Special: I love the Spread Gun, it's so bad.
Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start. Anyone that was playing video games in 1988 has this code forever burned into their brain. It went by many names. The 30 guy code. The Konami Code. But it was probably best known as The Contra Code. Probably the only way those of us that played it could beat Contra the first time. But Contra did not start with the code, no it goes back a little further than that, and far beyond. So behold, the history of Contra:
Like many of the great "twitch games" from the 80s Contra was born in Japanese arcades in 1987 under the name Gryzor. When the game proved to be a smash, it was quickly ported over to U.S. arcades and redubbed Contra. It's probably tired trivia at this point, but the Contra name was born out of two Japanese kanji symbols on the side of the cabinet that were pronounced "kon" and "tra". The name stuck and has been used for every version of the game since.
The arcade game was not all that different from the NES version that would follow. Bill and Lance were dropped into the South American jungle and ordered to stop the alien menace known as the Red Falcon. The graphics were much spiffier and the game was actually only five levels long. The Jungle, Base 1, The Waterfall, Base 2 and the Alien Lair were all that was needed to hook the public on Contra. But everything else was there: the Spread Gun, the hordes of brainwashed soldiers, the pseudo-3D effects of the Base levels where your Contra soldier seemed to move into the screen and the final level that was obviously inspired by H.R. Giger's Alien designs.
Contra's place in video game history was cemented in February 1988 when a redesigned and expanded port of the arcade game was brought to the Nintendo Entertainment System. Right away the difficulty pulled gamers in and when that wonderful, glorious code was revealed, the genius of Contra became clear. It was an amazing shooter with huge boss monsters and an incredibly memorable final battle against The Heart of Red Falcon.
The NES version featured three new levels (Ice Field, Energy Zone, Hangar) that were largely responsible for the jump in difficulty as they were the hardest levels. For the American release, the monsters of the machine gun, Bill and Lance, became Mad Dog and Scorpion. The game was also said to take place in the present day, while the Japanese Contra took place 500 years in the future. Of course this is nothing compared to the changes for the European release. It was retitled Probotector and changed every human character into a robot because at this time the Europeans were still a little squeamish about "realistic" video game violence against people.
A few months after the NES version of Contra won the hearts of gamers everywhere, Konami rolled out Super Contra into arcades. Super Contra was very similar to the original Contra but with more levels, more bosses and two alien menaces as this time Red Falcon returned with the help of Jagger Froid. It took some time, February 1990 to be exact, but Super Contra came to the NES in the form of Super C and Jagger Froid is actually the mean bugger that scored the cover this time.
Now some folks will tell you that Super C is a better game than Contra. And it is bigger, longer and the graphics are slightly prettier, but I just can't agree with them. It did some good things. It was the first Contra game to feature overhead levels. This was also about the time Konami realized a thirty life code was too generous, so they opted for a ten life code instead. That made Super C feel like a tougher game. I think it all comes down to the fact that Super C feels more leisurely paced than Contra. Especially the overhead levels, they just felt slow. But it's still Contra and it's still great.
Konami took the series portable in 1991 when it released Operation C for the Game Boy. The original Game Boy's black and white graphics couldn't hide a great Contra game. It was also the first game in the series to use Homing Missiles as a weapon. It was called the Hunter and for a long time it was only way to take your Contra on the road.
After the Super NES had been on the scene for a few months in 1992 came the greatest Contra adventure ever, Contra III: The Alien Wars. Konami was finally able to duplicate the graphics of the arcade editions and used it to create the non-stop run-and-gun that is Contra III. The burned out cities and the new rampaging mutants of Red Falcon gave Contra a new look on the Super NES. The game was bigger than any before it, it was harder than any before it, and there was no Konami Code to save you this time.
A few changes were in store for the Contra formula with the jump to 16-bits. The first is that the Machine Gun is now your standard issue weapon. Another large change was to the story. For the U.S. Konami jumped the year up to 2636 and named the main characters Jimbo and Sully, ancestors of the great Mad Dog and Scorpion. In Japan the series always took place in the future and now it does in America as well. Contra players could also hold two weapons at once now and switch off at will. The Super Bomb was also added to your arsenal to clear the screen of enemies. And the Flamethrower was introduced for the first time.
Contra III has managed to etch itself into the consciousness of a lot of gamers because of several fantastic setpieces. The two overhead levels that used the Super NES's new Mode 7 technology to create true 360 degree movement. Hanging from power lines as you spray giant mosquitoes with the Flamethrower. Then there was the beginning of one of the staples of Contra, the homage to past games as Contra III recreated the level one fight against the Fortress Entrance and the final fight against the Heart from the first Contra.
Later in the year, Contra Force was unleashed on an unsuspecting NES playing public. It was a generic NES shooter that had the Contra name slapped on it at the last minute by a greedy Konami, or so the story goes. It is debatably the low point of the series (which we'll get to in a minute). The weapon system was changed so that now instead of shooting blimps to find extra weapons you collected suitcases that added to a weapon meter like in another Konami game, Gradius. The game is also slow, short, easy, and not even about aliens! This time your Contra soldiers have to rescue the leader of the Contra Force from a drug dealer! Although for all it's suckiness it's rather ironic that this is the game that introduced the concept of a "Contra Force" that has been picked up by other games in the series. It's also the first that players are able to select which Contra soldier they want to play as.
The series took a hiatus for two years and returned with a vengeance in 1994 and on the Sega Genesis for the first time. Contra: Hard Corps was it's name and it was the hardest game ever created. It was so hard in fact that for the first time Konami added an energy bar for your Contra soldier, although only in the Japanese version. Apparently Konami must have felt that U.S. gamers were a little more hardy. I've played both versions and it's interesting how much an energy bar changes things up. You have more freedom with an energy bar; you can play more loose and the game doesn't seem that hard. But without the energy bar, Hard Corps is a tense experience of bosses, midpoint bosses and then just a few really big enemies that are really hard to kill. I don't know anyone that has ever beaten it, but if you're out there reading this, you magnificent bastards, I salute you!
Hard Corps took the core concept of Contra Force, selectable characters, and took it to the next level (to steal a Sega marketing slogan). This time the Contra soldiers consisted of Fang, a werewolf, Browny, a robot and two human Contra soldiers. Each of the four characters had different stats and weapons so that players could tailor their character to how they liked to play. It also added many features that would show up again later in the series such as using the shoulder buttons for Movement Lock and Gun Angle Lock. This was the first game in the series to take place after the alien invasion and used a different story to get the action moving. In Hard Corps and in many subsequent Contra games, a rogue force on Earth stole alien cells and attempted to create an alien army needed for nefarious deeds.
Hard Corps also created the "boss style" of play that Contra has used since. Instead of fighting hordes of brainwashed soldiers until one big boss at the end and maybe a midpoint boss, Hard Corps stuffed levels with four, five and six bosses with short bouts of soldier shooting in-between. It's different and the debate between Hard Corps and Contra III usually centers around this single point. Hard Corps also has slightly downgraded graphics because of the Genesis, but both titles are worthy of being deemed the greatest Contra ever.
1994 also saw the release of Contra: The Alien Wars for the Game Boy. Contra: The Alien Wars was an ambitious attempt to try to bring the 16 bit classic to the portable. It's a good try, but the hardware limitations (and inevitable comparisons to it's big brother) keep it from being on par with most Contra games. Interestingly, The Alien Wars was developed by Factor 5, the team that would go on to create the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series on the Nintendo 64 and GameCube.
Contra took another hiatus as the 32-bit wars heated up before Contra: Legacy of War came to the PlayStation and Saturn in 1996. Legacy of War was the first Contra game developed outside of Konami and even outside of Japan. Development duties were handed to the European company Appaloosa Entertainment and thus begins the "dark days" of the Contra series. Legacy of War ditched the side scrolling and played from an overhead perspective, much like some levels in Super C. Legacy of War continues the adventures of the Hard Corps team as they fight a demented General that is trying to breed aliens to conquer humanity. The less said about this game the better and we will never speak of the Garbage Boss.
After Legacy of War came news out of Konami that the aptly titled Contra 64 was in the works for the Nintendo 64. After Appaloosa's blunder it was decided that Contra 64 would once again be developed in house. But nothing ever came of it as a few months later Konami revealed that the game had been canceled. No screenshots were ever released, but Contra 64 was supposed to be the first Contra to take place in full 3D. Rumor had it that the game would have been a 3D remake of the original Contra, but like a good soldier, that was never confirmed nor denied. Maybe we're better off not knowing.
We're better off not knowing because in 1998 Konami let Appaloosa have another crack at it and they produced C: The Contra Adventure for the PlayStation. C was a bad game. C was so bad that only Contra Force could be considered worse. And even then it would be a knockdown, drag out fight to the finish to prove which one sucks more. C was the first fully 3D Contra game. It also didn't show any of these 3D screenshots on the box. The only screenshots on the box were from the first level, which was side-scrolling. Text on the box promised a return to the classic way of playing. Lies! All lies! Between the muddy graphics, cheap A.I., piss-poor controls and downright crappy level design, C: The Contra Adventure doesn't deserve to be called a Contra game. Sure it features the Hard Corps, which is more than Contra Force can claim, but at this point I thought the series was dead, never to be resurrected.
Thankfully, Konami knows better and revived Contra on the PlayStation 2 as a pure side-scrolling actionfest titled Contra: Shattered Soldier. Shattered Soldier flung the series into the future once more and featured the return of the original Contra soldiers, Bill and Lance. With American gamers finally getting a chance to play as Bill, Konami also gave European players the chance to play their first real Contra game as they finally dropped the Probotector name. This was all done in an effort to stop the vile Red Falcon and his new army, Blood Falcon.
Shattered Soldier was everything Contra should be with just enough changes for the year 2002. It was a side-scroller that was created entirely in polygons and added a throbbing rock soundtrack. It featured a new weapon system that did away with the weapon blimps but gave Bill six distinct weapons that were selectable at all times. A modified version of the Konami code was included. The only downside is that the Spread Gun missed the cut for the weapon list.
Shattered Soldier revealed the true cause of the alien menace and put a unique spin on many favorite Contra moments. It used the "boss style" of Hard Corps and included many favorite bosses including the Mutant Turtle, Red Falcon and the face-ram-whatever-thing from Contra III, the train robot from Hard Corps and the Fortress Entrance from the original Contra. My favorite moment of Contra III, frying mosquitoes with a flamethrower, returned as well. Shattered Soldier also featured a new take on the Heart and added the Hit Meter to make reward players who caused as much carnage as they possibly could.
When everyone else was playing GTA: Vice City, Metroid Prime and Splinter Cell, Contra: Shattered Soldier was my drug of choice.
To finish out 2002, Konami also saw fit to release Konami Collector's Series: Castlevania and Contra on the PC which included versions of Contra and Super C and the Game Boy Advance got Contra Advance: The Alien Wars EX, a recreation of Contra III. The only difference of Contra Advance was that it left out the overhead levels and replaced them with two levels from Contra: Hard Corps. The two greatest are together for the first time, sort of.
What does the future hold for Contra? Probably plenty. Neo Contra was just released this past week and it changes the series again. Konami has tried their hand at another overhead adventure and I can safely say they have finally succeeded. As the times change the impact of Contra and it's fast, action packed gameplay will be something that many gamers come back to time and again. It also shows that the series is here to stay and that with a little luck we'll be seeing Contra games until the aliens really do invade. I say bring it on. I've got my t-shirt with "The Code" emblazoned on it and I know where I can get a flamethrower.