play
Played the game? Beat the game with the code? Without the code? Great! Now grab a friend and play it like you never have before! Contra is a great co-op game because of how well the gameplay elements lend themselves to it.
Have you ever noticed how enemies don’t only come from the right side (or top side) of the screen? As a player, you need to be aware of what’s in front and behind you. This helps make the co-op experience even better by providing opportunities for your teammate to have your back! Do you recall those moments your buddy blasted a baddie who was about to run into you and you were like, “Whew! Thanks!”
Other aspects of great co-op play are the designers’ decision not to give you any ability to damage the other player. The experience would be broken if you couldn’t shoot to your heart’s content. Not doing this broke Battletoads in fact. Also, while it can be infuriating, allowing one player to advance the screen at the peril of the other is actually a great way to force players to work together as they navigate each level.
Finally, stealing lives. Ah, the ending of so many friendships! What could be better than leading your team with a perfect run of deathless play only to have your teammate die incessantly and then, with their lives all gone, they start using all yours, too! This aspect helped make sure that the two-player experience could only be truly beat when both players have mastered the game.
Oh, Contra…you’re just so perfect!