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Retro Revisit: Contra (NES)

Updated on October 5, 2015

By Razzle Joestar

The classic title screen. You can't see it here but it shows up by scrolling in off screen from the right.
The classic title screen. You can't see it here but it shows up by scrolling in off screen from the right.

Hello there friends, welcome to the first of hopefully many installments of a new series that I'd like to called "Retro Revisit". In this Hub series we'll be taking a look at all manner of retro and classic games. This is different from the other recently started "Arcade Appreciation" series because here we focus on games outside the arcade...though it is possible that we'll be looking at games that were ported from the arcade, such as today's game: The action packed and classic side-scroller shooter, Contra! This is a game I very much enjoyed a lot as a child, though honestly I could barely make it to Stage 2. However in this day and age I can more than complete the game...without using the famous Konami Code.

Part of the challenge behind the game is the infamous "One-hit-and-you-die" formula - or as one guide I once read on it said a "Twitch Game". Anything in this game will kill you in one hit: touching enemies, blasts of fire, gunshots, et al. However the same is true for your foes, as most of them die in one hit as well, with the exception of tougher foes such as turrets and end bosses. In addition, you begin with only two lives, and three continues - and even in the arcade game continuing more than three times would force you back to the title screen to start from the beginning. The game also included various power ups that would give you new and powerful weapons that you unfortunately lost when you died. Such rules make for a game that is quite intense and frantic at times, but great fun nonetheless, and especially instills a feeling that you are truly an action hero commando when you bring down one of the game's massive bosses.

Prelude to the Alien Wars

Bill Rizer opens fire on an enemy soldier.
Bill Rizer opens fire on an enemy soldier.

Contra Gameplay (Arcade)

Contra was originally released in the year 1987 to arcades and later ported to home consoles, including the NES, in 1988. Curiously, the PAL versions of the game carried the name Gryzor, except for ports to PAL NES, which was named Probotector and featured several of the characters changed into robotic characters (rather than humanoid characters) possibly in an effort to tone down on the violence. The Famicom (Short for "Family Computer" - simply put it's the Japanese NES) port contained a special VRC2 chip that allowed the game to have even more features like cut scenes between levels and extra animations such as a snowstorm in Level 5 or trees rustling in the wind during Level 1.

Interestingly enough the plots to the US version of Contra and the Japanese version seem to differ at various points, though the general premise - an evil faction being controlled by the alien Red Falcon - remains the same. In the US Version, a meteorite containing Red Falcon crashes in some ancient Mayan civilization in 1957 and thirty years later - so in 1987 - Red Falcon becomes active and starts making trouble and due to "political reasons" Bill Rizer and Lance Bean from the Special Forces Elite Commando Squad are sent in to remedy the problem rather than armies being sent in. Meanwhile in the Japanese version the year is set in 2633 AD where peace reigns and nature and technology have come together. However while conducting top secret investigations the Earth Federation Marine Corps discovers the alien invaders and so Bill Rizer and Lance Bean from the Marine Corps are sent in to the alien fortress in the Galuga Islands to infiltrate and destroy.

There would be later issues between the US and Japanese versions of further installments in the Contra series, such as in Contra III when they used the same year as the Japanese version, but changed the protagonists so they were descendants of Lance and Bill in order to maintain continuity with the previous US versions. However, it seems like the US has adopted and accepted the proper Japanese plot line, as Contra 4 builds off of the Japanese story line for all versions.

Bill and Lance's mission to destroy Red Falcon will be a dangerous and action packed one. Their battles will take them from the coast to an alien hive located deep within the Islands, taking them through all sorts of enemy installations and locations such as secret bases, a waterfall, snow fields, and an energy zone. Plenty of foes and enemies will be encountered as well, such as foot soldiers who do a stab and run, enemy turrets that crop up and surprise you, snipers who take positions and fire at you, and eventually the alien invaders themselves.

Locked and Loaded!

Bill uses the Spread Gun to damage this boss in multiple spots with one blast.
Bill uses the Spread Gun to damage this boss in multiple spots with one blast.

Perhaps the other famous aspect of Contra are the various power ups that one can collect during the mission, all having a falcon emblem with a letter on it that tells you what the power up is. The only exception is the Smart Bomb, which is shown as a flashing falcon emblem with no letter. Power ups can gathered from one of three sources: a flying capsule that can be shot open, wall mounted sensors with the falcon insignia (only when it's open, though!) and in base missions, red soldiers. Collecting a new power up will replace whatever power up you are carrying, with the exception of Smart Bomb, Barrier, and Rapid, the latter being one that actually augments the weapon you have equipped. Also keep in mind that dying will result in you losing your equipped weapon and re-entering the game with the basic rifle.

Any good Contra Commando should know their weapons, and fortunately I'm aiming to give you a quick glimpse on what each weapon does.

Contra doesn't seem to be too screenshot friendly, so all the shots in these screen shots will not be displayed.
Contra doesn't seem to be too screenshot friendly, so all the shots in these screen shots will not be displayed.


The basic Rifle - or as I like to call it "The Pea Shooter" - is the weapon you'll start the game with, and the weapon you will respawn with upon dying. The Rifle is semi-automatic, meaning that you have to press fire each time you wish to shoot. In addition, there can only be four bullets from the Rifle on screen per player; even using a Turbo Controller will only have four bullets on screen. Being your basic standard-issue weapon also makes the Rifle your weakest weapon, and being stuck for whatever reason fighting a boss with the rifle or even large volumes of enemies and turrets makes your battles that much harder. Though an augment with the Rapid powerup makes your bullets travel faster and thus give you an overall better rate of fire.

Bill's Rapid-enhanced Machine Gun will be able to down baddies that much quicker now.
Bill's Rapid-enhanced Machine Gun will be able to down baddies that much quicker now.

R - Rapid

Rapid is always a good power up to pick up no matter what gun you have. Rapid will make whatever weapon you're carrying fire faster, and in a game where you can only have so many shots on screen Rapid will help those shots travel faster. Rapid will also help make even the Rifle into a decent weapon, though I like to combine Rapid with the Machine Gun, which makes the weapon into one that fires an almost-constant stream of bullets (though if you're not above using Turbo Controls, Turbo + Machine Gun + Rapid creates a steady stream). Note that you can only upgrade a weapon with Rapid one, so collecting anymore R's when you've already picked one up won't make it fire any faster.

Bill tries out his recently acquired Machine Gun.
Bill tries out his recently acquired Machine Gun.

M - Machine Gun

The Machine Gun, while roughly as weak as the Rifle, has more use as it shoots an almost continuous stream of fire - I say almost because every few shots there's a split second break before the Machine Gun resumes firing. Though through the use of Rapid and Turbo Controls you can get that continuous stream of fire though. It's decently useful when there's plenty of bad guys on screen to kill, though it pales in comparison to the more useful Guns like the Laser or the Spread Gun.

Lance used the Fire Gun + Prone tactic and safely took out a grey turret.
Lance used the Fire Gun + Prone tactic and safely took out a grey turret.

F - Fire Gun

The Fire Gun is an interesting creature, as it fires off shots in a clockwise fashion - even though that's difficult to see due to the screenshots and the fact that it's difficult to capture multiple shots clearly. Contra bullets must be camera shy. You can have a few Fire Shots on screen before you have to wait to fire more, its decently powerful, and the clock wise motion that the shots take make it useful for various situations. One tactic I like to do is go prone while in front of a turret and open fire with the Fire Gun - since with the grey turrets Machine Gun, Laser, and Rifle Shots will not damage a grey turret when you go prone in front of it.

Bill test fires his new Spread Gun.
Bill test fires his new Spread Gun.

S - Spread Gun

Ahhh...the Spread Gun. My most favorite weapon out of all of the guns in Contra. Whenever I get the Spread Gun, it's officially party time. What makes this gun so trustworthy and awesome? Well for starters it fires off several blasts that spread out (hence the name), making it great for damaging and killing multiple opponents with just a few blasts. In addition, these blasts start off close together and then spread out farther as they travel off screen, which means for tougher opponents like turrets and bosses you can get up close and hit them with most - or all if you angle it right - of the Spread Gun's blast. The one down side is that you can pretty much almost fire the gun as much as you want, but sometimes blasts might come out distorted. You might end up with one or two shots instead of the usual amounts. However, this isn't so in base stages - it will behave like normal with no distorted shots. A handy gun for any Contra Commando, and it's a sad day whenever I lose it.

Bill does a passing shot on a grey turret, hoping to take it out in one Laser shot.
Bill does a passing shot on a grey turret, hoping to take it out in one Laser shot.

L - Laser

The Laser is another intriguing weapon that tends to behave differently from the others. There can only be one Laser per player on screen at any time, and firing another laser before the one currently out either finds its mark or travels off screen will cause that laser to disappear right before the new one fires. In addition, this can be said to be a single fire weapon, as tapping fire or using Turbo will just end up having your laser trying to leave your gun but actually never doing so, creating a sort of close quarters weapon. However, this is a powerful gun when used right, as the Laser deals multiple points of damage as it goes into an enemy. If it kills the enemy the Laser continues to go on through them, enabling the Laser to damage multiple opponents in one shot. It's also intriguing because a diagonal shot will scroll with the player as they move while it travels up and off screen. This tends to be a favorite of mine for the Bases as that multiple damage trait can destroy most Base elements with one or two shots.

With the Barrier this fire bridge does no damage to Bill.
With the Barrier this fire bridge does no damage to Bill.

B - Barrier

The Barrier is not an offensive weapon, but rather a defensive one. Upon collection your commando will begin flashing various colors and will be rendered invulnerable to any enemies or any shots - the only thing able to kill them being a fall into a bottomless pit. In addition, the Barrier will pretty much kill any opponent that your commando comes into contact with, making this perfect for both quickly getting through sticky situations and racking in points. Be careful though! The Barrier ends unexpectedly and without warning, so you could find yourself getting shot as you charge headlong at a sniper.

Smart Bomb that had been released from a Power up Capsule.
Smart Bomb that had been released from a Power up Capsule.

Smart Bomb

The Smart Bomb is the rarest weapon in the game, appearing only in the Snow Fields of Level 5. When collected, the screen flashes and all onscreen enemies are killed. If only this guy appeared more often and in places where there's enemies abound. It appears from within a Power Up Capsule (with three others, no less!), and you have to be careful when you shoot it free - it's very easy for the Smart Bomb to get lost down that nearby bottom less pit. Though, usually it's quite easy to jump up and collect the Smart Bomb if you think it's going to get lost down the pit.

What's your favorite Gun/Power Up?

See results

Battle Tactics

There's no shortage of challenges to overcome in Contra.
There's no shortage of challenges to overcome in Contra.

Before you go, here's some useful tips and tricks that will be sure to help keep you alive.

  • Make sure you know how your Gun behaves. It's crucial to being able to master them and deal the maximum hurt to foes.
  • Collect Rapid whenever you can, since it makes your shots with any gun travel faster - just remember that you can only Rapid a gun once.
  • Every 20,000 points you get an extra life. Please note that if you use the Konami Code you will not be able to get extra lives.
  • If you lose your last life in a two player game you can use Start to steal a life from your friend and fight on.
  • In Base Stages if you are playing solo you can hold up on the other player's controller while going prone and shoot up wards (rather than shooting just straight forward).
  • Speaking of Bases, while going prone none of the enemy shots can hurt you. But watch out for the floor rollers and enemy bombs!
  • The aforementioned Konami Code can be entered by inputting Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start as the title screen scrolls after powering up or resetting the game, giving you 30 Lives (and since you can continue three times, that's 90 lives!). To do it with two players, push Select before hitting Start.
  • Game too easy? Well, after blowing away Red Falcon the game begins again, but at a harder difficulty. Each successive play through will do this, except each time it'll be harder than the last.

In Closing

So the ultimate question is: does this game still hold up? Of course it does! Contra is a classic that has definitely held the test of time, and while its graphics may not be as great or pretty as even later life NES titles it's still a great time. There's plenty of challenges and enemy fire to test your mettle and reflexes, and I've yet to actually pass the game on a second play through. If you've got a friend, invite them over for some classic alien blasting action! Just...don't be mean and take all the power ups or scroll the screen to fast, okay?

As usual, my game playing antics show my own play through of the game, so you can see it in action. With that being said, I hope you enjoyed the read, if you decide to play Contra I hope you enjoy it (and wish you luck - the game's also known for being really hard!), and I will see you all in the next level! Take care!

Razzle Joestar's Playthrough of Contra (NES)

Cast your vote for Contra on the NES


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    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      3 years ago from Oklahoma

      Truly one of my favorite games of all time. Great hub!

    • amazmerizing profile image


      4 years ago from PACIFIC NORTHWEST, USA

      This is an excellent and thorough review of the game! Honestly I don't believe I have seen better anywhere online! Keep at it!!! ;)

    • tommylop profile image


      4 years ago from Colorado.

      To me Laser plus R equals ultimate power, on two player have a firend get the spread so he can cover you while you take out multiple enemies or larger foes like gun turrets with the laser.

    • Niko Linni profile imageAUTHOR

      Niko Linni 

      4 years ago from Long Beach, California

      I actually used to not like the laser, but frequent Contra playthroughs have made me see how awesome it can be. Personally my favorite is still the Spread Gun, but the Laser is neat. Especially in Base Stages since it can pretty much take out most things in bases in 1 - 2 shots. I actually prefer the Laser over the Spread Gun in Base stages.

    • tommylop profile image


      4 years ago from Colorado.

      Finally someone who understands the laser, it's my favorite weapon.


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