The Memory Card .16: Riding under the missiles

Contra III: The Alien Wars

Sometimes videogame moments don’t have to be emotionally powerful or include some major plot twist to seal a place in your memory forever. Honestly, sometimes they just have to be awesome.

And by “awesome” I pretty much mean just that: moments that make your jaw drop because they are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Usually these are the kind of moments you never dreamed possible in a videogame and, upon viewing, result in an “Oh my gosh, you have to see this!” to a friend or family member standing nearby.

One of the best examples of an awesome moment occurs in one of the best action games ever produced, Contra III: The Alien Wars for the Super Nintendo. True, the whole game is pretty awesome unto itself, but one sequence in particular literally takes things to a whole new level.

Experience one of the wildest and most creative rides you will ever take in the world of videogames.

The Set-Up

Contra games are not really known for their deep stories and Contra III: The Alien Wars is no exception. You play as Bill or Lance, two ridiculously manly guys trying to stop an alien invasion from taking over the planet.

Sadly, this is pretty much where the story ends. But who wants any kind of deep narrative when you can participate in some of the best action set pieces in the history of videogames?

On this level, Contra III: The Alien Wars delivers in spades. Although the game is only six levels, each second is filled with so much over-the-top action and skill-driven challenges that you never once complain about the length (or lack thereof).

Level 4 in particular offers one of the most creative stages in the entire game. Instead of starting on foot, the level opens with you riding a powerful motorcycle along the highway. Immediately, enemies fly in from all angles, some on hovering vehicles, others strapped to fire spewing jetpacks.

Once you defeat the giant onslaught of enemies (and fight a long-legged mini-boss) a friendly helicopter carrying massive missiles under its belly flies down right above your head.

Following the prompt of an on-screen arrow, you then hop from your speeding motorcycle and grab on to one of the missiles hanging beneath the steady chopper.

With this act, the next Memory Card moment begins: riding under the missiles.

The Moment

Once your character gets a firm grip on the weapon of mass destruction, the helicopter ascends back into the sky, carrying you underneath.

At this point in the game, the player has extremely limited controls, basically only being able to move left and right or jumping in the air, making sure to land back in range of the smaller than expected missile or face plummeting to immediate death.

As the helicopter flies along, an enemy with an enormous grappling hook (like an evil Bionic Commando) latches himself on the bottom of the missile, right next to you.

After a successful (and not very difficult) battle, the helicopter does something a little unexpected. Instead of the pilot helping you inside to congratulate you on your victory, the missile is hastily ejected and launched into the air, your character still clinging underneath. Eek!

As the missile flies forward, an enormous boss edges its way onto the screen from the right.

Now, this is when one the coolest boss fights in the history of videogames takes place.

As you are hanging onto the bottom of your lone missile, other missiles fly into the screen at various heights above and below you (from where, that is anyone’s guess). At this point you have the ability to jump from missile to missile, just making sure that you don’t drop off the bottom of the screen.

All the missiles fly forward towards the boss at different speeds. Once a missile hits the boss, however, it bursts into flames and quickly disappears. Because of this, you have to constantly move from missile to missile without holding onto one for too long.

Of course, while all of this is happening you also have to avoid projectiles from the massive machine and shoot the boss in key, vulnerable locations.

To say it is challenging is a huge understatement. Like most Contra games, you would be hard-pressed to get past this part without losing a life.

Regardless of the extreme challenge, the sequence is pretty darn amazing. Jumping from missile to missile while fighting a huge aerial boss is not only creative, nothing like it had ever been seen in a videogame up to that point.

While playing it is obviously a much better way to get the full experience, you can watch the entire (awesome!) battle here:

The Impact

Maybe I am biased because I am such a huge fan of the Contra series (Contra 4 FTW!), but I remember playing this sequence in Contra III for the first time and being completely blown away.

I mean, where else can you experience something like this other than in a videogame? Even some of the coolest and most over-the-top action sequences in movies don’t even come close to a hero riding and jumping between a group of missiles while fighting a giant flying monstrosity. It is something that would be amazing to see on the silver screen, sure, but do you think that anyone could ever have the means (or the budget) to do it? Probably not. Yet another reason that videogames are such a unique and downright remarkable medium.

Most importantly, this sequence feels so special because nothing like it has ever been duplicated to this day. Out of the countless 3D action games that have been released since, can you name even one boss battle that is as clever or original as this? Finding an answer (if there even is one) is a lot harder than you might think.

It seems that action games in particular lost a little something in their transition to 3D. Of course there have been some awesome boss fights (the God of War games come to mind), but they all seem eerily similar (and almost boring) when compared to the epic battles witnessed during the side-scrolling days.

This sequence even impresses when looked at from a pure aesthetic perspective. Being an early Super Nintendo release, the graphics still hold up today and are some of the most impressive ever seen on that system.

Graphics aside, though, just the fact that something like this could be done in 2D is pretty amazing. True, the missiles and boss sway a little in and out (to give the sense that they are floating in the sky), but more or less all the on-screen sprites stay in one static location.

By adding something so seemingly simple as a rushing blue background filled with clouds, the designers instantly give the player the sense of speed and make them really feel like they are traveling hundreds of miles an hour high above the Earth below. A pretty impressive feat for an almost 15 year old 2D game.

Although the game is full of so many memorable moments, riding under the missiles is the one I will always remember the most. In fact, even playing it recently, the moment surprisingly holds up very well. Contra III: The Alien Wars is a true classic and the perfect example of the quality and unequaled originality this series is capable of producing.

Contra 4 can’t come soon enough …

The Memory Card Save Files

Chad Concelmo