Nowadays, when folks think of Konami, their minds invariably drift to the wild and wacky adventures of Solid Snake as he stealthily makes mincemeat of all manner of sci-fi/supernatural/G.I. Joe-level paramilitary freaks. But if you were to hop into the Way Back Machine and touchdown in the late ’80s/early ’90s the Konami name was associated with another kickass military-themed series: Contra, one of the early (and best) entries in the run-and-gun genre.
The ’80s were filled with such anti-drug slogans as “Just Say No,” “Crack Is Wack,” and the like, but Mrs. Reagan, and dozens of PSAs overlooked Contra‘s shoot-everything-that-moves gameplay that had millions of kids strung out and looking for their “just a few minutes, ma!” fix. Bedrooms and living were just really tidy back alleys, really.
Contra‘s premise is remarkably simple: two buffed soldiers named Mad Dog and Scorpion (who are displayed in the box art as Predator‘s “Dutch” and Rambo‘s, er, Rambo) are dropped onto a small, alien-infested island that has the most bizarre climate known to man (it somehow pulls off being both tropical AND polar) to regulate in the name of the third rock.
Your arsenal of awesome consists of:
- Standard Gun (default weapon)
- Machine Gun (faster, more powerful version of the Standard Gun)
- Fire Gun (swirling attack)
- Laser Gun (rips through everything, but has a slow attack rate)
- Rapid Fire (speeds up your attack rate)
- Barrier (temporary invulnerability)
These weapons are acquired in the same method that you get anything else done in the game: You shoot ‘em. Blimp-like metallic thingies bob and weave overhead with your heavy metal pick ups in tow, but somehow can’t deploy cargo despite possessing wingless flight. One could argue that the blimp-like metallic thingies belong to the invaders, but when has an enemy foot soldier hit you with a Spread?
Although each gun is more than capable of mowing down the aliens and their gears of war, each individual gun is used differently in the hands of the novice or Contra pro. The Laser, for example, is shunned by newcomers as jamming on the fire button does absolutely nothing; in order to attack you must have the patience to tap a button every few seconds. The Spread is a great screen-clearing offensive gem, but in the hands of a veteran, it allows you to “cover” a rookie (maybe the knucklehead with the Laser) or outright bad player in a shield of red dots.
As great as Contra is as a single player game, it becomes just that much better with a quality wingman on controller two. See, Contra is like sex; it will either act as a bonding agent that will bring both parties closer, or it will completely and totally ruin your relationship. You’ll end up coming to odds with your partner over weapon distribution or moving too quickly/slowly, or you’ll enter a zen state where you know each others actions with nary a spoken word. Just like the grind.
So how goes Contra fare in the face of contemporary action games? It rocks. With gameplay as simple as “blowup everything you see” Contra still manages to intrigue and one-up old school crap like Rush ‘N Attack and new school disappointments like Commando: Steel Disaster by offering pinpoint controls, attractive visuals (everything goes boom quite nicely), and insanely hummable stage music (if you don’t know the music to Stage 1, you sir or ma’am, need to play this game).
I have a very rudimentary theory that suggests that you can tell the quality of an NES game by the number of fist fights it causes. Following this Einsteinian hypothesis, Contra is considered a god-level game as I suspect that at least 73% of all ass whippings dished out in ’88 was prompted by a player jerking another out of the much sought after Spread.
If you haven’t played Contra in years, play it. Now. Be it alone or with a bud. On a yellowed NES or on Virtual Console. It’s action gaming perfection that recalls gun-toting ’80s entertainment. Ahnuld and Sly would approve.