What happens when you pit one of the manliest games ever made against itself? Let’s find out as we compare the original arcade version of Konami’s Contra with the popular NES port! Get out your testosterone shields, this could get messy!
Contra was first released in arcades in 1987. It’s a mostly side-scrolling run-and-gun, and it pretty much set the standard for the genre. You play as a tough, shirtless soldier, and you advance through the levels shooting just about everything that moves. The arcade version contains five levels, two of which are tunnel stages with an over-the-shoulder point of view. The final stage is one long level with four different environments. This gives the game a lot of variety, as you’re constantly changing directions, and even the side-scrolling levels alternate between horizontal and vertical scrolling.
Overall, it’s not a terribly long game, and it can be beaten in 10-15 minutes, but it is a very challenging game that requires some memorization. Unlike some later games in the series, however, there’s still an element of randomness to keep you on you toes, so it’s not rigid, either. Strangely, despite being an arcade game, there are limited continues, so you can’t really credit-feed your way to the end.
The NES version followed in 1988, and despite being specifically tailored for the console, it’s pretty faithful to the arcade experience. All of the levels are here, but they’re a little bit longer with slightly different layouts, and the final long level has been split into four separate levels for a total of eight levels, so the game’s a good bit lengthier overall. It still has limited continues, however, but using the famous Konami Code at the title screen gives you 30 lives per continue, which should allow most people to finish the game.
The first difference people notice between the arcade and NES versions is usually the controls. The NES version, which most players experience first, has very tight, responsive controls, with eight-way firing and crisp jumping. The arcade version, on the other hand, is just a little bit slower, with floatier jumps. It also has eight-way firing, but the aim “swivels” a little between directions, kind of like the Heavy Machine Gun in Metal Slug. This all takes some getting used to if you’re more familiar with the NES version.
Another interesting difference is the tunnel levels. On the NES, the tunnels are straight, whereas the arcade version has turns. This makes them feel a little more maze-like, even though they’re still completely linear. They’re also timed for some reason, presumably because arcade games need to keep players moving so that the game can’t just indefinitely sit idle after clearing a room. (Gotta keep those quarters rolling in!)
In terms of presentation, there’s really no contest. The arcade version was running on much more powerful hardware than the NES, and so it looks and sounds much better. Another interesting aspect is that it runs on a vertically-oriented monitor. This was fairly common for arcade games in the ’80s, but today it’s mainly reserved for vertically-scrolling shoot’em-ups. For Contra, it might seem a little cramped in the horizontal stages, but it gives the game a very distinct classic arcade feel.
I never actually spent that much time with the arcade version back in the day. I’ve mostly played it by way of Konami’s Arcade Hits collection on the Nintendo DS, which is an excellent version. However, like most people, my first exposure to Contra was on the NES, although I never actually owned the cartridge. I either rented it or played other people’s copies. Currently, I play the unlockable version in Contra 4 on the Nintendo DS. (Is the DS a great system for Contra, or what?)
So, which version is better? Each has their pros and cons. The arcade version has better graphics and sound, as well as more interesting tunnel levels, whereas the NES version is longer, has better control, and is a little more refined overall. Most people will probably want to stick with the NES version, but in my opinion, they’re both excellent, and are well-worth playing for maximum manliness! Just be prepared for all the extra chest hair you’ll grow. Especially if you’re a woman.