Thursday, October 7, 2010

Contra Retrospective

In 1987, Konami released an arcade game that would help spawn one of the longest-running franchises in videogame history. It would help the evolvution of the run 'n gun genre, lead to many imitators, and it would later take the console gaming world by storm with its simultaneous two-player action...That game, of course, is Contra.

While not as strong of a namesake today as it was over twenty years ago, the Contra series these days fills a niche market, one with a dedicated fan-base that clamors for 80's and 90's arcade-style action. With the announcement of multiple new Contra titles for the current generation of gaming, let's take a look at where the series began, and give a brief overview of each game.


(Arcade, 1987)

Originally released in arcades during 1987, Contra is a two-player, run 'n gun side-scrolling action game. Asides from its fast-paced action, fluid jumping and aiming, the game was distinguished from competitors because of its immense firepower, its balance of stages (including 3D/third-person stages) and its art style reminiscent of the then-popular works of H.R. Giger (best known for his work on the "Alien" film series).

While ported to a variety of computer platforms with modest success, the game would receive most of its notoriety when released on the Nintendo Entertainment System later in the year. It didn't receive a true, flawless home conversion until its Microsoft XBOX Live Arcade release in 2006.


(Nintendo Entertainment System, 1987)

Following the trend of other popular arcade games of the day, Contra was eventually ported to the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. As opposed to trying to duplicate every little facet from the arcade experience, Konami heavily modified the game to play to the NES's strengths. What players got was a version that looked very different from the arcade game, yet was still astonishingly true to it at the same time. All of the levels are intact--even the 3D stages--and everything had been lengthened. The smooth two-player action, still included, was unprecedented for a console game at the time. The realistic analog-like shooting was also replaced with precise eight-way shooting, and the slow, realistic jumping jumping was replaced with the now-familiar high-rising spinning/curling jump.

Super Contra

(Arcade, 1988)

Super Contra takes the basic formula from the original arcade game and expands on it. Many new elements appearing in this game will be standard throughout the rest of the series, including angled hills (as opposed to the flat surfaces of the previous game), top-down stages and even the occasional screen-clearing bomb power-up. This was also the only Contra game that actually changed your firepower based on how many weapon pickups the player got--In the past (and in many future) games, weapon fire rates will simply speed up if the same weapon is picked up twice. In Super Contra, weapons will also receive a strength increase. The spread shot, for instance, will change from three-way spread to a five-way, and the machine gun (which now shoots rockets/missiles) will shoot twice as fast with two or three times as many bullets. With these modifications to the old formula, Konami also increased the difficulty level, making for one of the hardest games in the series.

Super C

(Nintendo Entertainment System, 1988)

This rendition of Super Contra is toned-down in scale compared to the arcade game, keeping a shape and form nearly identical to the original NES Contra. However, its visuals and sound were improved over the last version, and the new additions to the arcade game were added as well, such as angled hills, the top-down stages, and some improved weapon pickups. Also added are brand-new stages, and with that, it feels like a direct sequel to the NES original as opposed to a port of the arcade game. Considering how good the original NES Contra was, this is a good thing.

Operation C

(Game Boy, 1991)

In 1991, the Game Boy was taking the world by storm. Many popular NES 3rd Party developers began bringing their well-known franchises to the small screen, and Konami did so with their Contra series in Operation C. This was an all-new, exclusive game developed exclusively for Nintendo's handheld. Despite being on a technically inferior platform, the Game Boy Contra game managed to retain the visual style and spirit of the NES games. Not only is it chock-full of classic NES Contra tunes, but it also includes top-down stages, a completely new level set, and it also introduced two elements that would later be re-used in future Contra games: The homing shot and a rapid-fire machine gun used as your base/default weapon. For fans of the first two NES originals, this is a Contra game that should not be missed.

Contra III: The Alien Wars

(Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 1992)

Like many SNES sequels to popular NES games, Contra III was a major step up in the series in multiple ways. Thanks to the more advanced hardware, the game was able to house large sprites, excellent scaling and rotation effects, transparency, and plenty of mind-boggling pseudo 3D effects. On top of a graphical overhaul, new gameplay aspects were brought to the table as well, pioneering many elements that would become staples in future titles. Some of these aspects include the ability to carry multiple weapons, the ability to cling to walls, the option to stand in place while shooting in any direction, and more. It also laid the groundwork for the generally chaotic, over-the-top, memorization-focused gameplay that will be heavily-emphasized in future games. Contra III is one of the most fondly-remembered titles in the entire series, and probably for good reason.

A port of this game was created for Nintendo's Game Boy system, the second (and last) handheld Contra title until yet another port of this game in 2002 (read more on that below). The original Game Boy release was actually a well-made port, done so by Factor 5 (Better known for their Turrican series, and later on their Star Wars games). It featured a majority (if not all) of the levels from the SNES game, even retaining much of the music and the top-down, 360-degree stages!

On another note, the H.R. Giger "Alien" influence is much less apparent in Contra III: The Alien Wars. Konami went more for originality, and the art style in general really began to take a life of its own, evolving further with future titles.

Contra Force

(Nintendo Entertainment System, 1992)

A spin-off in the series, Contra Force attempts to take the series in a new direction. Multiple characters are now selectable in-game, each with their own abilities. The game adds a Gradius-esque power-up system, where special icons are picked up and weapons and items are activated by the player at-will. The physics and system of shooting feels completely different from the prior two NES Contra games. First off, bullets do not initially go the full-screen distance like before, areas are littered with destructible objects housing power-ups and items, and the general feel of the game is completely different. It also forgoes the alien-theme and goes for a more realistic one, dealing with terrorists and such. One of the more uncommon Contra titles out there, only Contra completists need apply here.

Contra: Hard Corps

(Sega Genesis, 1994)

At this point, asides from a few minor computer ports, the Contra series had primarily been exclusive to Nintendo's line of systems. With the standing caliber of the series at the time, it's not likely that many people expected a new game to appear on Sega's line of systems. However, it did--and what better way to do it than to take the successful Contra III formula and inject it with steroids!

Asides from a completely brand-new game hosting the standard, all-too-familiar gameplay, Konami loaded it up with four unique, selectable characters, four weapon slots per character (as opposed to two from Contra III), a whole new array of weapons and returning classics, and gameplay that is much more chaotic than ever before. The visuals accompany this wild nature perfectly, taking complete advantage of the Genesis's hardware, pumping out explosive boss fights and extreme scaling and rotation rivaling most other 16-bit games of the time.

The most unique trait in this game comes in the form of the addition of a dark in-game story and the ability to choose one's path at certain points in the game. This leads to a variety of different stages and boss battles depending on your choices in the game, as well as obtaining a variety of unique endings, each with their own climactic final-boss fights. Due to the heavier emphasis on memorization, it will take MANY playthroughs in order to see them all.

Contra: Legacy of War

(PlayStation/Sega Saturn, 1996)

Developed by Appaloosa for Konami, Legacy of War is the first 32-bit incarnation of the Contra series. It strips the 2D side-scrolling platformer elements and emphasizes a top-down, 360-degree movement gameplay mode, ala Super Contra, albeit it's fully 3D (for the most part).

While the game was fairly anticipated (and even received positive review scores in some publications when it was released), it is widely panned by the general Contra fan base. Its major fault is being plagued with hit-detection issues, partially due to the use of 2D objects and sprites on fully-3D backgrounds. Because of this, it is all too easy to randomly die from bullets and objects that did not look like they touch the player's character. The visual hybrid makes getting through later platforming segments a very cumbersome process as well. These faults lead to an extreme difficulty that far exceeds any other game in the series.

Regardless, some still find this game to have some redeeming qualities. Four selectable characters are available, some with their own unique weapons. There is also memory card save support, remixed classic Contra music, and recreations of boss fights from prior Contra games that keep the nostalgia factor intact. It even has a novelty "arcade bar" you can visit in Stage 2, which houses graphically updated versions of Konami's own Gyruss and a dot-collecting tank-shooter similar to the popular maze games of the early '80s. Another unique aspect of this game is the included 3D glasses. Unfortunately, for the player to get the full effect of the optional 3D mode, the television's contrast, brightness and colors all had to be fine-tuned in order for the effect to even work.

It should be noted that the Sega Saturn version, while much rarer than the PlayStation version, is the more "complete" edition. The visual set looks sharper, the map and character select portions are full-screen, and many areas of the game are generally smoother overall.

C: The Contra Adventure

(PlayStation, 1998)

The second 32-bit Contra installment to be handed out to Appaloosa, C: The Contra Adventure is an amalgamation of sorts. Following suit with the popular third-person platformer trend of the late '90s, a very large portion of the game focuses on fully-3D, almost Tomb Raider-esque stages and gameplay. Still, it manages to pay homage to the rest of the series with the first and final levels being side-scrolling stages. With many interesting boss fights littered throughout this game, C: The Contra Adventure actually has quite a bit to offer in the variety department. However, with some flawed execution and rehashed one-liners, the game tries a little too hard to be something it's not. Regardless, this game is a bit of a novelty in the series--Some people may pretend like it never existed, while some players may really enjoy it for what it is.

Contra: Shattered Soldier

(PlayStation 2, 2002)

Finally taking the series back by the reigns after the widely-considered "disasters" that were the PlayStation Contra games, Shattered Soldier was developed in-house by Konami KCET, and it shows. When the game was released in 2002, it was heralded by many gamers as a rebirth of the once-great series. It retained the classic two-dimensional gameplay all while harnessing the power of the then-modern Playstation 2, providing detailed, fully-3D visuals with no slowdown.

To keep things fresh, several changes were made to the basic formula. First, there are no weapon pickups. Each character now comes equipped with three weapons, each focused on strengths appropriate for different situations. These weapons could also be charged and unleashed as alternate secondary attacks. Second, a strafe-like system was implemented. This allowed the player to move in one direction while still shooting in another. Third, a hit-percentage scoring/ranking system was put in place. This rates how well the user plays based on how many objects were destroyed in the stage. While not entirely necessary in terms of completing the game, this ranking system leads to a greater challenge for those that want to perfect the game, and depending on the performance, it even changes the game endings.

Overall, Shattered Soldier is wildly over-the-top even compared to prior titles with a much greater emphasis on memorization than even Hard Corps on the Genesis. It is also by-far the most hard-edged in the series, with dark, gritty visuals, an aggressive, metal soundtrack, and boss creations that can be disturbing in ways that can't be described. In other words, this game is a must own for Contra fans.

Contra Advance: The Alien Wars EX

(Game Boy Advance, 2002)

When the Game Boy advance was released, there was a tendency for companies to port popular Super Nintendo games to the platform. Konami was a little late to the party in this regard, initially focusing on original titles when the system released. However, eventually dipping into their back catalogue, Konami brought us a solid, modified port of Contra III: The Alien Wars. What is most-interesting about this version is that the top-down mode-7 stages of the SNES game have been removed in favor of bringing over two stages from Contra: Hard Corps. Also, the strafing feature of Shattered Soldier has been added, allowing you to run in one direction while still shooting in the other. This element puts a fresh twist on what is an already-familiar game to many.

Neo Contra

(PlayStation 2, 2004)

Taking the graphical and sound styling from Shattered Soldier, Neo Contra takes a cue from Legacy of War and shifts the gameplay back to a top-down, 360 degree moving style. Fortunately, the hard-edged visual polish of the first PS2 release has been retained, and while the gameplay has been significantly changed with its lock-on based gameplay system, it still feels very much like it belongs in the Contra universe. It has some truly over-the-top moments, and all in all, this is an often-overlooked title in the series. Fans should not be discouraged by the shift to a more 3D approach.

Contra 4

(Nintendo DS, 2007)

Developed by WayForward Technologies, Contra 4 is one of the best, most true-to-form Contra games released in the last 15 years. Following the events of Contra III, it retains much of the gameplay mechanics that made the 16-bit titles a success, incorporating the classic weapon pickup system, remixed music, and stages that are new, yet seem familiar at the same time.

One interesting twist is that by utilizing both DS screens, the game uses a vertically-oriented screen setup reminiscent of the first two arcade games. Also as an added bonus the original NES Contra and Super C games are available as unlockables, making for one of the most complete action packages for the DS.

On a side note, this title was also developed and released for a variety of cell phone platforms. However, none particularly do the game justice and it remains one that needs to be experienced on its original platform in order to get the full effect.

Contra: Rebirth

(Nintendo Wii, 2009)

Yet another Contra title to be licensed out to another developer, Rebirth was released exclusively on the Nintendo Wii via its online-only WiiWare download store. It is an obvious throwback to the 16-bit line of Contras, with familiar gameplay elements and a visual style that was purposefully made to look a little pixelated. While the game itself is just as chaotic as ever and overall it is a very solid Contra title, it does take a more comedic approach to a variety of aspects and it's clearly not meant to be taken too seriously. Not to say it shouldn't be, because it's one of the hardest entries to the series.

The Contra series, established in the late 1980s, has come a very long ways from its arcade origins. It has come in multiple shapes and forms, has been cut up, demolished, put on life-support and successfully revived all the same.

As of this writing, Konami has plans to release a new title for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 systems in Winter 2010. Much like the Wii's Contra title, this one will be a digital-download-only. Interestingly, it is being developed by the established, well-respected Arc System Works, best-known for their creation of the Guilty Gear series. Surprisingly, the "Contra" label has been dropped completely in favor of the simple, "Hard Corps: Uprising", an apparent prequel to the classic Sega Genesis release. We're crossing our fingers that dropping the Contra name altogether is only temporary.

Also, Konami has officially announced a yet-unnamed entry to the series via Nintendo's upcoming 3DS handheld system. Details at this moment are still very speculative, but we will continue to foam at the mouth while imagining the most-explosive 2D Contra game with stunning eye-popping true three-dimensional effects. Well, we can at least hope, right?


Anonymous said...

Hey, very cool!

Recoil said...

Very well-written retrospective! You didn't just go the easy way and turn this into an article solely about the NES game, like so many other articles. You managed to cover every entry in the series, and for that I thank you :)

Kris said...

Well written Austin! I've never actually played Contra before, so this was a nice way to catch up on some history.