Cons: No randomness - nothing's different after the first play-through
There isn't a whole lot to the game of Contra. It consists of 8 moderately short stages of platforming, side scrolling, run-and-gun action. Picture Mario and Luigi working together instead of taking turns - while packing heat. There are energy beams, gun turrets, exploding bridges, and lots of generic soldiers that all look alike. The levels are varied in design enough that you never feel like your just playing a remix of a previous level. One may be grass and trees, one may be covered in snow, the next may be inside a building and maybe the next one will be inside an alien's lair.
There are a couple of stages that take place inside an enemy base (stages 2 and 4) that are different from the rest of the side-scrolling game. They give you a behind-the-character view that attempts to simulate 3D. In these levels you run forward into the screen, destroying turrets and targets on the back wall to blast open walls that lead further into the base. There are also random enemies that run back and forth against the wall shooting or throwing dynamite at you. As you destroy walls and get further in, the pattern of turrets and targets changes until you reach the end. Stage 3 was also unique in that you climbed the level from the bottom to reach the boss at the top rather than moving from left to right through the level.
All stages, side-scrolling or base levels, have a boss at the end. These bosses are all unique, and they're all big. Some execute different patterns of shooting various bullets or other objects at you, some spawn other enemies to swarm you, and some just try to run you over. None are particularly difficult, but they're all fun.
Being a run-and-gun type of game, your character moves at a decent speed in Contra. Even when jumping in the air you do a somersault and jump twice as high as your character can stand. You can fire in 8 different directions with the D-pad, even while jumping, which makes for some pretty tricky looking shots at times. You can also lie prone and fire straight ahead of you.
There are only a few types of weapons in Contra, but at least they're all fairly different. You start out with some type of rifle, and there are a few different power-ups that you can get to change to a different gun. These power-ups take the form of a red letter designating which type of power-up it is. M for machine gun, S for spread gun, L for laser or F for flame thrower. The machine gun is a rapid fire weapon that allows you to hold down the button to shoot, and it's my second favorite gun. The spread gun is really overpowered, and easily the top pick if you have a choice. It spreads your bullets out vertically in a cone shape on the side scrolling levels, allowing you to destroy things you wouldn't normally be able to fire at without getting in harm's way. In the base levels, it spreads your bullets out in a horizontal cone instead, allowing you to hit turrets and targets without standing directly in front of them.
The flame thrower and laser are nice enough, but less impressive than the other two under most circumstances. The laser fires a short burst at once that is about like shooting 4 or 5 single bullets. While it's pretty strong, it seems to be a bit slow so if you're not accurate with your shots it's pretty useless. The flame thrower is my least favorite weapon. It doesn't really shoot fire, it just makes your bullets move much slower and in a small spiral in the direction you are firing. It's fine for laying prone and shooting turrets from out of harm's way, but mostly it's just a narrow, slow version of the spread shot.
In addition to the different types of guns, there's also a B power-up which stands for barrier. It makes you invulnerable for 15-20 seconds, and any regular fodder soldiers you run into will also be destroyed. Then, there's a R power-up that sure sounds pretty useful. It's supposed to make the other weapons shoot a little bit faster, which is always welcome. Unfortunately, if it works at all, it's not enough to notice a difference. Last but not least there is a power-up that looks like a falcon. It's pretty rare, but destroys all enemies on the screen when you touch it.
Each power-up is in the same location every time you play through the game. Some will be in floating Mega-Man-like capsules, others will be in white boxes that look like turrets but have power-ups in the center instead of gun barrels. In the base stages, all the random enemies on the back wall will be green - except for the one that leaves a power-up behind when it's killed. That enemy will be red.
The graphics were well designed and executed. Characters are detailed and colorful, animations are smooth, and each level looks unique except for the "base" levels. Unfortunately there are only a few different types of regular generic enemies, so it loses a few points for lack of variety there. The background music was great. Upbeat electronic synth tracks add to the excitement, but the sound effects were barely noticeable. The guns sounded a little different from each other, but were mostly just little blips. Explosions sounded like every other explosion you've ever heard in an arcade or console game from 20 years ago.
Player 1 is always wearing blue pants and Player 2 is always wearing red pants - both characters are mysteriously shirtless. There is no life bar, no heart containers, no bullet proof vest... if you get hit once, you die and lose a life.
I remember when we first got the game all those years ago, dying so many times trying to beat it. Then we learned of the Konami Code cheat code after playing another Konami game called Life Force, which works the same in both games. Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, B, A, start. Entering this at the title screen allowed you to start off with 30 extra lives instead of 3. It even works with both players if playing a 2 player game, you just have to hit select before the final start.
These days I don't need the cheat code as I usually don't die much. After you've played through the game a number of times and know where all the enemies are and what they do, you can breeze through the entire game again in less than half an hour. It's still fun though, and doesn't take an insane amount of time to do so it's worth plugging in to play once in a while. In fact, Contra is intended to be played through in one sitting. There are no continues, no save points, no codes to write down so you can resume your game later. When you die, that's it, start over from the beginning and try again. You do get an extra life here and there from your score total though.
You've destroyed the vile Red Falcon and saved the universe. Consider yourself a hero.