Where many NES titles stumble on small technicalities or outdated design quirks, Contra just grabs its guns, jumps into the jungle, and smoothly runs to the finish line while blasting everything in sight

There was no way around it. During the NES era, games had to be hard. For starters, there was the fact one could not squeeze much into the system’s cartridges, which meant that titles were generally short on content; and although there were a few outliers here and there, such as The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. 3, this brevity was pretty much an accepted norm. Therefore, in order to give players value for the bucks they spent, 8-bit adventures relied on forcing them to tackle the same segments repeatedly until they mastered these challenges to the point they could overcome numerous hurdles without too much trouble. The entire Mega Man franchise, in which each installment had at most a dozen stages, is one of the most widely recognized examples of that design approach.

The second type of game that contributed to this general toughness was at the same time similar to and different from the first. These were titles originated in arcade machines, which were ported in droves to Nintendo’s home console once it began showing it was going to revitalize the industry and be a huge commercial success. The similarity stemmed from how, like cartridges, these larger machines could not hold much information; besides, arcades were inherently meant to provide brief bursts of gameplay. As such, it goes without saying these were short games. However, where home console titles went for difficulty to make brief experiences seem longer, arcades had an extra motivation to be tough: cash. Since extra lives or the chance to continue playing upon defeat required that players dish out a few coins, these efforts benefited from balancing an addictive nature and a level of challenge that was brutal without coming off as unfair.


Due to this prevalence of difficulty in the NES library, giving special attention to it when trying to dissect a game may seem redundant: after all, this is not modern gaming, where adventures are built to welcome everyone and hard titles like Dark Souls are outliers; these are the late 1980s, where watching the end credits roll by was far from being a given. In the case of Contra, though, the attention to the topic is absolutely justified, because just like FromSoftware’s products became synonyms for challenge in the 2010s, Konami’s classic is often remembered for being a particularly difficult quest in the midst a sea of other products that were themselves already tough as nails.

As to the origin of that hard nature, Contra belongs to the second group; that is, it was among the many arcade games that were ported to the NES, with its original release happening in 1986 and its arrival on Nintendo’s home console coming one year later. However, given the change of the context in which it was played, it is only natural that for a domestic audience, its difficulty works towards making a quest that is quite short transform into an experience that might never end. Because although Contra just has eight stages, it is safe to say most who play it will not be able to save the day.

True to its arcade origin, Contra will not even tell gamers what it is about. As soon they use the title screen to select whether they want to tackle the adventure alone or alongside a friend, players will be kicked to the beginning of the first level without any introduction. Yet, a look at the game’s manual reveals the motivation for its quest. In 1957, an object coming from outer space crashed into the Amazon basin, but scientists did not think much of it. Thirty years later, though, reports from the jungle speak of villagers who are terrified by an army of alien creatures that are starting to stretch their claws around the region. Trying not to raise too much worldwide concern but at the same time looking to stop the threat from spreading, the American government opts not to involve itself directly but instead send two of their best commandos on a secretive mission to the Amazon. That is where players come in.

Mostly, Contra is a pretty standard shoot ‘em up of the era. In other words, the heroes will travel from left to right while gunning down everyone who tries to stand in their path; and all stages culminate with a big battle against a boss. The directional pad controls the characters’ movement as well as aiming, the A button makes them jump, and the B button is used to fire. It is intuitive, and given the very limited number of inputs on the NES joystick, it is unlikely it could be any different, but it has to be mentioned that sometimes, when shooting diagonally, it can be easy to wish there were a way to do so while standing still. Since aiming in that direction also causes characters to move, though, players looking to eliminate foes in such positions will have to either fire at them on the run or approach them from another, perhaps more dangerous, angle.


Contra, however, does occasionally try to get away from that mold, even if a little bit. As a not so intense example, the third level, taking place by a waterfall, focuses on up-scrolling rather than on moving sideways. The second and fourth stages, meanwhile, present a firmer break from the norm, as they go for a pseudo tridimensional look that turns the game into a prototype for a modern third-person shooter. In these levels, the camera is positioned behind the back of the starring characters, with harmful objects as well as projectiles moving towards the screen. Moreover, in what is likely a limitation imposed by the hardware of the time, the action in these stages takes place inside a series of rooms, with players only being able to move forward to the next one once they have gotten rid of all bad guys and blown open the gate ahead. As such, instead of having to worry about walking in four directions, which would likely be clunky and inappropriate for a fast-paced action game of the kind, players are limited to moving sideways while the shooting is happening.

Taking a page from the flying shoot ‘em ups that abounded in its era, Contra manages to add some spice to its weaponry via a series of power-ups that tend to appear when flying capsules that float across the screen are blasted down. In total, there are six of these items, and even though some are definitely better than others, all of them alter the protagonists’ work tools in meaningful ways: the Spread Gun sends projectiles in various directions to cover a huge area; the Laser has the limitation of only shooting one beam at a time, but it deals a lot of damage; the Machine Gun, due to its automatic nature, allows players to hold the B button in order to fire continuously; and the list goes on. Additionally, although they are rarer, a power-up that grants temporary invincibility and another that destroys everything on the screen, be them baddies or bullets, also exist to bring some much needed relief to players.

Regardless of the format it is using (sidescrolling, up-scrolling, or tridimensional) and of the weapons being deployed, Contra is very well-designed. Its levels are fun to go through, its shooting is quite satisfying, its two-player mode is solid, and as brutal as it can be, it never feels unfair. Sure, there are moments, especially during bosses and in the pseudo 3-D stages, when there are so many projectiles flying around that the action can verge on bullet hell; additionally, the laser obstacles from the fifth level are absolutely unforgiving in how they demand borderline perfect timing to be overcome. But even those extreme examples are not cases of outrageous design; they are merely instances of very high difficulty.

Although the level design is certainly responsible for a huge part of Contra’s challenge, the bottom line is that most of it stems from the bitter fact mistakes are not allowed: if the characters are hit by a projectile or touched by an enemy, they will die on the spot. Perhaps a reflection of how the adventure stars two dudes who have decided to drop shirtless in the middle of a war zone, this unforgiving rule creates a unique situation: in Contra, there is no health bar or the concept of hit points; these are replaced by lives, with every one of them essentially representing a hit.


Obviously, it is brutal, which makes it unsurprising Contra is so remembered for its difficulty. Yes, players can earn new lives by killing enough foes to score a certain amount of points, but the general rule is that taking three hits is enough to trigger a game over. And even though it is possible to opt to continue the adventure from the beginning of the stage once that happens, this action is also limited to three; if one exceeds that number of deaths, they will be sent back to the title screen and be forced to start it all from scratch. With such tight room for error, it is no wonder most gamers choose to tackle Contra by using the famous Konami Code, which grants the heroes thirty lives and gives them a better chance to rid the world of the alien menace that is sneaking up on it.

With the use of a well-know cheat or without it, the difficulty encountered in Contra is not for everyone. However, in the end, the game is at least worth a try, because its level of polish cannot be denied. Where many NES titles stumble on small technicalities or outdated design quirks, Contra just grabs its guns, jumps into the jungle, and smoothly runs to the finish line while blasting everything in sight. Its graphics are colorful and its environments are pleasantly distinct from one another. Its experimentation with 3-D gameplay may not rise to the same level as its sidescrolling portions, but it is a fun twist and adds novelty to the mix. Its bosses are nicely varied. And its gameplay has a fast-paced action flow to it that not many games of the system were able to replicate.

One could say that eight stages are not enough; that its high difficulty, which surpasses the already elevated standards of the time, makes it nearly unpalatable for a modern audience; or that its gameplay is too simple compared to what some classics of the console pulled off. These are all valid arguments, but they simply highlight Contra’s nature as an arcade title that was ported to a home console; as such, those are not necessarily flaws, but features that were planned from the start. And the fact they exist as part and parcel of the package leads to the only verdict that could be reached given the game’s numerous qualities: Contra is not universally appealing, but to those who love products of its kind, it is hard to find a better experience on the NES as far as its niche is concerned.



4 thoughts on “Contra

  1. Years later, I got the same feels from playing Contra 4 on DS. I had to know everything that was coming and have lightning fast reflexes in order to navigate the game’s incredible difficulty. With enough practice, though, it eventually became second nature, and I could make it to the end boss without dying.

        1. I could see that. You have to get into a groove in order to advance in these games. If you drop them, you will quickly lose the state of mind that’s necessary to overcome the insane difficulty.

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