A freaking good old action shooter
This game is the typical '80 game when there were only gameplay and nothing else. Fortunately, the gameplay is Contra is amazing, making it an amazing game. You have to advance and shoot at everything. When an enemy get one (or more than one) hit, it'll explode. If you take a hit, you lose a life (there is no life bar). May look a bit primitive, but it's really cool and you got it rapidly. The control are almost perfect. You can shoot in all 8 directions, you can dodge attacks easily with the down button, you can jump on the lower platform if you press down and the jump button, etc... There is no delay between the time where you press the button and when the man jumps or shots. The only small thing I've to bother about the control is, that, at boss battles when the screen stops to scroll, and if you want to shoot up-left or up-right, your player will walk while shooting instead to stop walking, and this is frustrating for bosses that aren't on the floor (so, almost all bosses).
The game looks challenging at first, but after mastering each stage and knowing each single detail of them by hear, the game is a lot less hard. Even if I'm not a dedicated shooter player, I still beat the game without cheating. The difficulty level is just fine. If you'll play with a friend, it'll be a lot easier, and a lot more fun, like usual. And if the game is too hard for you there is a well known code around that you shouldn't have much trouble to find, and if you still cannot beat it with that code, then you must really suck.
There is a very great "power-up" system. There is "capsules" around that will appear and you have to shot them to get a new weapon, and you can accept it or dodge it if you don't want to change your weapon type. Sometimes they just put capsules of unadapted weapons as a trap. The best weapon is the 'S' by far, and the game becomes so ridiculously easier as long as you touch the 'S' power-up. The challenge is to keep that weapon as long as possible.
The graphics are pretty nice and detailed, and shooting effects are well done (there is many different kinds of fireballs/explosion/shots in the game), sprites are not the most detailed for the console, but they never get old. The Japanese version has cutscenes added between levels, which can be nice to see, but useless since there is no real story, so you don't miss much things by not seeing the cutscenes.
The music is amazingly cool, you just never want to stop listen is so it is great. The sound SFX does their jobs, all your different weapons sounds differently, but all enemies does the same noise when exploding.
Even if this game is great, a couple of small details are disappointing. The stage 2 and 4 (called "base" stages) are special. They're done in a pseudo-3D environment based on rooms, and you have to shot at people, strange machines and cannons on the other side of the room, then the wall will explode and you will be able to advance to the next room to eventually reach a boss. Those stages are difficult and absolutely not interesting. They'd better to input only standard 2D stages, because those are a lot better and funnier. Another thing I've to complain is the lack of variety of enemies. All enemies of all the game are the same commando soldiers, which gain various abilities as the game progress. Except at the very last stage, where you fights aliens.
The story, which consist of saving the world by destroying things, is just an excuse, and I don't even known why I'm mentioning that, because video games had no stories back then. The European version of the game (called Probotector instead) had stupid robots instead of humans, don't ask me why. Really stupid. Also, those robots are absolutely ugly.
Last thing I don't like the face of the heroes at the title screen. On the box, they look okay, but on the title screen they just look plain idiot brutes (that's mostly what they are actually) and you're gonna hate both heroes before playing. What a shame.
Also, like in all Konami games (at least on the NES), you still start a new game automatically if you you do not rush to turn off the power button as soon as the final "Konami" logo pops up on the screen, which completely destroy the sense of acomplishement to have beaten the game.
The Bottom Line
Contra is a typical shooter from Konami, and if you like Konami you'll like this game. If you hate shooters... Why not play this one, this is the best shooter on the NES, so you may change your mind. I personally don't like too much shooters, because they're usually plain, boring, stupid and very hard. This one is hard but when you beat a stage for the first time you'll remember it by heart and you'll be able to pass it again easily. The game has so cool music and good graphics that it will be absolutely not boring. Every stage is different from the others (except for 2 and 4 which are very similar). In one word : Great game, enjoyable, lot fun, you can even play with a friend for even more fun, but not a perfect game either.