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Contra (NES) artwork

Contra (NES) review

"On first glance, Scorpion and Mad Dog, the ultra-violent and oh-so-cool heroes of Contra, are much more studly than I could ever hope to be. "

On first glance, Scorpion and Mad Dog, the ultra-violent and oh-so-cool heroes of Contra, are much more studly than I could ever hope to be.

While Iím sitting at home, giving new meaning to the term ďcouch potatoĒ, they are out ridding the world of evil alien influence with style. Picking up powerful weapons and firing them with pinpoint accuracy while in the middle of a triple somersault jump ó thatís the kind of thing a guy like me just canít compete with.

But then, after playing for a few moments, I realize that while these two mercenaries have a far greater capacity for killing than I do, we really arenít all that different. A lone soldier sneaks up behind one hero and fires a bullet into his leg ó causing him to collapse to the ground....dead. Yep, for all the offensive power Scorpion and Mad Dog potentially possess, they canít take much punishment. If they get shot, itís on to the next life. If they run afoul of one of Contraís many traps, so long and sorry about your luck. Heck, if they even come into physical contact with one of the gameís baddies, their quest will come to a halt.

And there lies the beauty of this Konami classic for the NES. You canít simply sprint ahead with reckless abandon, spraying bullets every which way ó to do so would leave you wide open for a deadly counterattack. You must inch ahead, analyzing every element of the terrain, knowing that at any second, a soldier may sneak up behind you.....a spike-covered wall may burst from the may plummet from the sky on a collision course with your head. On the surface, Contra is a straight-ahead blaster, much like Gradius on the ground. However, with all the tricks and traps strewn throughout the eight regions under the firm control of the evil alien Red Falcon, you'll find this game to be much more intricate ó like a platform version of R-Type.

The levels start out tame, with little more than generic soldiers and stationary guns proving opposition in the first stage, but just wait until youíre closing in on the diabolical Red Falcon. The seventh stage takes those same generic soldiers, but combines them with an ungodly number of spike traps and mine cars that are quite capable of running over careless action heroes. Those pathetic soldiers that you gunned down with glee in the early going are now much more sinister, as it is quite easy for one to catch you unaware as you attempt to run under a series of spike traps without getting skewered.

Like any good shooter, Contra provides a slew of weapons to help you even the odds against both the forces of evil and the various pitfalls and traps posed by each level. By knocking floating power-up pods from the sky, you can get a flamethrower, rapid fire, spread gun and more. Get the spread gun and youíll never look for another mode of attack, as its ability to exterminate foes other guns donít come close to touching is a wonderful way to even the odds. Unlike the majority of said shooters, you can fire in any direction ó a necessity in many levels and boss fights. The ability to shoot toward the top of the screen makes the vertical mountain ascent of the third level much easier, while being able to shoot downward in mid-jump does a lot to simplify the boss fight of the seventh level.

But all is not perfect in the land of Contra. Konami wanted to create a diverse environment for Scorpion and Mad Dog to wreak havoc in, so youíll have a fairly wide variety of levels to explore (at least for a game this ancient). Sadly, when Contra attempts to depart from the shoot-em-up platform template, things take a sharp turn for the worse.

The second and fourth levels involve you moving through an enemy base, one room at a time. The game goes for a first-person viewpoint with the camera situated behind your burly destroyer of evil. To advance from room to room, you must simply destroy the door ó a task made more difficult by soldiers and guns placing you under fire and an electric barrier preventing you from moving forward until said door has been shot enough times. Each base has about four or five of these boring, unattractive and repetitive rooms before climaxing in an uninspired boss fight. Removing those two levels and adding a couple more well-designed platforming stages would have left a bit better taste in my mouth.

As far as the bosses go, if the two base bosses were the only boring ones, Iíd be happy. Sadly, few bosses are even remotely interesting. Boring attack patterns revolving around spread shots plague many of these encounters. If you have your own spread weapon, many bosses are toast, as all you have to do is get between their bullets and fire your own until the battle is over.

And this might be a minor sort of complaint that only a complete nerd would come up with, but with the way Contra ends, a little bit of story delivered between levels would do wonders. With a couple of exceptions, nearly all of the first seven levels seem to be somewhat grounded in reality, with humanoid (or man-made) adversaries. Then, in the eighth level, you go through what appears to be the innards of an alien to fight a pair of bosses seemingly derived from Aliens and Metroid. Future games in the Contra series did a fine job of creating more of a consistent theme ó this one gives you seven levels of Commando (although from different viewpoints) and one level of Abadox (although without the spaceship). Maybe itís just me, but I was quite curious as to how Scorpion and Mad Dog went from killing soldiers in jungles to taking on weird mouth-like things embedded in the organic walls of a gigantic alien. But then again, maybe I shouldnít have been surprised. After all, I have compared Contra to certain space shooters ó and how many of those have inexplicably ended with you zooming through the belly of an alien on your way to the final confrontation?

And to be honest, Contra just isnít the sort of game that inspires deep thought. Konami created a simple, yet addictive, shooter meant to deliver thrills. While the first-person base levels leave a LOT to be desired, the platform levels are an excellent combination of fast-paced arcade shooter elements with enough clever traps to inspire a certain degree of caution while creeping ever closer to Red Falcon. Even after all these years, Contra still provides more than its fair share of excitement and fun ó something that canít be said of many more modern titles with better graphics, sound and story.

overdrive's avatar
Community review by overdrive (September 15, 2004)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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