Let's Get 'em, Lance!
I'm a big fan of the Castlevania series (seriously, I have the credentials to prove it) I've always felt like I should also have a deep connection to Konami's other flagship series of the NES era, Contra. That connection comes not only from the company, of course, but also because the guy that ran the original Castlevania Dungeon also ran it's sister site, the Contra H.Q., and those games became indelibly linked in my head. They don't play the same, or look the same, or have any other real relation beyond that, but the connection was made and forged in my brain.
While both the original Castlevania and the first Contra were seminal titles of the NES, and also classic "Nintendo Hard" titles, the two couldn't be further apart in other respects. For starters, the two games took very different paths to the NES, with Castlevania originally being developed for that system while Contra started life as an Arcade game. In fact, when you look at the game, with its fast pace and constantly threat of death, Contra makes a lot more sense as an Arcade game than an NES title. The careful pacing and controlled challenge of Castlevania has no place in the run-n-gun shooting and constantly mobbing enemies of Contra. It's like night and day, or monsters and aliens.
As an Arcade game, Contra perfectly tuned itself to the three minutes of game play that players were expected to get from a quarter. Players would get three lives, but any damage taken would kill off one of those lives. Making it through the first stage, if you didn't know what you're doing, would easily require you to pump more quarters in, and the later stages only got more complex in the ways they purposefully tried to kill you. Challenge came in simply trying to stay alive as long as you could because the game was ruthless.
There are two factors that make Contra into a constant conveyor of death. The first is the swarms of enemies; the characters in Contra are never allowed to take a beat and stand still because enemies will file in from the sides of the screen, whether you're ready or not, and if they even so much as just touch your pixels with their pixels you die. Thankfully most of these enemies can't take more than a single hit shot before they die so handling the swarms of basic enemies (and all the other little troopers that file in) isn't so bad.
This is compounded by all the bullets, though, that are also flying across the screen. Turrets, soldiers, fox holes, and just about every other kind of fortification are seeded throughout the stages and they're always firing at you, making you run and jump your way through areas that, sometimes, feel like bullet-hell. Knowing where to jump, when to kneel, and where all the encampments are will help in getting you through the game, but that, of course, came with practice, and that required more quarters to get right.
Although the game starts off as a run-n-gun shooter, Contra breaks up its stages in a number of ways to keep the basic game play from feeling formulaic. The side-scrolling stage one gives way to a over-the-shoulder fortress stage that felt positive ground-breaking the late 1980s. This is then followed by a climb up a waterfall for stage three, another fortress in stage four, and then a long side-scrolling stage to finish everything out. Playing through the first time it really did seem like you were never sure what to expect from the game, and these combination of stages still holds up on repeat plays.
What's so interesting about Contra is how it defied expectations. Where so many other shooters were top-down, either with a soldier heading upwards on a strip of countryside or a ship flying overhead, this game went a different route. That alone made it stand out from most of its contemporaries but then, when you factored in the tight controls and responsive game play, you had a winning combination that felt so much better than many other games in Arcades at the time. This game was rough, yes, but you felt like it was rough in a fair, controlled way.
Of course, most players never experienced the game in Arcades as that version was long supplanted by the NES title in the minds of gamers. The basic construction of the NES game wasn't at all different from the Arcade version -- graphics and sound were different, yes, and somethings were rearranged for the NES edition (with cut-scenes even being thrown in on the Famicom edition), but overall the two experiences were very similar. The NES, though, was common in households in 1988 and, with a game like Contra being able to try over and over again without having to dump in more quarters was absolutely ideal.
The biggest draw of the game, though, was absolutely the Konami code. In this game, entering that classic code (Up, Up, Down, Down... you know the rest) grants players 30 lives instead of the default 3. That made getting through the game much more bearable, and far more likely. As kids most of us weren't getting through the game on just three lives, and while there were continues those would set you back at the start of stages which was hardly going to help with how brutal some of these stages could be.
Purists will of course also note that a number of things were modded in the NES version. Stage layouts were different, and the fortress stages were changed from sprawling mazes to long corridors without any exploration. But in effect the two games are similar enough that you can bounce from one to the other with minimal fuss. Personally I prefer the NES edition, and not just because of the extra lives; the sounds and graphics may be "down-scaled" but I found the original Arcade music to be too plinky (like a badly-tuned Genesis game) and the graphics were very muddy (again, like a badly tuned Genesis game). The graphics on the NES game are bold and easy to read while the sound had a brightness to it that couldn't be beat.
That said, if you really wanted to go far afield you could always try out the MSX2 edition. That one, released for the Japanese computer system, was a heavily reworked version of the game. The graphics are a slight step down from the NES edition, but this version otherwise feels expanded. More stages, more fortresses, and more of everything creating a larger, yet still familiar package. The biggest downside of the MSX2 was that it couldn't handle scrolling so levels are broken up into single screen sections, breaking up their flow. It's a big compromise but one that might be worth it to Contra fans that have otherwise seen and played it all.
For my money, though, if you want a run-n-gun shooter that feels tight and (mostly) fair, it's hard to beat the NES edition of Contra. It's the best, and most balanced, version of the game without too many compromises one way or the other. It popularized a game that launched a massive franchise that's still churning out titles today.