A quarter century ago, a little game riffing on the latest 80’s action films rolled into arcades around the world. Contra had arrived, and it was hungry for your hard-earned allowance. With a punishing degree of difficulty, designed specifically to rob players of lives and quarters, it became an instant hit thanks to its over-the-top action and the power ups like the now-iconic spread shot. And in its success, it unwittingly sent ripples through the industry, ripples that still influence games to this day.
One Man Vs. The World
While Contra’s legacy began in 1987 arcades, it didn’t become a household name until Konami ported it to the NES a year after its arcade debut. The graphics had to be scaled back due to the 8-bit system’s limitations, but all of the power ups, levels, and tough-as-nails gameplay remained intact. Most importantly though, it brought the arcade’s two-player co-operative play to home consoles.
Understand, this was a rare treat on the NES at the time, where multiplayer usually meant passing the controller and waiting impatiently for your friend to fail. Gamers were eager to have an arcade-quality game at home, and parents preferred the one-time purchase over constant quarters at arcades, it was a win for everyone.
But Contra on NES went a step further than simply trying to replicate the arcade experience. An additional power up was introduced, clearing all enemies from the screen. And of course, there was the precious Konami code, mercifully giving players a full 30 lives rather than the typical three. It was still a fiendishly hard game to beat, even with the Konami code. Through perseverance, and a little help from player 2, many gamers for the first time were actually able to complete Contra.
Building on Perfection
The same year that Contra arrived on home consoles Konami unleashed the sequel, Super Contra, in arcades. For the second outing, Konami designed a more vertical game, with ramps to take full advantage of your eight-directional aiming and levels where the screen panned up and down with the action. The first game’s pseudo-3D corridor levels were replaced with top-down action stages, drawing similarities to competing arcade games of the time like Capcom’s Bionic Commando.
These more open overhead levels, combined with the more dynamic camera from the side-scrolling stages gave Super Contra a more cinematic action movie feel. In 1990, it too was ported to the NES under the new name Super C, marking the series finding a new permanent home on home consoles.
Like the NES port of Contra, Super C went above and beyond its arcade roots. The Konami code was gone, but a new code took its place to fortify players with ten lives instead of thirty, and the screen-clearing power up from Contra’s NES port made its triumphant return. Three new stages also made Super C a beefier game than in arcades, while a modification to the flame pickup turned it into a powerful charged shot previously unseen in the series. These enhancements weren’t simply for show.
Save The World, Save The Video Games
The video game industry was in a state of flux, with more and more attention shifting to consoles as arcades began to wane in popularity. Super C’s extra levels demonstrated the need for longer games at home, where players had unlimited access and could actually be expected to complete each game. If Konami was going to survive it needed to adapt, and Super C was instrumental in that evolution.
With the introduction of the Super NES, Konami could finally bring arcade-quality visuals to a home console along with its proven arcade-quality gameplay. Contra III: The Alien Wars in 1992 built on the cinematic feel of Super Contra with longer levels to show off sweeping set pieces.
The dynamic levels let players ride in tanks or hang from railings like never before. Players could also now carry and switch between two power ups at once, encouraging gameplay experimentation and allowing a safety net by keeping one of those weapons after dying. Speaking of dying, the main menu even allowed players to select their difficulty level and choose how many lives to start with, no code required.
The Legend Lives On
Even with the enhancements and concessions Contra received on consoles, the series’ notorious difficulty always remained intact. The borderline-unfair difficulty that was a signature of arcade game design made the successful jump to home systems, paving the way today’s hardcore gaming challenges. That isn’t to say difficult games wouldn’t be around without Contra.
This rebel from the arcade era set a new standard in the industry with its keen understanding of the differences between console and arcade gaming. It brought balance to a genre of game originally created solely to kill the player. From Ratchet and Clank’s diverse arsenal to Super Meat Boy’s infinite lives and Dark Souls’ tightly crafted memorization of enemy patterns, Contra’s influence is still felt to this day.