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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Memories #14: Contra

Disappointment. That feeling of being let down. Also known as not getting what you want. It's something that we have to deal with the whole time we walk this Earth. And yet it's a feeling that we're introduced to very early on in life. When we're infants, our response to being denied what we want is to cry and scream, causing a great deal of pain to the ears of mommy and daddy and anyone else withing hearing range. As we get older, we tend to handle disappointment better, with sighs, sulking and maybe a little brooding. OK, maybe that's not much better than the screaming and crying, but it's a considerable step up in behavior. I say all of this because my entry into the Contra series began with disappointment.

As children and even into our teen years, my friends and I would often hang out at each other's houses once Sunday school was over. We indulged in all kinds of fun filled activities, but video games were easily at the top of the list, at least for me. On a particular Sunday afternoon my friend Justin Moses and I were going to go to the rental store (I can't recall which one) and take out Super Mario Bros. 3. Playing the game wouldn't be anything new to me because I already owned the game. Still, Super Mario Bros. 3 was a game I loved immensely and was dying to show my friend just how good at the game I was. There was just one little problem: the game was already checked out.

These dudes are more than bad enough.

Remember that disappointment I was talking about? That's what I was feeling. Had I known in advance that I was going to be going to Justin's house after Sunday school, I would have brought the game with me because I easily could have spent the whole afternoon blasting through the game. But alas, the wasn't going to happen. At this point in my kid life, I was handling disappointments a lot better than when I was a toddler. But I was still bummed that the store was out of Super Mario Bros. 3. I mean, that would have killed the whole Sunday afternoon. Yes, I said would have, but it didn't. Justin in his infinite wisdom, did what most kids did when the game they were after wasn't in stock: rent something else. I think Justin handled the whole Super-Mario-Bros.-3-not-being-there thing a lot better than I did. If I recall, he really didn't let it deter him. Me, I'm walking behind him as we browse the gaming racks, dying on the inside, trying my best not to let it show. Now, Justin could have went with a game neither one of us played but he thankfully went with one that he was already familiar with, which was Contra.

Contra's box art was unlike anything I'd seen at the time. Two ripped dudes holding guns with an alien behind them. It looked so realistic. No goofy, cartoonish characters were in sight. Judging from the contents of the box art, I was under the impression that it was a game for grown ups and as a kid, I welcomed any chance to visit the world that grown ups lived in. While I was still reeling from not being able to play Mario 3, my interest in Contra was a bit peaked.

The first thing that hit me about Contra was the title screen. Bill Rizer and Lance Bean, the two protagonists stand back-to-back, looking like the most badawesome duo of all-time while the raddest 6 seconds in the history of gaming plays, capping off with some explosive sound effects.

I'm not sure I even stayed alive long enough
to fight this thing.

Once I witnessed that brief moment of amazement, we were dropped into the first stage, a jungle, which is now a staple of the Contra series. This was my first run 'n gun game and having spent some time with Mega Man 2, the concept of shooting a gun to defend yourself in a game wasn't entirely new to me. What was new to me, however, was the method enemies attacked you. Most of the games I played up until this point had enemies that attacked from the right side of the screen. In Contra, I would learn what it means to stay alert because in this game, you were under attack from all sides. Enemies attacked from the right side of the screen, the left, the bottom and the top. I'd never seen anything like it. The only way to keep yourself alive was to have a good trigger finger and eyes that were always wide awake. Needless to say, these aren't skills I picked up right away.

3D levels? On the NES? WHAT SORCERY

I thought I was terrible when I first started playing Mega Man 2. I mean, yeah, I was, but I think I did far worse in Contra. Since you respawned right after dying rather than being taken back to the start of a level or a check point, this meant death could come far more rapidly and for me, it most certainly did. The treat of the Grim Reaper hovering over me felt more threatening in Contra than any other game because unlike Mega Man and Mario, who had a life bar and power ups to grant them extra hits, Bill and Lance only had the skin on their bones, which despite being in a video game, turns out flesh is quite fragile, so fragile that in one hit, the two commandos would die instantly.

For all the deaths I suffered, Justin was a very good sport about the whole thing. He didn't rag on me or talk trash about how much I sucked. My inept presence probably took some of the fire off of him. So while I was basically a meat shield, I still learned a few things by watching him play. He told me about the different guns like the godly Spread. When the bridge in the jungle started to blow up, I panicked and thought for sure I would fall to a watery grave. Justin told me that hitting the water wouldn't kill me, which was a relief since everything in this game wanted me dead. Justin also showed me that even if you used up all your lives, you could still continue by taking the lives of your co-op buddy, which he had no problem with. I couldn't have asked for a better wing man in introducing me to Contra.

Years later, I would find out
how punishing this stage is.

One-hit-kills and enemies that attack you at every turn. That was a lot for my young mind to take in. And yet, Contra still had more surprises for me. I was certain Contra would be a strictly 2D side scrolling game, but the second area threw me a curve ball. All of a sudden, we were running towards the screen and the enemies were shooting AT the screen. I really didn't have time to process it all because once again, every enemy that had a gun was shooting at me. In addition to all the bullets the Red Falcons were shooting all over the place, some of those suckers were chucking explosives. The 3D stage mechanics combined with my scrubtacular playing made this area even more insane than the jungle section.

As good as Justin was at the game, he didn't finish it then. He told me that his brother Matt had already beaten Contra, which blew my mind. Contra only gives you three lives and three continues before it's game over for good. Factor that in with Contra being relentless in difficulty and it just didn't seem possible for anyone to complete this game.  But back then, Matthew Moses was the king of video games in our circle of friends. This is the guy that beat Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, two notoriously hard NES games. The revelation that he aced Contra really shouldn't have surprised me, but it did.

Contra is a game that beat me up. A lot. But for the many times it kicked me in the junk, I couldn't bring myself to hate the game. There was something strangely compelling about it. The tunes stuck in my head, so there was some new video game music recorded into my memory, which was always a good thing. More so, there was something about Contra that other games didn't give me. The adrenaline rush of being constantly surrounded by enemy fire was something I'd never experienced before and as much as the game handed me my butt time and again, it was a good feeling. I guess it's some strange form of video game masochism. That Sunday afternoon I spent playing Contra wasn't necessarily pleasant, but I wouldn't change anything about it.


Adam said...

I played Contra long after my NES had croaked, and it's too difficult for my tastes

Chalgyr Vokel said...

I really loved this game when I got my hands on it back then. Of course, I knew the infamous Konami code and used it on Contra and Lifeforce when I played them. However, I owned Contra, played it a lot and eventually got good enough that I didn't use the code. I wound up not using continues. Then once, and once only, I beat it on one life. Probably my 'toughest' achievement game-wise and I never came close to replicating it. Awesome memories though

Reggie White Jr. said...

Contra is indeed one super tough cookie but the Konami Code makes it doable.

Chalgyr Vokel
As much as I improved at Contra, I could never finish it without losing a life or using continues. Even today I use the code to help me get through, but I applaud anyone that can go the harsh road without cheating.