Opposite to common belief, the Contra games never took themselves too seriously. While the original stirred some controversy back when it was out due to the initial similarities with the similarly named real-life armed force from Nicaragua that was involved in a big kerfuffle that the US decided to intervene in the late 1970s, the subject matter in the game was anything but serious. Things started out normally enough, or as normal as fighting in a jungle against an enemy army can be, much to the action movie standards of that time: everything was big, explosive, and most importantly, with lots and lots of guns and muscles.
Things escalated more and more throughout the following years for Contra, and once the cat was out of the bag in regards to the true nature of the enemy that Bill Rizer and Lance Bean fought against, basically a third rate xenomorph wannabe race of aliens, the games got continuously crazier with each new iteration. But one thing remained that tied all of the 2D Contra games that came out during that decade-and-change: they were almost unanimously fantastic side-scrolling shooters. With a couple of exceptions, the Contra games released during that time played incredibly well, and unlike a lot of stuff from that period, are still very much playable and fun now.
For as disappointing as some of the later entries in the franchise have gotten since the move to 3D, hope was never lost that it would jump back to 2D sometime down the line. The nostalgia train was rocking along full steam when Contra 4 made its way to the Nintendo DS in 2007, and the same can be said for Contra Rebirth, which was part of a revival attempt by Konami that brought back their classic trio of series to the Wii’s now defunct downloadable service later in 2009. Both were fantastic games in their own right, but things have died down since then, and with Konami’s distancing from serious development of their properties outside of Pro Evolution Soccer that followed their messy divorce with Hideo Kojima, nobody really expected to see anything official come out of them in regards to their most beloved series.
However, 2019 brought some good surprises to disheartened Konami fans when the company announced that new collections of old classics would be making their way to current gen consoles and PC. To all intents and purposes, the Arcade Anniversary Collection and Castlevania Anniversary Collection did a good job in bringing back some of the best entries in those respective franchises, and albeit some obvious omissions. In the Castlevania compilation, a certain Symphony was nowhere to be seen, and the Arcade one was certainly a weird mix, but each of them managed to provide plenty of content for the player’s buck, as well as some special materials that were surprisingly in-depth and forthcoming with info from “back in the day”.
The best of the bunch had yet to come, though, and now it’s finally out. The Contra Anniversary Collection is perhaps the strongest of the trio, even if it’s missing some of the later entries that I mentioned were quality games on their own right. This latest collection is jam packed with Contra games from just about every region that saw releases for its games back in the 1980s and early 1990s, including the censored versions of Contra that saw the light of day in Europe as the robotic Probotector series, as well as the infinitely inferior but still historically important Arcade versions of the franchise’s best hits, such the original Contra and its sequels that saw absurdly improved home console versions.
The full list of games included in this compilation is as follows:
The NA Arcade, Japanese and North American console versions of the Famicom/NES Contra, its sequel Super Contra, as well as Super C, SNES’ Contra III: The Alien Wars, the GameBoy Contra game Operation C, Contra Hard Corps, Super Probotector Alien Rebels and the aforementioned edited European version of the NES Contra game, Probotector. A patch that has since come out added a few new entries to the collection, including the Japanese Arcade versions of the games from the original list, rounding things out quite well.
M2 has once again done a tremendous job bringing back these classics, allowing for a bevy of options to be tweaked at our leisure, be it to change how graphics are displayed, from the original chunky look down to the awful stretched version, whether or not to include some cool border at while playing, as well as the option to save scum your way through the entire collection with save states. You can also record gameplay and watch it over again if you wish, but the best feature from last year’s awesome SNK 40th Anniversary Collection still remains uncopied, being able to watch a replay and instantly jump into the action, which is a shame.
Still, even though that particular feature is missing, the Contra Anniversary Collection feels quite hefty, even more so when compared to the other two that Konami has put out. Like those compilations, this one also comes packed with a digital book that includes a lot of production details, like interviews with key figures from the franchise as well as concept art, boss fight planning drawings, gameplay blueprints, and even scripts for what little there is for story in these games. It all makes the package feel more complete, even though it’ll never be quite so due to the catalog omissions, but those are somewhat understandable given the format that those games happened to come out as. It’s still a shame that Contra Rebirth is now forever lost due to the Wii Shop’s closure, and at least you can still find Contra 4 copies if you look hard enough. It’s no excuse, but it is what it is.
Although I was disappointed with what I saw of Contra: Rogue Corps back at E3, releases like the Contra Anniversary Collection give me a sliver of hope that somewhere within Konami someone still cares about Contra and their classic franchises enough to keep their flames lit. Even if that doesn’t come to bear fruit in the future, at least we have indie developers like Joysmasher coming up with their own interpretations of Contra, like Blazing Chrome, which I’m currently reviewing for the site. At the very least, we can look back and know that even if the newest entries might leave us wanting, the old games are readily available, a far cry from a lot of other classic developers whose wonderful catalogs now collect dust and might even already be forever lost to time.