20 years later, Contra still shines like a brand new shell casing.
When Contra hit the arcades, it was a hit. With all of the jungle wars around the world and on the silver screen, dropping you into the jungle with buff action star-type heroes was bound to rake in the quarters. Then came the NES version. While arguably lower on the graphical scale, it makes the arcade version look like a beta that was slapped together in a week.
The awkward jump flip that made you a flying target in the arcade was replaced with a tucking flip that was much easier to control, partly in thanks to the excellent control that was put in place. If one game defines "responsive controls", Contra is it. You've got the basic jump/attack setup common to the era, but you also get so much more. When walking, you can fire in four directions, left, right, and diagonally upwards in those directions. You can crouch and fire left or right and fire straight up when standing. Not only can you alter your jump in the air, but you can also fire in all eight directions. You can play it as safe or as dangerous as you like.
Another major and welcome change is the level length. Whereas some levels seemed to be spliced together at the last minute to meet their arcade release, these sections were split up and fully-realized as complete levels for the NES. The added length and challenge made for a more satisfying experience overall. Had they left the levels alone, the NES version probably wouldn't be as warmly and widely regarded as it is even still.
All of the weapon powerups of the arcade version remain in place, each with their own strength and weakness. Most people will scramble to the Spread, while skilled players with good timing and aim will find the Laser to be superior. You don't need special weapons to enjoy or beat Contra, as any seasoned vet of the Red Falcon wars can tell you. Though obviously weaker than the other weapons, the standard rifle (with or without the Rapid upgrade) is as deadly as the Machine Gun when in the hands of a professional button masher. Fire has it's uses, primarily for up-close attacks on turrets, but is typically not that great outside of The Jungle and Waterfall levels.
There's really nothing to dislike about the game. It's by far one of the best NES titles and is so common that prices should be very low. Shop around before buying for more than $2-$5.
The only real complaints came during the age of emulation, when I was able to try out the Japanese version, which featured specialized memory mappers that Nintendo's publishing controls wouldn't allow for in the U.S. Make no mistake, the U.S. version is still a top contender, but the details in the Famicom release were great for an 8-bit game:
-Animated trees in the Jungle level.
-Animated trees in the Snow Fields level.
-Map sequence (ala Ghosts 'n Goblins) between levels.
-Character illustrations/communication dialogue sequences (ala Commando) between levels.
I was disappointed when I found out about the changes, but the missing details in no way detract from the non-Japanese releases. I'm just thankful that we didn't get Europe's version, Probotector, where everything became non-humanoid machines and the heroes became androids. Sorry, Europe.
The Bottom Line
Some series get sequel after sequel because they are great or sell well. Contra is one of those ongoing series that has few sequels because it's hard to top. Well, that and the fact that the two Playstation sequels nearly buried the series. Even after all of these years, the original Contra still stands as a great gaming experience.