Xbox Live Arcade is such an exciting lucky dip. It's like Microsoft has this big machine (probably called Guinievere) and spins it around once a week in front of excited retro gamers. Out plops a little ball with a game name and up steps a grizzled-looking Dominik Diamond to pluck the next lucky winner to be released into the masses.
Well it might as well be that arbitrary for all the logic behind the weekly release schedule for its casual game download service. In certain parts of the world, Contra's regarded with reverence, but ageing European gamers (like, er, me) probably have a less rose-tinted association with how the series started, being one of many slapdash Ocean-published (hi Gary!) ports for the various 8-bit platforms back in 1987. One thing that caught my eye from the Wikipedia entry (god bless it), I nearly spat my cornflakes out at the suggestion that it, "essentially defined the run and gun computer game genre". You what?
Seriously. Who writes this stuff? Did this author actually play any of the five-bugillion 8-bit games with side-scrolling platform-shooting elements that came before Contra, or is dementia really setting in prematurely? I can dig out the 49 side-scrolling platform shooters from my bulging games cupboard from the era if you really want me to prove the point. But anyway, let's move on to the here and now...
Still rocking after all these years
Thanks to Konami being one of a mere handful of games companies to still be around from that hallowed era, we get games like Contra showing up to the XBLA party 19 years later, positioned as if it were one of the real innovators of platform shooting. Which is a bit like listening to a Status Quo fan claiming they were the inventors of psychedelic pop, but now I'm really showing my age.
Ok, so the slightly revisionist not-taking-into -account-all-those -other-games-that -everyone's-forgotten-about -that-came-out -well-before-it view is that Contra is a super-important and fondly cherished example of the genre. Well, it's certainly the last bit of the sentence. But does it stand the test of time? More importantly, is it worth buying again?
To answer the first question, no, not on your nelly. Like most things that came out of 1987 (like Bros, or Brother Beyond) it's actually a bit rubbish when you try and commit serious time to deconstructing its merits today. In fact, it's one of those retro games that you dread showing to anyone of a younger generation, because all it does is reinforce the infuriating myth that all old games were terrible, garish looking abominations with clunky controls and unforgiving play mechanics.
Ok, that's bound to rile the legion of sympathisers for Contra (and let me apologise in advance), but let's take a reality check for a second. I take no pleasure in saying this, but even looked upon with retro fondness and a love for that stylistic chunkiness (which I love, by the way), it came out during what can only be described as videogaming's post infancy. It's bit like that point where young children start developing their front adult teeth and lose their effortless cuteness.
To a large degree, gaming tried way too hard to act all grown up back then. Blessed with the ability to throw more colours and more sprites on the screen at once than ever, games were awash with bigger characters, bright scenery, scrolling, attempts at animation and brain-numbing MIDI tunes. So, even to an ardent retro sympathiser such as myself, this just looks bad. Baaaad. The enhanced visual sheen (which you can, as ever, switch) added over the top of this Xbox Live Arcade version can't really do a great deal but smooth out the pixels, and nothing can disguise the fact that this has exceptionally limited controls and unforgiving design elements that existed purely to get you to throw more coins into the machine to continue. Playing it now doesn't inspire nostalgia - just a lot of sighing.
Double the fun
What it did have, though, to its eternal credit, was two-player simultaneous co-op play, which, at the time, was still a relatively novel invention, and something which will no doubt make this an instant must-play for those who fell in love with it back in the day. And if you loved it then, and got good at it, the chances are you'll still love it now - and hence won't particularly appreciate me telling you that it's not very good.
For the record, the premise for the game places you as Bill Rizer (and Lance Bean) on a mission set in the year 2633 to wipe out the Red Falcon terrorist gang invading a fictional group of islands off New Zealand. But all you really needed to know is that you must shoot everything that's busy rushing towards you - as with Green Beret, Cobra or any other run and gun side-scroller of the era. Able to spray your gun (with a bit of persuasion) in various different directions and jump between platforms (as well as duck down into a prone position to avoid bullets), your mission is no more complicated than to run from left to right (or ascend to the top via a series of platforms), take out the spawning bad guys, watch out for the mounted security cannons and eventually destroy the entrance to a tunnel complex.
On this pseudo 3D section, you then have to continue to blast away at security panels to disable electric fence traps in order to move through the tunnel to the next set of traps, and so on until you reach the start of the next level. It's classic arcade action - trying to memorise where and when new enemies arrive as you go.
And so on, again, dealing with a procession of leaping, firing bad guys, collecting different, higher powered weaponry (some able to spray further and faster than your default gun), taking out yet more mounted guns, before moving onto a typical boss face-off, where you have to learn their attack patterns to dodge the hail of firepower unleashed on top of you. And then more - increasingly difficult - tunnel sections which test you with ever-more fiendish electrified traps that require jumping and crouching and firing in order to disable. Evil. Pure evil.
In simple terms, Contra is still just about playable enough for real die-hard fans to plough through again and enjoy, but for outsiders who missed out the first time, the chances are you won't get what the fuss is about. Contra is a fairly typical example of one of those games from the period that's too unforgiving to be truly enjoyable, and suffers from too many annoying design conventions that were taken for granted back then. Definitely one to try before you consider buying, then