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Memory Leaks: Contra

🎖️Running with the devil...


Contra was the original run-and-gun shooter on the platform that made home video game systems ubiquitous. Originally an arcade game, the 1988 NES port is almost certainly the most famous entry in the entire franchise and one of the most popular third-party titles on the system. It was known for its punishing difficulty. It was also one of the first Nintendo games to employ 2-player simultaneous co-op, which sounds like it should make the game easier, but in practice meant you and your schoolmate would mess up each others' flow and cause each other to die. When you ran out of lives, you could steal one from the other player's reserve. Fortunately, there was widely known "secret" code that gave you an extra twenty-seven lives, and this code no doubt preserved countless friendships.

How I Remember It...

I had a friend named Bryan, and he and I would play it together a lot. He owned a copy first, and playing his is what got me to beg my parents for my own. That was how you got new games back in the late 80s. There weren't really discount titles. Everything cost $30 new, which may not sound like a lot, but that's roughly $67 adjusted for inflation. Video game quality was a bit hit-or-miss, so you relied on your peers to know what was good, which you could do because Nintendo was kind of the only game in town during this console generation. I didn't know anyone with Sega hardware until the Genesis came out. Ergo, you and your friends all had limited libraries of games with that were too precious to "lend" to each other, so you played them at each other's houses and figured out what you liked so you could buy a copy for yourself. Meaning everyone you knew had ~10 games, five of which were the same five everyone else had.

Like a lot of its contemporaries, Contra didn't have saves or level codes. It was intended to be played in a single sitting, and it could be completed start to finish in about twenty or thirty minutes. At the same time, this was a triple-A game. So how do you ensure your customers who are paying top dollar are getting enough value that they tell all their friends about it? How do you make it fun immediately, but still allow someone to spend hours and hours playing and feel like they were making progress with only half an hour of unique gameplay? Apparently you do so by making the game extremely difficult and including "cheats" like Contra's 30-life code. (Hell, when you think about it, Super Mario Bros did the same thing with its hidden warp pipes.) A newbie could spend a reasonable amount of time and beat the game without undue effort, but then a seasoned pro could learn all the patterns, hone their muscle memory to a razor's edge, and beat the game without using the cheat code.

And I was one of those seasoned pros. I played the shit out of this game. I could beat it with only one or two deaths, tops. Why did I put so much time into a single game? Because I only had nine other games and they were all about as long. One of them, incidentally, was its sequel, Super C, which was slightly harder, and which I could beat with equal proficiency. I remember the thrill of reaching that final animation, in which a pixelated helicopter would take off from an island that subsequently exploded, and the text on the screen told you to consider yourself a hero. I still remember the first time Bryan and I beat the game together and he said "Hooray, I'm a hero," teeth dripping with sarcasm. After that ten-odd seconds of an ending, we watched the credits roll.

Of course, when my family got a Super Nintendo, this one went into mothballs. I looked for it again as an adult, and it was surprisingly difficult to track down. Shortly after college I found a CD-ROM bundle that had both NES Contra games packaged together with the first three Castlevania titles, but PC game pads weren't really a thing then and it was decidedly not fun with keyboard and mouse. When the Wii came out and they started re-releasing old games on the Virtual Console, I fully expected it to show up--especially since Super C came out fairly early. But it never did. A friend of mine was able to get it on his Xbox, but it turned out to be the arcade version, which is quite different. When my family visited the National Videogame Museum in Dallas a few years ago, they had some old Nintendos set up and I played the game for the first time in decades and managed to get to level 5 without using the code. Some skills just don't fade, you know?

The series continued. Contra III: Alien Wars for the Super Nintendo was well-received, although I didn't care for it. After that, the series kind of fizzled. Run-and-gun isn't a genre that transitions well to 3D, and when the Nintendo 64 and Sony Playstation came out, all games had to be 3D, or at least some facsimile of it. There have been a number of titles across platforms as recently 2019, and I believe it had some success in handheld, but nothing ever gained the cultural cache of that ephemeral NES original and its ubiquitous cheat code.

That said, it's finally, finally available as part of the Contra Anniversary Collection on all major platforms. It plays just as well as it ever did. It's definitely dated and unlikely to win over new players, but if you have nostalgia for it, it's worth picking up.


In MEMORY LEAKS, Kurt is going through his favorite video games. See more posts.

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