Thursday, March 5, 2009

Contra III: The Alien Wars

Year: 1992
Rating: ***
Is Contra III a serious social commentary on late era Cold War American foreign policy? Probably not. But it is a pretty bad arse action game.

Historically speaking The Contras were a counter revolutionary terrorist organisation from Nicaragua that engaged in a bloody war with the Sandinista government throughout the eighties. The Contras were funded and equipment by the CIA in an attempt to contain communism in Latin America. They are almost universally reviled by left wing types, partly because of the terrible human rights violations they committed but also because Reagan had such a hard on for them (the left tend to ignore or gloss over the human rights violations of the government forces). Basically it was a period of human history that was violent, tragic and far more complicated than either side cares to admit.

So at some point before 1987 a Japanese game design dude is reading a newspaper, sees the name Contra connected to real genuine human misery and thinks “Wow that’s an awesome name for a video game”. I would like to high five that man… to the face… hopefully breaking his nose in the process.

Actually according to the series cannon (and wikipedia) Contra means

“A title awarded to a superior soldier possessing almost super human drive and ability, while excelling in guerrilla tactics”

That sentence mixed in with the hyper masculine characters, the endless waves of faceless alien others and steroid to the dick gameplay leads me to believe that Contra may be the most right wing game ever created for a home console. Not that I’m complaining, I might be a pussy liberal but even I can admit right wing wackos can make awesome art when they want to. For example 90% of all films starring Charles Bronson.

I wanted to play a Contra game because I’ve heard good (admittedly hyperbolic) things. I chose Contra III because I could easily get my hands on it. I’m probably going to talk about it like it's representative of every Contra game ever. I assume it is I could be wrong. It doesn’t have the famous Konami code so I was only able to beat the first couple of stages. Not that it matters, those stages told me everything I need to know about Contra. It is a good game but I will never truly love it.

Have you ever heard the saying “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”? Well Contra is a hedgehog and the one thing it knows is “shooting shit is fun”. To that end the entire game design is focused on presenting the player with shit to shoot, fancy weapons to shoot shit with, huge set pieces to shoot shit in and many different ways to shoot said shit. It’s actually fairly impressive just as you think they’ve wrung out everything they can from the simple mechanics you find yourself dangling from a cable killing an endless horde of flying monsters barely inching forward in the small moments when you’re not fighting for your life. It has moments to remember and as an object lesson in “turning it up to eleven” it’s fairly peerless. It also has co-op gameplay which I can only assume would increase the game's enjoyment by a factor of N, when N = Bitchin x Awesome / How ever much your friend sucks at video games. Yep both players share a pool of lives so if one person is stinking up the room the other suffers for it. I can just see the sibling beat downs that must have arisen from this game.

The only slight problem is it all just turns to noise. The action is so unrelenting you start to switch off from it. The problem is made worse by the fact that you die so often you replay the same sections again and again. So to progress you need to learn the frankly ridiculous enemy attack patterns. After a while certain sections start to feel more like decoding a sequence with trial and error than playing a game.

So yeah it’s stupid and fun but probably not a masterpiece and hugely over rated by the “only-ever-plays-old-SNES-ROMs” breed of retro gamer. I like those guys but come on pick up an Amiga game sometime.

I read somewhere that CliffyB (you know the Jazz Jackrabbit guy) once described the act of firing a gun in a shooter as a way of “touching”. That’s slightly disturbing but maybe also a little true. In Contra the only way you interact with anything is by killing it. Storyline wise you’re meant to be saving the planet but everything you “touch” explodes in a fiery mess. In a way it’s tragic. At least it contains the potential for tragedy. The characters of Contra don’t seem to mind, they’re too stupid to care about their damnation. But I would like someone to take these characters (or characters like them) to their realistic and logical conclusions. I think that would be a game I could love.


  1. Jesus Christ you beat the first 2 levels? I get wasted after about the first 2 seconds.

    But yeah, Contra III is pretty much the epitome of 'learn by repetition' type gameplay. It's kind of weird how much attention it's received when you think about it in those terms. I guess it provides one of the most perfect arcade style experiences, but that's mostly because you only get to play for 20 seconds at a time.
    I guess my point is, its strange what people fixate on.

    So what are we looking at next?

  2. Not sure. Maybe Planescape: Torment. But if I write about that it'll turn into a 2000 word wankfest comparing it to Citizen Kane or something.

  3. Actually how about Balance of Powers. I tried it briefly but lost very, very quickly (like one turn).

    But as possibly the first ever 'serious' game it might be interesting to take a look at.

  4. If you want another platformer you should really think about playing Exile. First ever physics game. Probably best to stick with one of the 8 bit versions, by the way.

    Anyway, I got Balance of Power for free off an old Amiga Format magazine in 1992 or so. The mag came with a big long guide that I found very useful. Anyway, since the Amiga community is awesome you can read scans of the whole magazine here.