Ask anyone to name off some of their favorite NES games of all time and undoubtedly Contra will be mentioned. It was one of the most influential games of the late ‘80s and still has a presence in pop culture via references to the Konami code, which has appeared on TV, shirts, and even coffee mugs. However, in recent years the original NES classic hasn’t been available via any digital distribution service. Rumor has it that it was a simple paperwork error that kept it off the various Virtual Console storefronts, but that doesn’t matter any longer because it’s a part of the Contra Anniversary Collection for the Switch. As if trying to make up for its MIA status for so long, Konami is providing way more versions of Contra than you bargained for!
As a kid who grew up in the ‘80s my first taste of Contra was on the Nintendo. I had no idea at the time that the game even existed in the arcades, despite regularly going to several in my area. The 30 man code (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, b, a, start) was burned into my memory and is one of the few secret codes that I remember to this day. The game was a huge hit with my circle of friends and we’d regularly blast our way through it – having a fantastic time. It was one of those rare two player co-op games on the NES that really showed off what the system was capable of. Its inclusion in this collection was an absolute necessity and I’m glad to see it still plays just as great as it ever has. The code still works and the levels are just as I remember, except now I can play on the go! This still remains my favorite installment in the series and now that I can simply click off a Joy-Con and have anyone join in no matter where I’m at is a thing of beauty.
So, you can imagine my curiosity when it came to the arcade version of Contra. Surely it would be even better than the NES port, as was usually the case in these circumstances. Perhaps the nostalgia is just too strong, but I came away rather surprised to find out that the arcade version was the lesser of the two. Sure, the sprite work and some of the graphics look a bit better (and they should), but the NES version seems to flow better. The level designs are similar, but the arcade original is hampered by sever slowdown, which is quite a sight to see. The NES version suffers from flicker, but rarely does it hiccup as badly as the arcade version, which chugs along in slow motion in more than one area. Despite being able to throw as many credits into the virtual version as you like, after you perish enough times you’ll still be booted back to the beginning – meaning the challenge in the arcade version is pretty tough. Luckily you have several difficulty options at your disposal, but the NES version seems more approachable.
From there I went onto play its successor, Super Contra in the arcade. Both of these arcade games featured vertical monitors, so the perspective takes a little to get used to. This one runs much better than the first game and looks better to boot. I had a better time here and found this one to be quite entertaining – if not still high on the difficulty side of things. Having never played either arcade machine, this is obviously the better of the two and the one I can see myself going back and trying to complete.
Interestingly enough Konami chose to put the Japanese Famicom version of Contra in this collection as well. I’m not sure if they just didn’t have enough games to round out the collection or if they simply wanted to give players all of the options with the games. This version plays identical to the NES one, but it does feature some extra graphical flourishes. These include a few cutscenes and even a map that shows each level and your progress through the game. Some stages, like the Snowfield even feature snow falling from the sky, which is something not found in the NES iteration. Part of this is probably due to the policy differences in Japan and North America – whereby Konami could use its own chips in the Famicom games to enhance them, whereas the NES versions had to utilize chips made by Nintendo. Obviously that meant they were missing some graphical and audio touches in some of the games. So for that reason the Famicom version of Contra is probably the best one to play.
Super C is also included in the collection and is another fantastic entry in the series. The graphics are upgraded quite a bit and now levels can scroll diagonal and include overhead shooting sections. There’s no 30 man code, but there is a way to get 10 instead. For this reason this might be a little more difficult than the original for some players, but it’s still beatable for most. The game leans a little more sci-fi in some of the levels and the music is still masterclass. I know some people enjoy this sequel more than the original, but for whatever reason I look back at the original as the must-play game in this collection.
Perhaps the most surprising entry included is Operation C, the initial Game Boy Contra game. I’m not surprised to see it represented, especially since the Castlevania Anniversary Collection included several Game Boy entries, but I was pleasantly pleased that it ran as good as it does. This game is super smooth for a Game Boy game and even includes some of the graphical trickery implemented in Super C, like diagonal scrolling. On top of that, the soundtrack is quite good and includes stereo sound. I figured this would be a sort of throwaway entry, but found myself oddly gripped by the longer levels and spot-on gameplay. Sure, it’s only got four colors and doesn’t compare in the graphics department, but it runs better than a lot of games on the Game Boy did and is still fun to play today!
I know a lot of gamers’ favorite entry in the series is Contra III: The Alien Wars. This Super Nintendo game featured beefed up visuals, a great soundtrack, and some awesome gameplay enhancements. You can now carry up to two power-ups and even hang from platforms. There’s bigger sprites and some really fun bosses to fight in this one. I think this one holds up extraordinarily well and is a must-play with a friend. It’s not insanely difficult and is approachable for newcomers – making it the perfect game to boot up on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
Perhaps the outcast of the series is Contra: Hard Corps., not because it’s necessarily a bad game, but because it jumped from Nintendo to Sega. This Genesis game looks and sound good and is fast and furious. It’s a bit odd with its character picks, which include the usual buff marine (and a female option for a change!), but this time around you can be a robot or what I like to call ALF with sunglasses (Fang). The game runs faster than most games in the series and literally everything you shoot blows up in a huge fireball. It’s definitely over the top – in a good way! However this one is HARD. It’s in the title after all!
If you’re from Europe you may know the SNES and Genesis games as Super Probotector and Probotector respectively. They’re pretty much identical to the other versions except the people have been replaced with robots. It’s a nice addition, but I’m not sure they’re worthy of playing through again with just these slight changes. Still, I respect Konami including them in this collection.
Gamers have become accustomed to a certain level of added features when it comes to these types of retro collections. For the most part, Konami and M2 have done a great job providing the basics. You get your save state that you can create at any moment, although there’s only one per game, which is still a little on the anemic side when we have the mini Classic Edition consoles giving us four save states per game. Luckily there are user accounts on the Switch so if you have others playing the game under their usernames they each get their own set of save states. As of this writing Konami has just patched the game via a free update to allow for full button mapping in most of the games. This is essential for the NES titles because the buttons are backward otherwise. Now players can set “B” to jump and “Y” to fire and it will feel way more natural. You can even toggle on turbo if you like!
Other quality of life enhancements include optional borders around the screen, as well as the ability to view the game with or without scanlines. You can choose original aspect ratio, pixel perfect or 16:9 (why would anyone choose this one?). For the arcade titles you can even rotate the screen to better match the vertical nature of the arcade machine. This is perfect for those who have purchased a Flip Grip! Also included with this new update are the Japanese versions of the arcade games, Super C, Contra III, Operation C, and Hard Corps.
Bonus content is also included in the form of the History of Contra. You can read some interviews with some people involved in the creation of the games as well as read about some nice historical trivia for each of the titles included in this collection. Design documents have been scanned in for a look at how some of the stages, enemies, characters, and power-ups were created. This stuff is always intriguing to me, so the effort put forth here is much appreciated.
When taken as a whole, Contra Anniversary Collection does offer up some compelling reasons for purchase, especially for fans of the series. The arcade games are the weakest of the bunch, but there’s enough solid games here to keep most people running and gunning for quite some time. I wouldn’t have minded seeing the second Game Boy game and even Contra Force – the third NES game that is often forgotten. I’ve heard that game in particular isn’t all that great, but it would have been a nice bonus title to throw in a collection like this, especially since I believe that one never came out in Japan. Still, despite these omissions, there’s plenty of games to enjoy in this package!
Contra Anniversary Collection Review
- Graphics - 8/108/10
- Sound - 9/109/10
- Gameplay - 8/108/10
- Lasting Appeal - 7/107/10
Final Thoughts: GREAT
The originator of the 2-player run-and-gun genre still holds up today. With more Contra than anyone asked for, there’s plenty of aliens to keep you busy for days on end. Be sure to hand a Joy-Con to a friend for maximum enjoyment!