Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Contra - Thoughts

Short, sweet, pure, and simple: Contra is a game about few words—all that matters is how quickly you can react to rapidly approaching bullets. It's one of the best games to showcase the merits of the 8-bit era, being easy to pick up but tricky to complete on your first try. Despite the common conception that the Konami Code is required in order to stand a chance, Contra is a surprisingly fair outing, provided you're willing to persevere past your first GAME OVER. With a little bit of patience (plus the Spread Gun by your side), you'll soon transform into a Schwarzenegger-style one-man-army, complete with snarky quips you'll instinctively toss at your television.

Your progression path through Contra isn't as creative as its sequels, but it offers up a solid set of levels. There's a meaty amount of jungle treading, waterfall climbing, snowfield hopping, and industrial hazards to avoid as you blast your way into the (literal) heart of the enemy base. Each level is rigged with various turrets, guards, and runners to slow your sprint through the stages, pushing the player to pay attention to every corner of the screen. What makes each stage design a stroke of genius is that Contra constantly uses verticality, forcing the player along one path while tasking them with being mindful of gunners on the other. This is actually an aspect that's curiously absent from other games in the franchise, and wouldn't appear again until Contra 4 (where it came back with a vengeance).

Where the game stumbles a bit is in the forward-running sequences, though they're not particularly detrimental to the overall experience. I think the best way I can describe them is by spouting a phrase I would've used when I first played it decades ago: they're weird. The gameplay definitely works for the most part—the hitboxes are luckily not as loose as something like Iridion 3D—but it doesn't feel as tight, responsive, or snappy as the rest of the game. That, and the corridors for each facility are completely similar (barring the back wall) so there's not much flavor to these levels outside of the color scheme and boss rooms. However, even these stages adhere to Contra's philosophy of keeping the player on alert, obstacles coming in all shapes and sizes as you focus down the wall's weak points. It's for this reason that they don't feel too out of place or mismatched in this game, despite the glaring perspective change.

Besides the levels requiring both persistence and vigilance to surpass, the power-ups play a pretty significant role in Contra too. A striking design choice that's missing from a lot of modern games nowadays is an intentional imbalancing of weapons: Contra's Spread Gun is far and away the most versatile (and powerful!) ability in the game. The vertical threats in the stage design fold beneath the player when they're granted the ability to attack in an expanding cone, and bosses melt under the shotgun-like blast of the Spread bullets. Couple this with the Rapid Fire pick-up and it becomes fairly easy to make it through the entire game without a death, so long as you remember which traps come next. Compare this to something like the Flame Gun—a weapon with such a low rate of fire that it's almost better to entirely avoid it—and multiple modes of play (and difficulty!) are born from whichever armaments you hold. While it's feasible to finish the game sticking to your standard pea shooter, the sheer might and power of the Spread Gun is one of those lovely little additions that helps Contra stick out amongst its peers.

Perhaps the greatest of Contra's strengths is that it's quick to beat. And by quick, I mean twenty minutes—including deaths! If the game lasted thrice as long I could see its difficulty wearing out the more death-sensitive players (this is actually my main criticism of Hard Corps: Uprising), but the brisk pace of the game aids in enduring its memory, making it an easy title to recommend. It's also one of the reasons why I feel that its difficulty is severely overstated; the time it takes to learn and memorize scores of other NES titles downright eclipses the effort it requires to conquer Contra. I'm not trying to thumb my nose at anyone that has struggled with the game, but Contra definitely could've gone to far darker places if it had any intention of being malicious or time-wasting. It also helps that the final stage feels more like a victory lap than anything, something that the future titles would violently pivot away from.

Lastly, Contra is a fantastic co-op game. Armed with a second player to cover your six, you'll be free to charge forward through the level, effectively doubling the survivability of your squad. And even when one of you falls in combat, Contra's life-stealing system is a clever way to teach trust to young players, allowing them to argue where/when it's appropriate to borrow a player's extra life. It also helps demonstrate that it can be more fun to play together and lose than let one person carry the torch for the sake of winning the game (though I admit I was guilty of convincing my sister of the latter plenty of times). Throw in the fact that there weren't a hell of a lot of simultaneous multiplayer games at the time, and Contra not only stands tall as one of the best action games for the NES, but perhaps its best co-op experience as well.

Contra's difficulty belies its approachability. Beneath the tough, macho veneer is a frantically fun frenzy of bullets, guns, explosions, and shameless Alien ripoffs; I can't fathom how anyone could play the game and outright hate it, unless dying a few times is beyond the pale. It's simple to understand and a joy to play, two qualities which have gradually been lost to gaming as the medium has aged and shed its arcade roots. Contra isn't a leisurely walk through the park but it tends to rewards patience and observation more than it punishes you for not knowing what's coming up next. There's a good reason many look back fondly on Bill & Lance's commando escapade debut—run'n'gun games don't get much more accessible than this.

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