It was a time that was almost thirty years ago, but, feels no more than just a few back. I don’t know what it is, but, as I get older, time seems to be flying by faster and faster. Time doesn’t stop and as one gets older, it feels even more insane as the years pass by. This is how I felt one day when I was online checking my facebook page. I was looking at some of the posts on my stream when I came across something that made me feel really old. I don’t remember or not if it was a Thursday (although it felt like something that would come out on a #throwbackthursday), but, I noticed a video on one of my friends’ page. Normally I tend to ignore a lot of the videos and content on there. For the most part (and especially at my age), the pictures and videos have to do with people’s kids, or their relationships and all of that lovey-dubby stuff. If I sound jealous, it’s probably because I am, but, that’s neither here nor there. Occasionally though, I’ll come across something that I enjoy. Sometimes it’s a movie trailer, or something having to do with one of my interests. But, this one time though, I remember scrolling through a block of videos when I came across something that I hadn’t thought of in a long time. The video had to do with the video game Contra.
As I sat there watching this video, a flood of emotions came rushing back to me. It was as if I had found an old, unmarked box full of some of my fondest childhood memories. That moment in seeing that video made me realize that it had been a long time since I heard of Contra, and judging by the content of the video, that it was a lot longer than I had thought. The video was highlighting the fact that the original Contra game had come out almost thirty years ago. As I type that fact out (the same as when I read it), I am having a mild heart attack with a hint of vertigo. Yeah, it was in that moment that I realized (yet again), that I was aging faster than I would care to realize. At the moment it is the NHL playoffs, and my beloved Ducks (I’m a hometown boy, and if you don’t like it, well, good for you) are in the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs. Part of the tradition going into the playoffs is to grow out your beard. As of right now, my beard is the longest that it has ever been before. If all goes well, I’ll have a full on Patrick Eaves (one of the players on the Ducks team with one of the most epically awesome beards around) beard going. Just the other day though, I noticed a few gray hairs popping out. While I am in my thirties, I don’t feel a day over twenty-five. Never mind the fact that I wake up with random aches and pains all over the place now. But, you know you’re old when you start to see the signs of it. The gray in the hair and in the beard really brought that one home, and remembering that video and how long has passed since I first laid eyes on that little slice of gaming heaven.
And that’s just it. It’s one of the things that I don’t think about too much. Well, in that aspect at least. I love watching videos of retro games and YouTube retro gaming personalities such as Metal Jesus Rocks, Angry Video Game Nerd and Lazy Game Reviews (to name a few). Watching their videos and thinking back to a simpler time in games is something I like to go over. Even now there are games and experiences that I would have never known about if I hadn’t taken the time to watch their videos. But, when I sat on my computer and watched that video on Contra, it made me remember something that I hadn’t in a long time. Back in the late 80’s, when Contra had come out, it was the king of the hill as far as shooters were concerned. Every kid in elementary school would talk about it and how far they had gotten in the game. Some kids claimed to have beaten it on their first or second tries (they were obviously lying), while others couldn’t even pass the first level of the game. When it came out, it exploded onto the scene, and people everywhere couldn’t get enough of it. But, now, thirty or so years later, it’s a name of a forgotten franchise, and a series that fizzled out long ago.
But, it wasn’t always like that. There was a time when Contra was a name that conjured up images of two overly juiced-up heroes hell bent on saving the world, shooting everything that got in their path and doing so to a rockin’ soundtrack. It’s a pretty simple formula really. And, if you grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, it was par the course with pretty much anything out there. When it came to video games though, at least in this game you didn’t have to save the president’s daughter. How that became the vehicle for every other video game at that time still confuses me, but, it made for an interesting story. And something that could start off a really good throwback to 80’s action movies. I’ll save that in my memory bank for a rainy day.
The way I was introduced to Contra still sticks out in my mind though. There are a few moments in my life that really stand out. You know what I mean right? Moments that define who you are and how you take in the world. Moments like your first kiss, or your first ice cream, when you beat your first game or even when you punched that annoying kid in class that thought he could be funny by flicking your ears. So, you turn around one day in class and give him a right hook to the jaw, spinning him around like a table top. Ah, yes. Moments like those are the ones I am talking about. That’s just how Contra was for me. I had played a lot of games up to that point (I was six years old when I first played Contra) but there was a short list of games that really wowed me. I was a spoiled little kid and pretty lucky at that. Before I was born my dad had worked at a 7-11, and whenever he had time, would play all of the latest arcade games. Back when those stores used to have arcade games and people could walk in and play anything from Zaxxon to Dig Dug, my dad used to take me to play them. And whenever we weren’t at a 7-11, he would take me to the arcades to play anything and everything. I remember that fondly, and perhaps one day I’ll reach into the good ol’ memory bank recall those places and games my dad took me. But, gaming was in my blood by that point. My love for gaming and technology came from my pops, and to this day, still sticks with me. That is a little how Contra was for me. I can remember now the day, place and what it was like booting up that Nintendo Entertainment System then.
I was in first grade at the time and I remember going to my buddy’s house after school (which was conveniently across the street) to go play on his NES. Before we had even made the trek back to his house, he was telling us about an awesome game that had just got. Since I never had a Nintendo growing up, every game I saw was completely new to me. Yeah, that might sound crazy to you, but, I was one of the few kids I knew growing up that didn’t have a Nintendo. I actually had a SEGA Master System. So, while I knew about the NES, I wasn’t too particularly interested in it. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t care, it was merely the fact that I couldn’t play any of those games that I never really thought about them. But, when my friend Adam invited myself and our other friend Jake over to his house to play Nintendo, I jumped at the chance. Seeing any new game was always an exciting proposition. I guess when you are a little booger like I was then, and as much of a gaming fanatic, then everything looks pretty good to you. Even the not-so-good games.
But I remember the day my friend was telling me about this new game he had received for his birthday and how excited he was to show my friends and I this new game. He promised that it would be special and that it was more than just your average run-and-gun. You knew growing up in the 80’s and 90’s that if the game or movie had guns, aliens, heavy metal and explosions it was going to be pretty bad-ass. This game had all of that and more. Hell, right from that opening screen you were plunged in the middle of a raging war and you (and your special forces buddy) were the tip of the spear. It was up to the both of you (if you chose to fight alongside each other)to take on the Red Falcon Organization and find out what is behind their plans. As a kid though, one doesn’t really care too much about stories. Hell, it wasn’t until I looked up Contra after that all of that time that I even knew there was a story. But, alas, as a young tyke playing a new game, the only thing that I knew was that all you have to know is to shoot everything on the screen and keep moving right. You keep moving right until something stops you, and then when you can’t move any more, it’s probably because you’ve died. That’s what I expected, and that is definitely what I got. At every moment aliens and baddies were shooting at you, and everything was constantly exploding. Even the baddies themselves would keel over and either explode or disintegrate after taking a bullet or laser blast to the face.
Yes folks, this was the late 80’s, and it was my childhood. I know nowadays, the feeling of nostalgia for those times are all over the place, but, holy hell, it’s hard to describe just how awesome the times were back then. Playing Contra at my friends’ house way back when really made me giggle. The game was action packed and a full-on, testosterone induced blast of energy for the soul (and it definitely still is today), and while games do exist like that nowadays, this game was a product of its time. At the time you had movies like Die Hard, Aliens and Terminator and without a doubt, the games that came out at the time mirrored the action and pacing elements of those films. For a sill, wide-eyed kid like myself, I couldn’t absorb enough of it. That’s why, not only for myself, but, for the entirety of my generation, there is a longing for the games and everything else that came from that time. Contra personified what was right with gaming at the time. You didn’t need to be overly complex, and you didn’t need to do anything more than entertain the person playing it. Graphics were still pretty primitive (compared to nowadays), but, because of that, programmers and artists had to get creative when building the worlds that they did. While the premise for Contra wasn’t exactly original, it was how they combined all of the elements together that made it so memorable. The name in and of itself refers to the Central American ‘Contra’ rebels that, at the time were all over the news. While the game has nothing to do with the rebels themselves, it may be that Konami (the developer of Contra) just liked the name and went with it. It totally made sense too. The name was out there and it didn’t sound like anything else. It was simple and it stuck. And more importantly, it was awesome!
It’s pretty crazy to think that this game was the first in a series of games, and while the formula didn’t change all too much in the years that followed, it was that attention to gameplay that made it the legendary game that it is. The series would be enhanced with better graphics, music and even more intense sequences (especially in Contra: Hard Corps, which is one of the craziest 16-bit gaming experiences you’ll ever have), but, Contra was and in a lot of ways, still is the standard by which side-scrolling run-and-guns are judged. If you’ve never had a chance to play this game, definitely do yourselves a favor and take a moment to play it. It will transform you to a time where the only thing that mattered was having fun. It didn’t matter what Metacritic score the game received, or who Tweeted their opinion of the game. All that mattered was what you thought of it. It was a good time and seeing that video pop up in Facebook made me think back to those fantastic moments. Now all I want to do is put this game on, order a large pepperoni pizza, down it with some Coke and kick my feet up on the couch, and enjoy the ride. Never before, or since, has it been as fun to destroy New Zealand and everything else there*. Fun times indeed.
*In case you are wondering, the game takes place in and around New Zealand. While you do your best to stop the antagonists of the game, the victim in the whole thing just happens to be New Zealand. The battleground of freedom. Pretty freakin’ awesome if you ask me. Man, I totally want to go back to the 80’s.
Words and Photos By Daniel Navarrete
For more information on Konami and some of their other games, check out their website at https://us.konami.com/
This article was prepared or accomplished by Daniel Navarrete in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Spektrum Magazine, or its affiliates.