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Old Contra Buffet - Part 1 - Dutch and Rambo vs. Aliens


Old Contra Buffet: A video game completion project


A friend of mine once told me that for several months during elementary school, he used to beat Contra (without the code) every single morning before leaving his house.  Before this year, my experience with Contra has was somewhat limited.  Although I had completed a couple of its later entries, I had never made a serious attempt to complete the seminal original, even with the code.

One night, near the start of this year, I challenged my friend to complete the game that was once so easy for him, while I watched.  His aged reflexes and memory struggled and he had to resort to the code, yet it was clear that he knew the game well and was able to easily pass some of the tougher looking sections without much trouble.  After watching him, I decided that it was time that I gave this iconic game its due and attempt to complete it.  After all, it’s considered a classic and still revered by many as an incredibly fun game, even today.  Only later did I discover that this year was Contra’s 30th anniversary, so bonus reasons!  If all things went well with the original, perhaps I’d tackle some of the later entries and gain a new appreciation for the series.

This several part blog is a collection of reviews for all of the Contra games that I completed this year along with some thoughts on the games that I decided not to play.  I hope that you enjoy it.

On Clear Data

The “time to learn” is the total time spent playing the game before the game was completed with the listed conditions.  For each game, the base challenge was to beat the game on a single run with no codes and at the default settings.  Relevant details on the clear are provided, when applicable.  Difficulty ratings are for “Normal” difficulty for the games where multiple difficulties are available.  I only played one version of each game, no other versions or remakes, and only the North American version.

For the most part, I would typically beat the game using continues, and then go for a 1cc run if it seemed doable and I was still having fun with the game.  Although initial clears were with my own strats, I sometimes looked up videos of other people’s runs to optimize my strats before trying for 1cc.  For those that are not familiar with “1cc”, it is an abbreviation for “one credit clear”, which is to say that the game was beat without using a continue, and for this project, with the default number of lives.

On Review Scores

I know some don’t like review scores, because they don’t carry any nuance, but I like categorizing stuff.  Also, thinking about a review number helps me to think of ways to normalize some of my criticisms against other, similar things that I may have liked more or less than the thing in question and then use that to balance my written critique.

My score range is from 0 to 10, with 5 being average.  I’ve never really tested this, but I would expect that if I was to rate all games ever made that sold at least 5000 copies, the results would approximately fit a Normal (bell curve) distribution.  As you get away from 5, scores get more and more rare.  I am much less likely to give very high or very low ratings than most people.  That said, most games that I actually play fall between 4 and 9 because I mostly choose to play games that I expect to like.  I only have one 10 at any one time.  If a new one is crowned, the old one is demoted to a 9.

On My Skill Level

There are many, many reasons that you should be skeptical of a person’s rating of their own skill level.  Enough reasons that I could easily write an entire (ultra boring) blog series just to summarize them.  So please keep that in mind when I say that I believe that I am comfortably above average in most genres, but never close to being a top player.

As a lad, I relied heavily on reflex, and even though I was pretty good at picking up patterns, I was stubborn and much more likely to bang my head against a wall with a failing strategy.  As a more… experienced gentleman, I have lost some of my reflexes, but I try to identify patterns and safe zones much earlier, and I’m much more likely to ditch a strategy that isn’t working.  The net result of all this is that even though my reflexes are worse, I am much better at most games than I used to be.  Even NES action games.

Part 1: Dutch and Rambo vs. Aliens

Hey, people really liked this game.  Let’s make more like it!

        - Probably Konami (1988)


Ah, the good old days.  When difficulty was the most common driver of game longevity.  Completing a 30 minute game often took many, many hours of failure before being rewarded with a brief, half-assed ending screen.  But to people like me, the quality of the ending didn’t really matter that much.  The feeling of overcoming all odds was the true reward, and that often trite, horribly translated rubbish was just an official confirmation that your journey of self-improvement had been successful.  Subsequent playthroughs were another reward, inviting smug nostalgia as you spent a casual half hour easily besting, or even toying with foes that had seemed nigh impossible days, weeks, or even months ago.

In the early years of the NES, Contra was infamous for this type of difficulty, to the point that some actually considered it too hard.  It carries that reputation to this day and people that have completed it without the code flash that badge of honor with a half smile and an assurance that it’s “no big deal”.  It came at the beginning of a time when Konami was a legend of video games.  A time when they understood the video game market, and played to that market with nary a false step.

Through both the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, the Contra series was continued by stellar game after stellar game, with few missteps along the way.  A founding father of the run’n’gun genre, even if these games didn’t hold up today, they deserve some respect for helping to shape and influence many modern games that some people might not even realize.  But with so many players, both young and old, still singing the series’ praises, these games must still hold up right?  It’s about time I found out.

Contra (NES, 1988)

Win Conditions: 1cc
Time to learn: 2.5 hours
Single Playthrough: 15-20 minutes
Difficulty Rating: 4
Review Score: 8

My History

I never had an NES, but I played Contra a bit at friends’ houses and rented it at least once on one of the occasions when we would rent an NES, but never spent much time with it.  It always seemed way too hard.  I might have gotten to the 4th level once or twice, but certainly not farther.  At the time, I had too much pride to beat the game with the code, and never felt the need to try to beat it without.


My Review

After years of hearing from friends and strangers alike of the awesomeness of this game, I was pretty excited to sit down and give it a real chance.  My biggest fear when starting it up was a fear of disappointment.  A fear that, I would find it fun, but the game doesn’t hold up when compared to the scores of games that it inspired.  That people’s love for it was heavily tainted by nostalgia and NES bias.  I am pleased to say that this fear was unfounded.  This game is a classic for a reason.

First, the graphics and sound.  While not overly impressive, I would consider Contra a good looking game, with decent sprite work.  While some enemy designs were obviously derivative of some popular sci-fi action films of the period, others were pretty cool looking original creations.  The only thing I don’t like about the graphics are the white enemy bullets, which are difficult to see in front of some backgrounds.  The sound effects are decent standard NES faire, but the music is what stands out the most.  Wonderful melody after wonderful melody, the OST is practically flawless.

A prevailing thought amongst reviewers in the 8-bit and 16-bit days is that games were better if they offered multiple types of gameplay.  They believed that games that threw in water levels or vehicle levels made sure you didn’t get bored from doing the same thing for too long.  Contra’s answer to this was the technically impressive “3D” base stage.  Unfortunately, as impressive as they may have looked at the time, they are the most annoying part of the game (a tradition that the series would continue with each and every one of its alternate gameplay stages).  Thankfully, there are only two of them, and once you learn the basic strategy for them, are not too much of a hassle.

Not enough good things can be said about the meat of the game though, the side scrolling run’n’gun stages.  These six stages combine expertly placed enemies with randomly spawned enemies that appear neither too frequently or too sparsely.  There are also multiple ledges of varying heights that you can use to make your own path through the levels, yet there is no easiest path.  Most of these path choices have their own advantages that more or less balance each other out.  A master class in level design.

Bosses however, were another story.  I had read somewhere that Contra is known for its tough bosses, but though most were relatively enjoyable to fight, they were not the progress walls I expected them to be.  In fact, I typically found the boss to be the easiest part of each level, and a nice break between the much tougher situations you’ll find yourself in when playing the stage proper.


With all of the talk about this game’s punishing difficulty, I was also surprised to find that the legendary difficulty is actually mostly memorization, with only occasional technical execution.  I found completing the game to mostly be about knowing where certain enemies would be, and then concentrating on keeping the screen relatively clear.  As far as weapons go, the game is trivial if you can keep spread, but is still totally beatable with any other weapon, including the default pea shooter.  My biggest issue with the weapons, was that most of them were semi-automatic.  As a youngster, this would never really bother me, but I’m not a youngster anymore.  The game is designed well enough that you don’t need to be shooting constantly, but my wrists still ended up a bit sore after a couple of playthroughs.

It took me 2 gaming sessions of a little over an hour a piece to learn the game’s 8 stages using the code and then I could quite easily 1cc it with no code.  Based on the game’s reputation and my memories of playing it as a kid, I thought it would easily take 30-40 hours to learn this game, so my results shocked me a bit.  I do think that stacking many back-to-back playthroughs helped cement strategies and enemy locations into my short term memory.  It also helps that the game is rather generous with extra lives.  In a typical run, you’ll earn an extra 10 lives by the time you reach the end, allowing you many more errors than the starting 3 lives would lead you to believe.  I’m amazed I’ve come to this conclusion, but maybe beating Contra without the code really is “no big deal”.  With the right strategies and the right kind of practice, I think that a lot of people that consider a 1cc Contra victory impossibly hard, could prove themselves wrong.

At about 15-20 minutes for a run, it’s a short game, but still a lot of fun.  I was very happy to discover that Contra still holds up today, and I am glad that I finally took the time complete it.  Not only did it give me a window into what I was missing with that game, it also got me properly interested in the rest of these series and thus the opportunity to experience several other great games.  If you have never played the original Contra, I highly recommend it.  Not only is it an important piece of gaming history, it’s still a damn fine game.

Super C (NES, 1990)

Win Conditions: 1cc
Time to learn: 2.5 hours
Single Playthrough: 15-20 minutes
Difficulty Rating: 5
Review Score: 8

My History

Played this game for maybe 15 minutes total as a kid when we rented it once.  I don’t think I ever even beat the first level.

My Review

I had such a good time completing Contra, I decided that I may as well take a stab at Super C.  You don’t hear much about Super C these days, so I wondered if it would be as fun as the original.  Thankfully, I found that though as a whole it doesn’t quite surpass it’s masterful predecessor, it’s every bit as good and improves on that predecessor in several ways.


The first big improvement that was apparent was the graphics.  Although I never found the original to be a bad looking game, the larger more detailed tiles, and the smart use of color make this game stand out among other 8-bit games of the time.  They also ditched the small white bullets from the original and went with larger flashing bullets that are always very visible.  The music is a small step down, but the quality of the original would be very difficult to match, and the tunes here are all still excellent.

The single biggest improvement this game makes though is the switch from “3D” levels to top down vertical scrolling levels.  These two levels control about as well as you’d expect using a pad with only two buttons and a control pad, but obviously feel cumbersome after playing the many top down shooters that have been released since.  For this and other reasons, they are not nearly as fun as the side scrolling stages, but the are generally inoffensive in their quality and to this day are, in my opinion, the best alternate stages in the entire Contra series.

The gameplay of the six side-scrolling levels in Super C feels very similar to the original, but the levels have a lot less platforms on them and so you spend most of the time just running along the ground.  The unevenness of the ground, and the changing environments thankfully still keep things relatively interesting, but I missed the less linear platforming of the original.  On the good side of things, there are also more vertical sections in this game that are as good, if not better than single vertical level in Contra.  Weapons are mostly unchanged from the original, with the exception of a huge improvement to the fire weapon, which now almost matches spread in the Incredibly OP category.  Everything but the machine gun is still semi-automatic in this game, so I wrist pain again with this game, but no worse than playing the original.

The RNG enemies are also a step down in the fun department.  Instead of a mook or two running in every few seconds, you are constantly being chased by a legion of unarmed dudes.  They are easy to dispatch, but cross the line between diversion and annoying.  The static enemies are also bit more aggressive and plentiful than in the previous game, but unlike the random spawns, they never cross into annoying.  These well placed enemies sometimes force some enjoyable technical dodging, even when you have their locations memorized.


I was pleased to see that bosses in this game were also a big improvement from the original.  While the are not consistently difficult, most of them are much harder than any of the bosses in the first game, and present some great opportunities to show off your dodging skills.  They look really cool too.  Sadly the final boss is one of the easier ones, making for an anti-climactic cap to an otherwise tense experience.

As far as overall difficulty goes, the game seemed quite a bit harder than Contra at first.  An hour in, my progress seemed much less than with the previous entry.  This was mainly due to the fact that though memorization was still important, technical skill played a larger role here.  Once I spent some time with the 10 life code learning some real Contra skills and how to consistently pass a few difficult bottlenecks, a codeless 1cc victory of the game’s 8 stages ended up taking about the same amount of time as the original.

There was a lot to love about Super C, and though I feel that it’s many improvements over Contra didn’t quite outweigh the slightly inferior level design of the side-scrolling levels, it’s still an amazing game and I thought it very close to dethroning the heralded king.  Four days in, with the two original games down, this trip through the series was even more satisfying than I had hoped, and I was ready for more Contra.

Operation C (Gameboy, 1991)

Win Conditions: 1cc
Time to learn: 3 hours
Single Playthrough: 20 minutes
Difficulty Rating: 3
Review Score: 6

My History

I think my brother rented and beat this game on his Gameboy.  It has always a reputation for being the easiest Contra, and gameplay videos for it seemed to confirm that.  Some people do speak fondly of it though.  I initially decided to skip it, but came back to it at the very end of the project due to curiosity.

My Review

Operation C was released a couple of years into the Gameboy’s life.  By this time, many developers had figured out the system’s strengths and weaknesses and while the games that they released didn’t match NES games in terms of intensity or speed, they had their own qualities that could make them pretty fun in their own right.  Operation C distilled the Contra experience to its core and felt very much like a Contra game, but some important concessions were made along the way.


Konami always proved quite good at making the most of the Gameboy’s monochrome visuals, so unsurprisingly, the graphics in Operation C are top tier for the system.  The sound effects are passable, but I’m not sure I’d describe the sound effects in any Gameboy game as “good”.  The music however, consists of excellent GameBoy remixes of original games, using a similar style and similar instruments to the amazing music in Belmont’s Revenge.

The game controls very similar to its NES ancestor aside from your character’s extremely slow movement speed.  This was especially jarring for me, being used to the much faster movement in all other Contra games, but it makes sense when you consider the excessive ghosting that the original Gameboy exhibited, which made quickly scrolling backgrounds a blur.  You only get 3 weapons to choose from in this game, making repeat playthrough less interesting, but at least all of the weapons are viable.  Thankfully, all guns have full autofire in Operation C, which made longer sessions less painful for my aging hands and wrists.

The stage layouts are interesting, if straightforward, with only one or two enemies on the screen at a time.  Unlike most Contra games, no enemy spawns are random.  Enemies are either static, or spawn at specific intervals when you cross their spawn trigger.  The placement of these enemies and spawns ranged from pretty good to pretty trolly.  Unfortunately alternate stages are back, but fortunately, they follow the Super C top-down model and are mostly inoffensive, though as expected, a lot less fun than the side scrolling sections.  The bosses are well designed for the most part and fun to fight, though none were particularly difficult.


Most of the rest of the game was not exceedingly difficult either, probably making this one of the easiest, if not the easiest Contra game ever made.  I wouldn’t call the game a complete pushover either though as 1-ups are awarded less frequently than in the original, and hitboxes are often much bigger than I expected, causing many a death.  The most difficult thing for me however, was getting used to the slower movement speed mentioned above.  Since I played this following all of the other Contra games, I discovered that my Contra experience was a liability and my finely honed reflexes worked against me as I kept misjudging bullet dodges and jumps over gaps.  For this reason, the 3 hours it took to 1cc the game’s 5 stages was slightly higher than the it took to 1cc the original, though I would definitely consider the original Contra to be the more difficult game.

I was generally impressed with Operation C, and was glad that I played it.  It does a great job at condensing the Contra experience for the Gameboy hardware while making understandable tradeoffs that lessen, but don’t ruin the experience.  I think it’s probably one of the weaker entries in the series, but it’s still fun and is an excellent showcase for what the original Gameboy could do.


The 8-bit generation of gaming was full of amazing experiences.  I gamed through it and enjoyed many of the games that are now considered classic, as well as many that are mostly forgotten.  Contra was one of the games I didn’t spend much time with, even though my friends constantly sung its praises.

Years later, I’m thrilled to have finally experienced these wonderful games, though playing through them was also a sobering reminder of the amazing gaming company that Konami used to be.  As I looked forward to the 16-bit Contra games I found myself more and more aware of the steps in Konami’s journey from loved industry leader to despised corporate asshats.

Other Segments

Part 2 - Contra: The Next Generation
Part 3 - Contra-iving The New Dimension
Part 4 - The Passion of the Contra

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About Ghoaneone of us since 5:18 PM on 02.27.2016

I'm kinda old. My first gaming memory is standing in Best, looking at their selection of Atari 2600 games. Since that time, I've gamed on consoles and computers from well known to obscure. I enjoy most genres, and game on multiple platforms.