While other kids were chasing mushrooms, leveling up mages, and debating boss orders, real tough guys were playing Contra. Though the series saw a dip in quality in the PlayStation generation, it still stands as one of the most intense and consistent action series. In celebration of the series 25th anniversary this week, it's time we take a look back.
In the late '80s, arcade games relied on tough as nails difficulty and a series of increasingly outlandish scenarios to keep kids glued to a cabinet, feeding coins by the minute. Contra was one of the first series to bring this action to home consoles, giving players unforgettable boss encounters, a world that combines Hollywood blockbusters of the era, and a cheat code to memorize for a lifetime.
Contra has gone through many console generations and styles, but these are the top five worth returning to, time and time again.
5. Contra: Hard Corps - 1994 - Genesis
At long last, Sega fans had awesome Konami games to dangle over their Nintendo friends' heads with Castlevania: Bloodlines and then Hard Corps; a game that many series fans still hold as the plateau of dual-gun-totting, manly, hyperactive shooters. Playing Hard Corps between other series entries this week made me notice just how amazingly fast this game runs. Music cues up and grand entrances are made in The Alien Wars, but in Hard Corps robots just burst through walls and then it's on. Even the hilarious intro displays this attitude, with your chosen hero nonchalantly driving through enemies and a mini-boss before jumping out of his vehicle, beginning the game.
Hard Corps is a practice in excess and it's what makes it a polarizing entry; not as in, "is it good or not," but "is it the best or not?" The multiple paths, characters, weapon sets, and endings makes Hard Corps the most replayable Contra, but it also makes it a bit unfocused and uneven. It also takes the series to a level of difficulty outdone only by Super Contra (arcade).
4. Neo Contra - 2004 - PlayStation 2 (also available on PSN)
After Nobuya Nakazato (mastermind of Hard Corps, The Alien Wars, and BEST GAME SEGA GAME EVER Rocket Knight Adventures) got the series back on track with Shattered Soldier, he threw it back into rough waters with Neo Contra: The sequel that no one asked for and that few gave a chance -- but DO give it a chance!
Neo Contra takes the half-assed top-down missions of Super C and makes a great shooter out of them. The speed, controls, and manic pace of action makes Neo Contra a Smash TV for the PS2 generation. It's kinetic techno soundtrack, ridiculous cutscenes, and unpredictable bosses make for one of the series oddest but best entries. It would be higher on this list if it were longer and more cohesive (two complaints shared with Shattered Soldier).
3. Hard Corps: Uprising - 2011 - PS3/Xbox 360
With no Contra name attached and a fighting game studio developing, expectations were low for Uprising and it was quickly forgotten after release. While I understand the reasoning for the former, I don't get why Uprising isn't hailed as one of the greatest digital releases of its time. Yes, it really is that good.
Uprising does away with the grim, '80s sci-fi film aesthetic of the Contra series in favor for a brighter, Anime look that recalls Dreamcast titles. No more dark blue backdrops of cities in decay and giant, creepy robots. Despite this change in art direction, Uprising is a natural evolution for the series that combines all the control improvements introduced in The Alien War and Shattered Soldier. The levels are much longer than any Contra before it, but now the player can quickly dash through them and zip through the air like a ninja -- in fact, there is even a ninja player that makes the game play like Strider. Shattered Soldier missed the platforming elements that defined the series' best entries, but Uprising cranks them out along with crazy level design and boss fights that require tricky jumps and wall climbing. Uprising doesn't quite capture the spirit of the series, but it definitely plays like a Contra -- and a very good one, at that.
2. Contra - 1988 - Nintendo
Completing Contra on one life is a right of passage for all gamers. It's the quest to videogame Mecca that all should make. Through this spiritual quest, you will learn just how tightly designed Contra is, how what you thought was cheap design was really dumb player mistakes, and that good, minimal design is timeless.
It's true that Alien Wars and Hard Corps ramped up the action and visuals, but there is an elegance to the simplicity of the original. This isn't nostalgia talking, as Contra was never a favorite of mine growing up. There is a reason why the alien wall, waterfall, 3D stages, and opening jungle come to mind when thinking of Contra. Playing Super C and Contra back-to-back really highlights the subtle details in design that makes Contra a timeless, thrilling adventure. And, yes, I agree that it's too bad Super C didn't make this list.
1. Contra III: The Alien Wars - 1992 - Super Nintendo (also available on Virtual Console)
This is when shit got real. Giant penis turtles, flying on a rocket, evil robot heads shooting friggin' lazers, creepy alien bosses ... this is when shit got too real. Like the original, Alien Wars remains a timeless action game due to the simplicity and restraint in its design. Every gun is perfect, every stage is different, and every encounter presents its own lessons to be learned.
Sure, the Mode 7 levels aren't the best parts but they add some nice variety to the traditional stages. Sure, it's short but the campaign holds its own to recent Call of Duty's in offering a series of intense set pieces -- and, unlike Call of Duty, these set pieces are fully interactive and change the way the game is played. The Alien Wars brought about many clones on competing systems, but none were as bombastic, over-the-top, and sublime as Contra's magnum opus.
[Image by Maher Al-Samkari]