Contra - The Best Shoot 'em up on the NES?

Contra was one tough game!

Contra was one tough game!

Contra is a game packed full of nostalgia for me. I spent a lot of time playing this with a friend in his room.  Only it wasn't known as Contra in the UK..but more on that later.  This is the first run n gun game I remember playing.  It was finger blistering fun - especially in co-op, this was a hard game.  In my opinion this was even harder than the original Castlevania.  It was also an ambitious and satisfying shooter which evoked the era of 80's action films.  In an age where we all wanted to be Stallone or Arnie - Contra ruled.

The plot is fairly simple, two commandos - Mad Dog and Scorpion have to eliminate an enemy terrorist group known as Red Falcion.  Now, you didn't get any of this information through a carefully crafted cut scene.  These were the days when you had to flick through the game manual in order to get any sense of story.  The Red falcon has a variety of foot soldiers, machine guns and giant bosses to attempt to keep you at bay.


It turns out that The Red Falcon are a cover for an alien invasion.  This allowed the developers to go absolutely crazy when it came to boss design.  Some of the highlights were the Giger Alien inspired boss battle and the battle at the end of the first level - who considered to laser turrets and a gigantic eye. 

A rip off of the Aliens franchise or inspired design? 

A rip off of the Aliens franchise or inspired design? 

As stated before, this is a classic Run and gun game, moving across the terrain from left to right blasting anything that moves. The key is collecting as many power ups as possible and being able to jump and dodge enemy fire at a moments notice.  There's also some platforming elements in each level, as at times you are required to make death defying leaps across chasms.  These at times can be frustrating but I guess the developers left them in to bring a little variety to the game structure.

There's a total of 8 levels to play through and like most legendary Nintendo games of this era, each one is more torturous than the last. There are some nice breaks in the traditional side scrolling levels to bring variety to the game.  Pseudo 3D levels are present at Base 1 and Base 2.  These change perspective and it feels like you are running into the screen in a maze like metal dungeon.  In these sections, you had to duck and roll and shoot out the switches controlling the bases security before you can progress.


Modern reviewers of retro classics compare Contra to the Dark Souls games.  It's difficulty doesn't come from the length of the game.  But the fact that it is designed for you to learn as you die, memorising levels and enemy techniques. You will die a few times while trying to work out successful boss strategies or due to a hail or unexpected machine gun fire. As you die, you, unfortunately lose any powerups you have previously acquired.  This can immediately place you at a disadvantage.

Your weapon can be upgraded by six different power ups.  Including the Spread Gun, which causes your bullets to spread out in a wave or the flame thrower, which produced twirling flames of destruction.  The spread gun was limited to firing only a set number of bullets at one time, this was probably due to a technical limitation of the NES. The spread was definitely my favourite weapon as it could cover large distances and didn't have to be accurate.  The laser and flamethrower were more powerful, but needed greater precision to use.

The Spread Gun was pretty effective !

The Spread Gun was pretty effective !

Overall this game was an incredible amount of fun and fast paced.  It really holds up today and the bosses are well thought out and imaginative. I was glad I picked up this game for another play through?

Other Versions

So waaaay at the top of this retrospective.  I mentioned that I had played Contra, I just didn't know it as Contra.  That's because in the UK, Contra was known as Probotector for the NES.  They modified the two main characters to become robots. Known, respectively, as RD008 and RC011.  This may have been done due to some federal bodies in Europe (Germany I'm looking at you) banning the sales of media deemed to violent for children and content which glorifies war.


There was yet another version of Contra released in Europe.  This was released on the 8 bit home computers as Gryzor (due to political tensions linked to the word Contra at the time).  The best port to 8 bit home computers was undoubtedly that on the Amstrad CPC machines.  These were as faithful to the arcade machines as the home computers could get and still kept the fast paced action of the original.




Hopefully you enjoyed this look back on one of gaming's classic experiences.  As usual, if you enjoyed this, or think I missed something, please drop me a comment

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