Contra (魂斗羅 Kontora), known as Probotector in Europe and Gryzor in Oceania, is a 1987 run and gun action game developed and published by Konami originally released as a coin-operated arcade game on February 20, 1987. A home version was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988, along with ports for various computer formats, including the MSX2. The home versions were localized in the PAL region as Gryzor on the various computer formats and as Probotector on the NES, released later. Several Contra sequels were produced following the original game.
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Holds up surprisingly well for an action game on the NES. It's tough, but it doesn't throw too many cheap shots. Your character handles great, the stages are all distinct in their gimmicks and art design, and the enemy patterns are clear and learnable. I played through solo, but co-op is the way to go.
The Konami Code is super famous has been talked about to death, so these are most definitely well-trodden thoughts, but I like how it functions as training wheels for the beginner player. You can play burden-free and die (almost) as many times as you want while you adapt to the game. Then, once you've got a hang of all the patterns, you can blaze through without it and feel like an absolute champ. Probably unintentional, but brilliant nonetheless.
The moment you press start and gain control of your character after booting up Contra and hearing that instantly recognizable 7 note jingle and loud 8-bit explosion sound effect on the title screen, you have essentially played every game this series has to offer and experienced what Contra is all about.
Contra immediately indulges the player's instinct to charge his way through the screen with a sprinting-sommersaulting Rambo inspired sprite that fires unlimited satisfying sounding bullets as a flood of enemies fill the screen ahead of you, which is then immediately contrasted with how absurdly fragile your character actually is when compared to other sidescroller protags, dying with one single hit and having to start all over again after a measily set of 3 lives is depleted.
While these days you have to tip toe around discussing difficulty in games because someone might get offended if you tell them that beating a game with save states isn't the same as beating it without them, it was understood that Contra players who beat the game were divided into 2 camps: the ones who used the 30 lives cheat code, and the ones who didn't. Although playing Contra with the 30 lives code still provides an exciting and engaging experience, and I have to give major props to Konami for normalizing its existence as an alternative, it's only when you start giving a default run a serious try that the beauty of the game unfolds.
The exhiliration and sense of triumph you get out of conquering each stage without a single death, as you get into the zone and start to unveil the matrix behind every jump and bullet, and you defeat the final boss on a Xenomorph inspired last stage, stands at the peak of the art of difficulty that characterizes this era in videogames that so many of us have (joyfully) struggled with. A game that is always within your control, if you decide to actually reach for it.
Contra would go on to have a respectable number of sequels in its catalogue, many that I would even consider better than this first entry, but it's interesting how they all have left the core gameplay mostly untouched and focused their attention mainly on the bombastic action spectacle presentation of the series. Maybe that's because Contra hit a home run on its first try and Konami was wise enough not to mess with the formula, and as it stands 35 years after its release, it is still a fresh and unique 8-bit experience worth going through.
Everyone knows Nintendo Entertainment System games had a tendency to be overly difficult due to their recent ancestry with arcade cabinet design, and Contra is the best example of the difficulty curve somehow strengthening the appeal of a title. Even a play-through that takes advantage of the now famous Konami code, leaves the player wondering, what if? What if I played the game without the extra lives, what if I didn’t have the continues, what if I was actually feeding quarters into a machine for each mistake? The intensity of the bullet hell that is Contra shines through, and is a compelling play even today.