Monday, October 31, 2011

Like most of the games on this list, I'd never really played the original Contra prior to my quest to become
Alternate tite:
Terminator vs. Rambo

My only real knowledge of Contra was that, upon its release in 1988, it made famous The Konami Code. Pressing: ↑, ↑, ↓, ↓, ←, →, ←, →, B, A, Start at the title screen earns players a reserve of 30 extra lives. Being that the only real rule in my quest for NES Supremacy was NO CHEATING, playing Contra without its (sometimes) eponymous code was like going to a steakhouse and ordering a salad and Horchata.

So, resisting the urge to pump 'roids into my digital Arnold, I just pressed start and...


Reset, I think this is the beginning
of a beautiful frienship.
It was during this initial "trial-and-error" session that I learned what would quickly become my Third Best Friend in playing Contra: the Reset button. If you can't even make it through the first stage without dying, then what hope do you have for the rest of the game, right?

Spread Gun
Take that, IKEA TV stand!
Half a dozen resets in, I met my Contra BFF: The Spread Gun. When I was told, "its not the length that counts--it's the girth," I'm going to assume the implied subject was the Spread Gun. The Spread Gun shoots up to five bullets, which arc out and cover half the screen. Basically you stand back and watch the baddies die. There's only one point in the game where another weapon trumps 'ol Spready, but we'll get to that later. I took it slow through the Stage 1 Jungle, and with Spread Gun in hand, beat some sort of blue wall thing to advance to Stage 2.

Konami must really hate walls.

Stage 2 takes a Holiday from side-scrolling and introduces a sort of first-person shooter. You look from behind your Schwarzenegger and blow up a series of walls. Electrical currents prevent any forward movement (on penalty of momentary paralyzation) and baddies strafe in front of you, lobbing bullets, grenades and barrels. The point is to blow up the glowing orbs and not die. The not dying part proves surprisingly difficult at first. The forced perspective makes it so bullets (both yours and you enemies') travel in awkward trajectories. This means even the best evasive maneuvers are worth, to quote Matt Foley, "JACK SQUAT!" The key to these levels (which I only learned after multiple game-overs) is to simply duck. Pressing down makes it so NO BULLETS CAN EVER HARM YOU. Dodge a few grenades, make it rain with your Spread Gun and the level is over in no time flat. The boss is yet another wall, this time with guns and a weird circle thing, but again, the Spread Gun makes it almost laughable.

Stage 3
I hope Ridley Scott sued over this.
FUUUUUU... wait. That wasn't so bad.

Stage 3 brings us back to side-scrolling, except instead of advancing left to right, our little Governator, our master of California English, must climb up a waterfall, platform by platform. This level's difficulty is ratcheted by two things. First, falling down the screen doesn't scroll you back down--it kills you even if a platform is LITERALLY RIGHT UNDER YOUR FEET! Second, there's a new baddie--some sort of scuba guy who lobs explosives. Other than that its a rehash of Stage 1, and honesty, the difficulty isn't too much greater. If you'd lost the Spread-o-matic at any point, there's another to pick up halfway through  the stage. The boss, instead of being a wall, is an alien-wall. It fires projectiles and swings its arms, but, again... Spread Gun. 

Stage 4
Are those horribly misplaced guns
or are you guys happy to see me?
Stage 4 is the second and final qasi-first person stage. Nothing new from Stage 2, just more of it. Stay on your belly and blast everything with your Spread-a-led-a-ding-dong (too much?). If you're without a Spread Gun, grab the Fire Gun power-up here. The Fire Gun is practically useless in the side-scrolling stages due to its snail's pace, but here its wider hit range make it useful. After another round of wall-blasting, you reach basically the same boss you fought in Stage 2, excepting this one has drones assisting it. Once you blow away the glowing turrets, the main boss phases in and out of existence, firing heat-seeking projectiles. The answer to this puzzle? S _ R _ _ -  _ U _! Pat, I'd like to solve: Spread Gun!

I nearly crapped my pants when the ante-screen announced Stage 5 as: Snow Field. I had pre-traumatic flashes of sliding into pits and bullets, unable to control my 8-Bit Det. Kimball ("It's not a tumah!"). I was ready to hail a Taxi Cab and Run back to Stage 1. Thankfully, the snowfield, which brings us back to side scrolling for good, is icy in palette only. Right off the bat, we're greeted with two new wrinkles in this stage: bombs thrown from the background and men in gun turrets. The bombs can be tricky, and the gun turret men require you to duck, but by this time (having Game Overed and Reset for literally hours) my reflexes were good enough to get by.

Infinite Lives
How to Succeed in Contra without
Really Trying.
Stage 5 is most notable because it's here that I made my Second Best Friend in playing Contra, and the only point in the game I willingly relinquished my Spread Gun. Amassing 1-ups in Contra takes a long time, making baddie farming a tedious process. Stage 5, however, has a nice workaround for the extra-life-challenged. Early in the stage is a screen with a lower platform, two higher platforms and the Machine Gun power-up. With Machine Gun in hand (as it  fires continuously), I perched on the right side of the lowest ledge and unleashed hell. The baddies here spawn either in the path of your gun, or on the ledge above. Those above promptly jump into a bullet. Therefore, I simply  taped the B button down on my controller and read a book. Like a whole book. I resumed the game with more lives than the screen would show me (a max of 4 ribbons are displayed) and went on my alien-killing way. Is this a bit disingenuous? Maybe. But the subset of my NO CHEATING policy is to, quote, "Load the Cart, Press Start and Play." The way I figure, taping down the B button while my Lil' Arnold beat all the baddies and their Cousins for 1-Ups is simply taking advantage of a flaw in the programming (a la the first rule of Karate Kid).

After earning a plethora of extra lives, Snow Field offered two Giant Tanks (which require a powered-up gun to defeat), then brought me to the boss which is, for the first time in Contra History, NOT A WALL. An alien ship flies overhead and releases little UFO Saucers which trace the edge of the screen. The little saucers are easily jumped, and even without any power-ups, the Mothership is quickly dispatched.

I assure you that isn't cotton candy.

Stages 6 and 7 are had me at my wits end. I seriously considered Giving up the Gun. Even with my cache of questionably-gotten 1-ups, these stages burned a few game overs. Most every baddie packs heat, the jumps are longer and the in-stage obstacles are downright devious. Case in point: Stage 6 and its giant columns of fire. On first play through, there's little warning before--BAM!--your Arnold is incinerated. This stage is teeming with cracked pipes spewing columns of fire, making me think maybe the aliens hired a piss-poor contractor.
I'll get you, Logan!

After navigating the flaming maze that is Stage 6, you face off against Juggernaut from X-Men. Apparently he's defected from Magneto and works for the aliens now. He paces to and fro across the screen, jumping like an idiot and throwing curling stones. Compared to the level, defeating Juggernaut is simple: jump over his head, dodge the curling stones and pump him full of Spread. I beat him on my first try.

More spikes than an S&M Bar
Anyone got a spare NES remote? Mine got accidentally smashed into a thousand pieces.

Stage 7 SUCKS. I mean, really--shouldn't this game be over by now? Level 7 actually made me wistful  for Stage 6 and its fire-columns-of-death. It looks like a  futuristic meat packing plant, with spike-tipped pistons and spike-covered walls which rise from the earth RIGHT AS YOU WALK INTO THEM. Caution is essential in navigating this stage. Take a few steps--did a spike-wall appear? No? Then take a few more steps. Oh and there's mine carts as well. Beats me why aliens need mine carts, but there you go. The boss, thankfully, is another wall. Turrets lob bombs and grunts charge from a door, but neither are too difficult. Even without my trusty Spread Gun, the boss only managed to hit me once. The wall blows open and your Conan the 8-Bit is given a Diplomat's Son access to...

The Alien's Lair. About damn time. It feels like I've been playing this damn game for 10 hours (oh, wait). And thank the gods of 80's video games, this level is both short and simple. There's even a Spread Gun upgrade. Instead of gun-toting drones, little alien fetuses fly (slowly) at you, making for easy target practice. There's a miniboss here, an alien head taken pixel-for-pixel from the Alien movies, but all you have to do is stand under it and shoot until it blows up.

Final Boss
Seriously, I hope Ridley Scott sued.
Alien Vagina
I think Freud was
the level designer
of this penis...enemy!
I mean enemy.
After the miniboss, the walls of the stage are lined with sideways alien vaginas which spit at you. They look creepy but offer little resistance. You'll get your Spread Gun here, which is Contra's way of repaying all the karma you've amassed thusfar by getting your ass whipped.

The final boss is--what else?--a wall (with a beating heart attached). The boss attacks by spawning aliens which scuttle at you, but that's it. I mean really. The alien heart was dumb enough to give you a Spread Gun and all it has are a few slow-moving baddies? Yawn. It should have the common courtesy to at least shoot laser beams at you. Something. Dispatching the alien heart yields you the satisfaction of watching your helicopter fly from an exploding island and a brief paragraph of scrolling text.
Contra Ending
I Think UR a Contra

Had I beaten Contra in 1988 (at the ripe age of 6), this ending would have been SO AWESOME! There's a helicopter AND an explosion. Then, the scrolling text hails me as savior of THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE and gives me license to append HERO to my official title. Damn right.

Contra has easily been the hardest game yet in my quest for NES Immortality. I could have spent a whole Vampire Weekend on this one. Like Mega Man before it, some of the level design is vexing to the point of madness. Unlike Mega Man, however, Contra has finite continues, more baddies and a razor-thin margin of error. At certain points I had to walk away from the game before something got broken.

NES MONSTER!3 Controllers

I can say without hesitation Contra is 3/5 on the NES Remote difficulty scale. And it's only the second entry on the list. Yipes.

Tune in next Monday as I whip number 7 on the Top Ten Hardest NES Games of All Time.

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