Lovely, isn’t it? The original 1987 Contra was a stand-up arcade game, one of relatively few that offered simultaneous co-op play. For better or worse, this feature allowed a ‘dead’ player to steal a life from the ‘living’ player (if he had a spare, of course).
Home ports included Commodore 64 and IBM PC versions, as well as the 1988 NES game that probably outsold more than all of the others put together. The ports lost a map display and a time limit, as well as a little graphical power, but gained a big boost in content — levels became longer and enemies and power-ups became more numerous.
Also in 1988, the arcade sequel Super Contra gave players a tiny jump in graphics and gameplay, but a big jump in…jumping. And upgrading weapons. And instead of fake 3D levels, we got top-down levels. So all-in-all, a worthy sequel that gave players a little added value.
Of course, this was closely followed by the NES version in 1990. In the post-Reagan years, the shortened title “Super C” was deemed less CONTRAversial and more consumer-friendly. Thanks to more powerful capabilities, the IBM PC and Commodore’s new(ish) Amiga platform received ports that were even more faithful to the arcade original…but finding someone who actually played one of them could be one of the toughest challenges in the whole Contra series.
Operation C for the long-lived GameBoy platform marked the first go-anywhere Contra. Understandably, many features could not be packed into the small package; color, variety, co-op play all took a hit in the name of portability.
In 1992, the Super Nintendo got Contra III: The Alien Wars. This was a huge step forward, with nearly-arcade-quality graphics and many new features (multiple weapons being the most fun and useful by far, though they were dropped from the portable 1994 GameBoy and 2002 GameBoy Advance versions).
That same year, the aging NES got Contra Force, with interesting (almost RPG-like) character selection and power-up features but obviously lacking the new machine’s graphic and gameplay potential.
Me too…anyway, Konami didn’t leave out the next-gen competition; in 1994, Contra: Hard Corps came to the SEGA Genesis. With distinct character styles and branching level paths, re-playability was finally about more than simply doing better than last time.
Konami contracted the franchise to Appaloosa Interactive for the PlayStation titles (Contra: Legacy of War in 1996, which also appeared on the SEGA Saturn, and C: The Contra Adventure in 1998). While both featured higher resolutions and more flexible gameplay overall, neither was regarded as a high point for the series.
Konami wisely decided to handle the PlayStation 2 games in-house; the result was a satisfying (if not earth-shattering) pair of games that brought the series back to many of the core elements. Contra: Shattered Solider in 2002, and Neo Contra in 2004, were both difficult enough for the hardcore Contra fans and modern enough to interest a new generation of gamers.
However, the true spiritual successor came in 2007 — interestingly enough, for the spiritual successor to the lowly GameBoy. Contra 4 for the Nintendo DS was unmistakably a ‘true Contra’, but with graphics and sound that the original could only have dreamed about. Co-op mode was available via the built-in networking of the DS, and countless hidden bonuses and classic Contra references made Contra 4 a true culmination rather than a mere continuation.
Nintendo saw the writing on the old-school wall, and kept the basics pure for the 2009 release for the Wii system. Contra: ReBirth wasn’t quite the slam-dunk that Contra 4 had been, but still gave a respectable hardcore experience that is otherwise largely missing from the casual, family-friendly Wii lineup.