“In 1957, a large object from outer space crashed into Earth's Amazon basin, near the ruins of a lost Mayan civilization. Scientists worldwide heralded the incident as a trivial cosmic occurrence, and thus the collision was soon forgotten. Now thirty years later, rumors of an evil force have swept into the Pentagon's front office and tales from frightened villagers of a hideous being with an army of alien henchmen are sending chills down the spines of top military brass. Unwilling to upset current political stability, an all-out assault on the region has been overruled and instead, two of America's most cunning, courageous and ruthless soldiers from the Special Forces elite commando squad have been selected to seek out and destroy these alien intruders.”
Any seasoned, joystick jockey should recognize these words, as they were in the user’s manual for Contra, an NES game that took the video-gaming world by storm and became an enduring classic. Originally released in 1987 as a coin-op arcade game called Gryzor, the story follows Bill “Mad Dog” Rizer and Lance “Scorpion” Bean, two highly-trained soldiers who must track down and defeat the evil alien Red Falcon in the deep jungles of a South American island. The gameplay was very unique for a side-scrolling shooter, as players could maneuver their character through landscapes that not only scrolled left-to- right but also bottom-to-top and three-dimensionally forward, which was highly innovative at the time.
Perhaps the most memorable feature of Contra was the inclusion of the “Mother of All Cheat Codes”, which rewarded players with 30 lives.
This code has become iconic in the world of videogames and although it definitely helps you to finish the game it is not a guarantee. The gameplay was fast and furious and just standing in the wrong place could get you killed at any time. The ability to shoot in eight different directions helped increase the chances of survival and grabbing a friend for a tag-team in two-player cooperative mode upped the odds even more. But you had to be careful when choosing the right gamer to partner with because someone who lagged behind could quickly become rainforest fertilizer and bring you down with them.
When I learned of Contra’s 25th Anniversary, I was curious to see if the game held up. I dug out my old NES, popped in the cartridge and got to runnin’ and gunnin’. To my surprise, the game not only holds its own but surpasses many of today’s titles in terms of fun and excitement. Sure, the graphics are of the 2D 8-bit variety but not needing an extra set of fingers to navigate the controls was refreshing. Many of today’s games require a skill set that must be honed to perfection before any level of enjoyment can be had, which often feels like math to me. I would rather become immersed in a game’s story and landscapes without having to memorize button combinations and, in that respect, Contra still delivers the goods.
Happy Anniversary, Contra! You may be rough around your pixelated edges compared to those young whippersnappers out there today but you’ve still got some game left. Literally.