One of the most popular games on the NES is regarded that way because it is still one of the best games around.
To Beat: Reach the ending
My Goal: Loop the game twice
What I Did: Reached Loop 3, Stage 7
My Difficulty: 2/10
Konami was responsible for many of the best NES games made and Contra may very well be the cream of that crop. It is based on the arcade game of the same name that released in 1987 but the NES version of Contra is widely regarded as the better version at a time when arcade machines were at the bleeding edge of video game technology. I played through the arcade Contra earlier this year and I can personally attest that the NES version is much more fun to play. The main difference is in the physics and in particular the jumping. The jumps in the arcade have more float to them than the NES port and it is more difficult to dodge anything oncoming since the hangtime is longer. If I remember right the NES port has a bit more content as well.
One of the most famous things about Contra is the Konami Code. It did not make its first appearance in Contra but it is almost certainly used most often in this game to get started with 30 lives. This is nearly essential for the new player because with bullets flying all over and one hit kills it means death is all too common. The Konami Code definitely helped me when I was younger. I haven’t used the code in years in single player because I don’t really need it but it would have been a lot harder to get good at the game without using it early on.
Contra has 8 missions in total: Jungle, Base 1, Waterfall, Base 2, Snowfield, Energy Zone, Hangar, and Alien’s Lair. I recited that from memory! I would say that most players could get enough practice quickly to make it up to the Waterfall level, which is where the game bumps up in difficulty mostly because the screen only scrolls up and falling back down gets you killed. That happens a lot.
The base levels are played with a behind-the-shoulder perspective instead of the side view in all the other levels. It can be a bit tricky to dodge attacks from that perspective but fortunately the levels are short enough that it’s not too bad. Well, the first base is short. The second base feels at least twice as long as the first!
The latter half of the game features some sort of gimmick in each level. The snowfield mission’s background chucks these weird baton-shaped grenades all over the place. The Energy Zone has plumes of fire that blast out of the background pipes conveniently timed to when you are in the way. The Hangar has spikes that drop down and spike walls that pop up. Finally the Alien’s Lair features a fight against a huge alien head right off that bat. That one is especially intimidating and awesome the first time you see it.
Contra also has a pretty nice set of special weapons that usually fly in on these little pods. There’s a machine gun, a spinning fire shot, a laser, and a spread shot. There is also a bullet speed upgrade, temporary invincibility, and a smart bomb that kills all enemies on-screen. Surprisingly to me there is debate about which weapon is the best and frankly I don’t get that at all. Spread shot is my weapon of choice and the others don’t come close.
I have played this game dozens of times over the years and I expected it to be a cakewalk this time, and I was sorely mistaken. For the first 15-20 minutes I played downright awful by my standards. I got Game Over in the Waterfall stage TWICE! It was some kind of rust I had to shake off and I hope this is not a trend going forward. I simply don’t accept using continues on a game I am so familiar with so I chose to start all over. The third time was indeed the charm and I cruised through the game after that.
When you beat the game and go through the credits the game starts over with your lives and score intact (maybe your weapon too but I don’t recall what happened to me on that) and a corresponding bump in difficulty. I had not played through the game more than once at a time until this run. As I understand it it takes a few loops before the difficulty becomes evident. For me the second time through wasn’t that much different than the first, and the third time through I only noticed it getting harder a few times. I think the game pushes out more enemies each time through and the bosses require more damage. I noticed it for sure at the end of my run at the end of the Hangar level in the third loop. I got pinned between a turret gunner and enemies constantly spawning from behind and I wasn’t able to take advantage of a brief window in between attacks to finish off the gunner.
Contra was also released on the Famicom about the same time it was released on NES. The Famicom version is even better than the NES version if you can believe that. It has extra cutscenes between levels and some other visual effects not present in the NES version. The difference has to do with a custom chip on the Famicom cart not present on the NES cart that allowed for the extra content. I have yet to play it but I hope to own a cart of my own someday for the best possible experience.
Lastly, Contra was released in PAL regions in late 1990 but this is the weakest of the releases in my opinion. It was renamed as Probotector and the human sprites were replaced with robot sprites. The game is still the same fun but with different visuals. I guess it does make more sense for defeated robot enemies to explode instead of human enemies.
Update 5/27/16: Contra has a reputation as a difficult game, and while the game is challenging I don’t think it’s nearly as hard as the general perception says it is. With limited lives and limited continues, it does take some practice to learn how to deal with the enemy spawns and bosses. I believe many people, myself included, made themselves better at Contra by using the Konami Code to have enough lives to beat the game. It’s a good method of practice and after a few runs through it that way, I imagine many players are equipped to take on the game with the normal allotment of lives.
It’s really no secret why Contra is just as fun today as it was back in the NES heyday. It has a good amount of challenge, impressive visuals and effects, fun powerful weapons, and awesome boss battles. It’s also really fun in 2-player mode that I completely failed to mention until now. I had a blast going through the game again just like always.