Written by  :  J. P. Gray (120)
Written on  :  Dec 12, 2009
Platform  :  NES
Rating  :  5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars

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Congratulations! You've designed the best run-and-gun platformer in the universe. Consider yourselves heroes.

The Good

To understand the epic levels of perfection this game reaches in control, pacing, graphics, challenge, level and sound design, etc., you can read the rest of the review, or just watch the following video. It distills the incredible polish of Contra, in all its aspects, into an appropriately cheesy and ass-kicking nine minutes.


Now to business. What is the key feature for lasting enjoyment and immersion in any action game? Control. Being able to attack in eight directions, keeping character transitions quick and seamless, and maintaining pitch-perfect finesse during a jump are all -essential- qualities in a action-packed run-and-gun platformer. If such a game doesn't have these, it will be slow, unfair, and/or tedious. Contra exemplifies these qualities--Mad Dog and Scorpion are instantly responsive and have the abilities to meet any in-game threat. Almost every death will result from the player's mistakes, not the limitations of the controls. Mind you, this is all from two buttons and a D-pad! Nothing crucial is left out, everything works as you expect it to, and the motions -feel- brilliant and intuitive. What more can you ask?

Well, for starters, you can ask for super-fast pacing--pacing so fast that its g-forces alone could rip your face off. While you can trudge through the game cautiously, picking off enemies as they appear, the level design and general feel of the game always encourage a more reckless approach. There is rarely a good reason to stop running, jumping or shooting, ever. You're playing as a shirtless, buffed-out Schwarzenegger/Stallone clone! A one-man army with ridiculously overpowered weapons, facing off against legions of alien stooges! Allowing your bullets-per-second count or mean velocity to drop under these conditions is unforgivable! To play Contra as it is meant to be played is to play it fast and hard--the beauty of the game's level design and challenges is best seen under these circumstances, and the tight controls allow for such a fast pace without ever becoming overly frustrating. One big contributor to this is the death mechanic--when you die, you don't restart the level, but respawn where you met your demise, flipping down from the top of the screen. Puts you right back into it!

The level design is completely brilliant in encouraging this pacing. Enemies are all over the screen, bullets are flying everywhere, and if you stop moving for too long to line up your shots, odds are you'll catch one yourself. Enemies spawn ahead of you, behind you, above you, below you, etc. In so many shoot 'em ups, platform or otherwise, this degree of pacing and enemy density is simply unfair and requires extreme pattern memorization of the player. Not so in Contra--if you're playing the game as it is meant to be played, your furious barrage of bullets is already filling dangerous areas of the screen, and any areas filled with enemy crossfire should have long ago been vacated by your avatar--who preferably is tucked into a somersault jump and spraying spread-gun fire at all points of the compass. Despite the huge number of challenges thrown at you, there is always an elegant, high-speed, and visually -awesome- way to get through them. Platforms are obvious, obstacles are obvious, and the set-pieces for boss encounters are varied and imaginative. In many areas, there are both high and low approaches available, and both work well, if differently--this maximizes the appeal of the versatile controls, along with one other aspect:

Challenge! How can this game be an enduring classic when its total content can be breezed through in around fifteen minutes? Because it's -hard-. One shot kills you dead, and you have three lives. This is only fair--Red Falcon footsoldiers are thrown ten feet and explode after taking a single round to the face, so why shouldn't you? Long before Counterstrike, one-shot death from gunfire was epitomized in Contra! Bullets move at exactly the right speed--if you get trapped in an avoidable crossfire, it's because you screwed up badly, not because the game is unfair. When you get into the groove of the game, nimbly dodging dozens of projectiles and enemy baddies, the feel is just supremely satisfying. Even though the game is incredibly short, that feeling will have you coming back again and again.

Speaking of the feeling of this game, let's talk about music, sound and graphics. They all push action movie cliches to their highest points of pure cheesy fun. Konami had a long reputation as masters of NES sound programming, and Contra doesn't disappoint--fast-paced, bombastic and always somehow ascending higher and higher in drum-pounding splendor, the themes here are all completely brilliant. The sounds are naturally no slouch either--explosion effects and the sounds of gunfire pump up the effect of the furious action. The sound that plays during player death is even somehow enjoyable! The graphics are very simple, but appropriate and appealing. Animations rarely rise above two frames, but it doesn't matter. The pacing is well-served by the simplicity, and knowing where you're jumping and what you're avoiding is a necessity--in later games of this type with busier graphics, it's sometimes difficult to see the little bullets flying about. Not so with Contra, and that's crucial when one hit means death.

The Bad

The familiar complaint of weapons balance must be noted. As in Ghosts 'n' Goblins or Castlevania, there are some weapons you simply do -not- want at all, such as the flame-gun, and others that rule so completely there's no reason to abandon them, such as the spread-gun!

The Bottom Line

All these elements combine to provide a wall-to-wall brilliant experience. Even the shooting gallery feel of the pseudo-3d base levels never leads to tedium. The high difficulty works with the pacing and elegant controls to provide a unique feeling of accomplishment to the player, even in dealing with the basic enemies of the game. Too often in modern action games this is lost, as the player can absorb too many bullets, the challenge is low, and the requisite skill is usually just sitting in one's chair long enough to slog through the cutscenes and QTEs.

When there -are- interesting controls and mechanics, skillful use of such is rarely required of the player by the actual -game-, whose level design and difficulty level more closely resembles a playground than a battlefield. This precludes the player from feeling the most intense satisfaction from increasing skill with the controls, and the motivation for having such skill is deferred to multiplayer or is the result of meta-challenges the player invents for herself. Witness the permadeath playthroughs of Far Cry 2, etc.

This is why Contra, despite being utterly linear and -extremely- short, has in the end more replayability for me than long, drawn-out, less linear affairs in the action genre. You can -always- pop this sucker in and have a great time with it. The feeling of surmounting challenges through skillful use of the fine-tuned controls is fantastic, and this is, in the end, is the game's timeless legacy.