Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Select, Start. This sequence of button presses is still ingrained into the hearts and minds of many gamers today. It is the famous Konami Code, a cheat that allowed power ups, extra lives, and all sorts of other ways to extend your playtime. The first use of the Konami Code was in Gradius, a sweet little shoot em up from the glory days of the NES. But probably the most famous use of the code was in the subject of today's Classic Co-Op: Contra for the NES.
You, the readers of Co-Optimus, voted for Contra as this week's Classic Co-Op game. Considering the other choices are fantastic games in their own right (especially Bubble Bobble, which will probably make it into this column some day), Contra clearly was an important and popular game. Co-op gameplay was pretty rare at the time of the game's release back in 1988. That may seem hard to believe today, in a time when many titles include co-op in some form. In Contra, players take on the role of two superbuff commandos, Mad Dog and Scorpion, as they take on an enemy army, infiltrate some seriously dangerous bases, and then eventually kill the big boss, a wicked looking alien called Red Falcon, which was certainly crimson in hue, but not very birdlike at all.
I was 14 when Contra came out, and enjoyed the game immensely. A big event in the news around this time in history was the Iran-Contra Affair. Being so young, I had no clue what that was all about, but I thought for sure it must have been about either a jungle army or alien bases, given my experience playing Contra. Turns out the definition of contra is closer to the former. This whole scandal was likely the reason why Contra's sequel was called plain old "Super C" . I'm not sure if the game ever came out and said who or what the Contra was, but then again I'm not sure Konami was looking to improve my vocabulary.
It's hard to describe the sheer joy of playing WITH a friend, instead of against them, in a video game, for the first time. It was really quite a rush. Racing to get the awesome powerups before your partner was half the fun. And boy, were the different weapons totally unbalanced. You had the Laser and the Spread Shot, and all the others totally stunk in comparison. If you managed to have one player with the Laser, and one with the Spread Shot, now, then, you were really cooking with gas! There was no way you could lose with this combo, at least until you got to a cheap exploding bridge or some other totally brutal section of the game.
Make no mistake, Contra was hard, a real controller tosser of a game. The difficulty started off tough and ramped up quickly. Side scrolling sections were hard enough on their own. But given the fact that one player could drag the screen ahead and leave his partner behind to get squashed by a ledge, dropped off into the water, or killed in a spray of bullets, I don't think anyone could argue that Contra was a cakewalk. In some ways, the over the shoulder, pseudo 3D levels in the bases were a relief, since you stayed on the same screen all the time. But just when you figured out a safe spot to shoot from, out came the metal cylinders and squashed you to death. This game was tough.
Thankfully, that good ol' Konami code worked wonderfully in Contra. A few button presses and poof! Both players got thirty lives! That's ten times the standard, surely anyone could beat the game with thirty lives, right? Wrong. Even with thirty lives, there was no guarantee that you would make it to the last level to defeat Red Falcon, or more precisely, all of his internal organs. And if you partnered up with someone who had less mad skills then you did, they could continue by using up your lives! That's an impressive feature, on the surface, but really I'd imagine it caused more arguments than it prevented. Can you imagine if you could use your partner's ammunition in Halo 3, for example? Yeah, maybe that wouldn't be such a good idea.
When you add all of this together, it's easy to see why many consider Contra to be one of the best games of all time. 2 Player co-op, varied level design, a power-up system, memorable music, and fantastic visuals (for the time) are quite a list of accomplishments in any game. There are several sequels to the game, too, even for modern systems like the Nintendo DS. The original Contra is available on XBox Live Arcade, and a sequel or two are included in the Wii's Virtual Console service. Time has been quite good to the two heroes, Mad Dog and Scorpion. For me, they will always be the original (and still greatest) Army of Two. If you have never played a Contra game, you owe it to yourself to grab a friend and check one out!