Contra by Konami was one of the earlier games produced for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System and eventually one of the most popular. To my own surprise, though, it wasn't created for the NES -- it was first released in 1987 as an arcade game, with a vertical rather than horizontal screen but otherwise using the same boards, graphics and gameplay as the 1988 NES version.

Known as "Gryzor" in Europe and "Kontora" in Japan, Contra could best be described as "Ikari Warriors" meets Aliens. The story is something like this: a meteorite lands somewhere in the jungle, and a would-be world dictator named Red Falcon has combined the strange alien life it brought with his own wealth and technology, in a plot to (surpise) try and take over the world.

Two players, simultaneously controlling the "contra" soldiers "Scorpion" and "Mad Dog", are dropped outside of Red Falcon's base and charged with the task of infiltrating and disabling it. They can jump, shoot, and move in eight directions. Each player starts with three lives, unless of course you employ the not-so-secret Konami code to boost your odds, and (at least in the console version) could steal extra lives from the other player should you run out first.

Pretty basic, but the game enjoyed a few gimmicks to make it uniquely interesting. The power-ups available to the players included a number of unique weapon upgrades -- rapid fire (more bullets on screen at a time), machine gun (automatic fire), fireball (explodes on impact), and spread shot (five bullets across a thirty-degree arc) -- as well as temporary invincibility, extra lives and magical "destroy all enemies on screen" tokens. Most levels were basic side-scrollers, but one was a vertical scroller going up a waterfall and two were fought inside pseudo-3D fortresses; this variety kept things from getting too monotonous early on. Enemies in the first levels were limited to foot soldiers, unmanned cannons and the occasional sniper, but later levels included increasingly deadly and gory aliens. Plus the music was delightfully catchy. (If you've ever played it, the first couple levels' music backgrounds are probably still stuck in your head. Sing it with me: Da-da-da-da, da, da da, Da-da-da-da, da, da da ....)

Contra's successful formula led to a series of sequels for just about every major console gaming system, each one featuring the flame-orange "C" that identified the series:

After this point, Konami turned to another company called Appaloosa Interactive to develop the "Contra" brand for the new 32-bit gaming systems. Fans of the original series were less than impressed, but for completeness' sake they're included here:

Contributing sources include GameFAQs (
and The Contra HQ (

To shed some light on why Contra III: The Alien Wars is the fourth game in the series (after Contra Force, which really was the third in the series (and ignoring Operation C which was a Contra port)) we have to look at that crazy world of marketing and production.

Back when The Alien Wars was being developed it was scheduled to be the fourth game in the series and was titled Contra IV: The Alien Wars. An old issue of Gamepro magazine, in fact, proudly features the Contra IV preview. Contra Force was to be the third game in the series for the NES.

But things happened and games were delayed, and it became apparent that The Alien Wars would be out in stores before Contra Force would. So the numbers were switched and The Alien Wars became Contra III. However, then the problem that caused the switch in the first place was corrected and the games were swapped back to their original release dates. Unfortunately, by now it was too late to go and change Contra III: The Alien Wars back into Contra IV. Cartridges were already being produced, the advertisements were in place, and word of mouth was already starting to spread.

So Konami left it the way it was and released the fourth game in the series with the title of #3. Contra Force was released without a title number (to help cover the glitch, I'd speculate) and life went on as normal.

The arcade version of Contra appears to be very similar to the home version at first glance. The first level of each game is almost identical, while the second through fourth levels introduce some changes, and after that it is very different.

Konami originally designed Contra as an arcade conversion kit. That meant a few things. The first of which meant that it got a vertical screen, because vertical conversion kits sold better than horizontal ones due the the huge installed base of vertical games from the early 80s (today pretty much everything is horizontal).

The arcade version looked and sounded a lot nicer than the NES version. That had a lot to do with the fact that it had more than twice the processing power, and a nifty YM2151 audio chip. Unfortunately that is the only department it beats the NES version in. It loses in every other comparison. I will get into the specifics of that below.

First off, it was just a lot easier than the NES version. I was able to beat it using 13 lives on my very first try (I can't even beat NES Contra on 13 lives, and I have been playing that version for 15 years now). The bosses in particular go down quite a bit faster.

Secondly, it is a much shorter game than the NES version. The NES version has 8 levels, while the arcade version only had 5. The first level in each is nearly identical. The tunnel levels are a bit different in each version (NES version is longer and harder), and the waterfall level is shorter in the arcade and has a different boss.

Then we move onto the 5th level. The 5th level in the arcade is pretty long (longest level in the game), but it is also the last level in the game. The NES version takes elements from this level and uses them to create levels 5 through 8. The final boss is the same, but it takes almost twice as many hits to destroy on the NES version.

Why all the changes? It is quite simple really. The arcade version was too short and too easy to port directly to the NES. Everyone would have it mastered in a day. It didn't matter that it was easy at the arcade, because it only took 10 or 12 minutes to beat the entire game (at which point it is over). So they lengthened the game considerably and beefed up the difficulty in the home version, which is what created a classic NES game out of an arcade "also ran."

Con"tra (?).

A Latin adverb and preposition, signifying against, contrary, in opposition, etc., entering as a prefix into the composition of many English words. Cf. Counter, adv. & pref.


© Webster 1913.

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