How good is the original Famicom Contra?
What is it that makes Contra so great?
The whole idea is off the charts awesome from the start. Rambo and Dutch (Arnold’s character from Predator) vs the Aliens from Alien. Much like how Castlevania was a pastiche of classic monster movies (Dracula, Frankensten, Mummy Man etc) Contra is based on an 80s dream movie we never got.
Lush jungles (apparently New Zealand), futuristic enemy bases, a subterranean alien lair – so many classic 80s macho-man settings are covered. And it looks fantastic, particularly the Famicom version (over the NES versions) with more effects, animated trees in the jungle and snow field levels, and animated alien squirming in the final stage. The music is packed with ‘big action movie’ tunes that could have been written by Jerry Goldsmith himself, and the sound effects are suitably chunky and expressive.
The Fami version also has cut-scenes and a rather cool Ghouls n Ghosts style overworld map.
Of course ultimately it’s the killer gameplay that makes it an all time classic. Taking shooter and platfomer and melding them into a cohesive whole for the first time.
It has literally perfect controls. I wish every game on the Famicom had such amazing controls. It’s satisfying just to move and shoot, and you always know a death was your own fault.
Enemy and boss designs are tuned to offer a pitch-perfect challenge. The variety of tasks, settings, and ideas was top of the industry at the time of release.
The arcade game was very good, but the team that ported it to the Famicom are the ones who got it most right. The more colourful, tighter controlled home version is one of the rare times that a home port eclipses an arcade original.
The Contra series unfortunately didn’t last as long as it should have as a top-tier franchise. Two equally excellent sequels (Super Contra and Contra Spirits) and a very good side game (Game Boy Contra, known as Operation C in the U.S.) got the formula right, but after that a series of missteps basically killed the brand.
A pretty bad NES spin-off (Contra Force, which was originally an unrelated project known as Arc Hound) started the trend, and was followed by a Mega Drive spin-off (Contra: Hard Corps) which was good, but in my opinion messed with the formula too much. Fiddly controls, drab settings, bad overly crunchy sound effects, and a techno soundtrack that ruined the 80s action movie feel.
Four terrible-to-mediocre games followed on PS1/PS2, all of which continued to misunderstand what made the first four games great. The first PS2 game (Contra: Shattered Soldier) was the closest to understanding Contra, but still wrecked the formula with mushy controls (likely due to the game’s 2.5D presentation which almost never works well), a stupid cycling weapon system and a lame ’emo teenager’ techno-metal soundtrack and presentation style.
It was’t until the brilliant Contra 4 for Nintendo DS in 2007 that we finally got another game that got the formula correct again, and was truly worthy of the Kontora name.
But here’s to the original Famicom game. It has been equalled, but has never been topped in its genre, even 27 years later.
The Japanese version is one of the games that came with a collector card. I finally got a copy with the card recently of a decent price, so now I’m up to 9/20!