Boots’ Top 10 Video Games of All-Time #6: Contra

Contra

The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.

They say you never forget your first. You sit there and look forward to it for years upon years, building the excitement for that fateful day when you finally get to feel what you’ve heard friends talk about for so long. It might be the best thing you’ve ever done, but it’s often awkward and possibly shameful if you didn’t think it through. Hell, it might be downright painful. Regardless, it will always be your first.

It was late 1988 and I was only 10 when I hit the milestone. After being duped into thinking my dreams were crushed, my parents did the ol’ “We forgot to put this last Christmas gift out” maneuver and handed us that final box. My brother and I tore through the wrapping and were then the proud owners of an NES. Of course, it came with Super Mario Bros. And Duck Hunt, but both of us also received one game of our own, and mine was Contra.

For those who don’t know, Contra is one of many NES Konami titles that is notorious for its challenge and high quality. A port of the arcade game of the same title, this side-scrolling shooter gave players fits thanks in part to that unique Konami design and the inherent challenge of their games. Because of that trait, the developer often instilled the popular “Konami Code” that would give either multiple lives or full power-ups depending on the game in question.

USE THE CODE

Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start

Contra’s code resulted in a thirty life reserve for the player and for many, including myself, it wasn’t until utilizing the code that players were able to finally conquer the game and defeat the evil Red Falcon terrorist/alien organization.

But here’s the thing… I had already had time with SMB thanks to its arcade release and while the NES port was a near-perfect re-creation, I had less desire to dedicate time to it thanks to previous experience, so I devoted every minute to Contra, and it was all worth it.

Of course, when you play a game for that amount of time, you become a part of it. You memorize patterns, you remember where items are located, you know where enemies are going to appear; the game becomes an extension of your being. As I played it more and more, I found my zen in its intricacies.

Hangar Zone

Why are there spiked claws above the mine cart tracks? That seems hazardous.

It wasn’t long before I had a surefire technique all set up. It was quite simple, really, and merely consisted of the following steps:

    1. Get the Spread Gun
    2. Get the Rapid-Fire power-up
    3. DOMINATE!!!

Seriously, if you have that gun throughout the entirety of the game, no one should pose much of a threat. Your biggest concern then becomes environmental hazards like flame pillars, spiked walls, or making sure you jump properly over the boss of Stage 6 when he charges you.

I eventually got to a point where I no longer need the Konami Code to finish the game, and at my apex, I was easily able to beat it in less than two deaths and could consistently pull off flawless runs. As of now, I can still occasionally pull one off.

The other great part about this game for me was its soundtrack. Konami has a history of having great music in their games and Contra was no exception. If you are familiar with their music, you can probably tell that they have one of the NES’ most unique sound palettes. Even Konami’s offshoot company Ultra Games used this palette for many titles. There’s just something about the tones and sounds that give them such a powerful quality, and Contra really shows it off with well-written, fast-paced, tense songs that only improve on the game’s atmosphere.

Yes, Contra was my first, and yes, it was equally awkward, embarrassing, and painful in the beginning. But the more time I invested, the more experience I earned, the more I learned of its finer details, all of it combined to give me confidence in my ability as a gamer to improve and know what I was doing from that point on. No longer would I be intimidated by another now that I had the skillset needed to feel prolific.

…and I’ll never forget it. Ever.

Advertisements

Boots’ Top 10 Video Games of All-Time #7: The PlayStation 2 Era of Grand Theft Auto

The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.

Blood fills my character’s eyes as I’m shot from point blank by my partner in this bank job. She runs off with the money and leaves me for dead, calling me “small time” as she turns away. Tried and convicted for the robbery, I’m being transported to the penitentiary to serve my time. This never happens, however, as a group of people attack the convoy that is moving myself and two other prisoners. They take one of the others with them and leave the remaining convict and I to fend for ourselves. A bomb goes off, destroying the bridge and creating an escape diversion. My new friend tells me of a place we can go to get changed and rest. I steal a nearby car and drive to the apartment, ditch my prison orange jumpsuit for a black jacket and green cargo pants, and we head off to get some work with a man named Luigi. Thus began my time in Liberty City…

It’s amazing how such a short and seemingly insignificant moment is the genesis of a franchise’s popularity. I had previously played Grand Theft Auto 2 and, while a great game with some interesting concepts, I was interested to see how it would translate from its top-down 2D look to a full 3D setting. It’s pretty safe to say that almost no one was disappointed with the result. Grand Theft Auto 3 became the benchmark for many games that tried to emulate the open-world genre, and that tradition carried on with its sequels, GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas.

Ambulance

Don’t mess up, don’t mess up, don’t mess up…

There was almost no way for me to get bored in these games. While there were a HUGE number of activities to take part in, the one I truly remember best from each game – possibly due to its annoyance level – is the Ambulance Missions. I’d go around picking up injured patients and bring them to the hospital, but holy crap, one slip-up and all that work for extra health would be lost. This happened on many occasions and I can vividly remember the rage. Of course, there were also the fun things. Story missions were almost always entertaining if not interesting, and I absolutely LOVED looking for all of the unique stunt jumps in each of these titles, especially after finding the superbikes.

Characters in the franchise are colorful and varied, and I had many favorites. The writing in these three games was top-notch and I enjoyed every minute of dialogue. Developer Rockstar Games even managed to land big name Hollywood actors for many of the roles, giving the games some outstanding performances.

Tenpenny Meets His Fate

Samuel L. Jackson plays the corrupt Vinewood cop, Officer Frank Tenpenny. SPOILER: He doesn’t win.

But it’s not even those things that stand out to me the most. It was the chance happenings, the unscripted events that occurred just by way of being in the perfect place at an opportune time, that made these games some of the most fun and memorable that I’d ever played. It could be a well-timed explosion, or a sweet maneuver from the cops, or even something as simple as discovering a dirtbike race on a mountain.

My clearest memory of the entire franchise comes from Vice City. I was doing a mission where I had to break a needed ally out of jail and, upon exiting the station, my wanted level was sitting at a nice four-star level. I ran to the street, eliminated a couple cops, and hopped into the nearest sports car. Being the rock fan that I am, I was happy to see that the preset station was for V-Rock.

Love Fist

The hottest Scottish metal and in all the land. From left to right: Willy, Percy, Jezz, and Dick.

As any GTA fan knows, the radio stations that are in the games make up some of the gaming’s most immersive experiences complete with original programming and full-fledged commercials. This specific occasion had Anthrax’s Madhouse on as I attempted to evade the police. The song was entering its final few beats as I just managed to get clear of the initial blockade, turning it into a legit high-speed chase. That’s when I heard a familiar series of notes…

There are famous guitar lines in heavy metal, and then there are riffs that reached a sort of god-like status. As I sped toward more open roads with the law on my tail, the opening riff of Slayer’s Raining Blood filled my ears and gave me instant goosebumps. I was already familiar with the song, but it had been a while since I’d last heard it. At this moment, blazing through traffic in hopes of finding a Pay-N-Spray quickly, the power of that riff combined with the intensity of the situation melded to form a perfect synergy. My adrenaline surged to a level I didn’t think was possible from a video game. In my head, the only expression I could muster was an excited “OH SHIT, OH FUCK!” I couldn’t form any other words. It was downright magical.

That’s what this newly-dubbed “sandbox” genre is all about. Exploring the world, finding those little gems of gameplay, discovering the in-jokes and easter eggs that the developers threw into the landscape. You can camp on a rooftop and fire at everyone, bet on horse races, fly a fighter jet (YES, A FREAKING FIGHTER JET!), deliver pizzas, or do like I did and just hop on motorcycle and travel around the entirety of San Andreas in one giant loop in about 12 minutes or so on all of its main highways. It seemed as if you could just live a life inside of Rockstar’s worlds, and I’ll be damned if some of us didn’t actually wish it were possible.

Looking back, it is way too difficult to decide which of the trio of PS2 titles is best. Each of them have a unique flavor that works perfectly. The Mafia-inspired tone of GTA3, the cocaine-fueled drug ring tale in Vice City, the early-90s Southern California Gang-like vibe of San Andreas; every game had something for me to connect with. All three had great storytelling, kickass characters, super fun gameplay mechanics, endless nods to pop culture from my childhood, and all of them heavily drew me into their worlds. For these reasons, it is only fitting they are all included as one entity, make the PS2-era of Grand Theft Auto my #7 favorite game(s) of all-time.

Fighter Jets!

I need a wingman. Where’s Goose?

PS – Grand Theft Auto IV? Not even close to living up to these games. Here’s hoping GTA V is as great as it appears to be.

Just a Thought: Competition Vs. Community

Back in 1997 when I was barely 19 years old, the internet wasn’t anywhere even close to what it is now in terms of an entertainment source. Television and terrestrial radio were still the most viable options, and Howard Stern was considered the “king” of the radio airwaves. Here in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Stern was just arriving to the market. I wasn’t hugely familiar with his radio work outside of the E! Network TV show he did, and the autobiographical movie Private Parts – which I actually really enjoyed and found humanized him – but his local debut was still an event that I looked forward to witnessing.

I had grown up listening to the local ratings champ The KQ Morning Show for years up to this point. They were very good, and the host Tom Barnard was always one of my major influences in terms of radio and creative ventures. So much so that I even pursued and was granted an interview with him a few short months ago. When Stern eventually arrived, I decided to check out his first show here in Minnesota. I didn’t expect to be pulled from KQ completely, but I thought that it’d be a nice thing to check in with every so often, and if it did win me over, I felt that I could like both equally for different reasons.

* * *

These days, my preferred media of choice is largely podcasts. I listen to anywhere from 8-15 per week, and I wish I had time for more. It takes me back to those old radio morning shows I loved where the banter was great and the personalities varied across the spectrum. The benefit now is that we can choose what topics we want to hear about. Video games, music, politics, comedy, advice, sex, comic books, etc… all of it is fair game and there’s an audience for each topic and show.

One of the best discoveries I made along the way were community podcasts; independently-run shows from fans of a genre that just wanted to talk about the things they liked. Hearing these shows influenced me to want to do my own program even more and I eventually started the BlankShowCast with my friend, Tim, whom I met out of a mutual podcast fandom. While many of these shows were of similar topics, they each had their own flavor and were able to share real estate in my mind as separate yet equal entities.

* * *

When I remember back to hearing that first Stern show, I remember not being entertained at all. There were long periods of dead air, the comedy wasn’t as great as I’d expected, and it just didn’t seem to have any flow. Perhaps the most standout aspect of it was when Stern and his gang dedicated a large amount of time to trashing the KQ Morning Show and picking apart its programming. Not only were their assessments totally false, but they were overly cruel and attacked parties that weren’t even involved in this newly-formed ratings battle.

KQ’s response was simple; “do nothing.” Somebody at the station had the foresight that acknowledging the drama wouldn’t do any good for them, and so they left it alone. Meanwhile, Stern and his goons continued to fire potshots at them in the hopes of garnering a response. This was Stern’s M.O. in every market he arrived in, and it was often the retaliations from his opponents that would become their undoing, making them look petty and scared in the process.

Terrestrial radio was highly competitive during that era, and for good reason. For the stations, it was all about ratings and profit and with two big names battling for market share in a small market like the Twin Cities, being #2 meant a huge difference in revenue for each of them. You had to win and win BIG in order to succeed because the number of ears on your airwaves was limited.

That is no longer the case in current times. With the growth of the internet and social media, an audience is no longer limited to one city and its surrounding suburbs. Youtube videos, podcasts, livestreams, blogs, fandom sites, and their ilk can reach anyone around the world. Supporters can number in the millions for a particular creative outlet and it happens regularly. Fans of internet entertainment can consume media whenever they like and can be into a number of different and/or similar things of their choice. The viewer/listener has total freedom.

Sadly, there are still some creators who either fail to recognize this or perhaps just choose to remain in a competitive mindset. They see other shows comparable to their own as threats or as outright “thieves.” It’s a thought process that feels antiquated and a bit regressive. Whenever you see two online ventures go toe-to-toe in some sort of clash, one or both parties can often come out of the ordeal looking petty, vindictive, or downright foolish.

***

In 1999, after the two-year Morning Show War was all said and done, the Twin Cities chose their champion. The locally-grown boy from North Minneapolis and his friends had defeated the self-proclaimed “King of All Media” and sent him packing. The tactic of silence worked in their favor. By remaining unresponsive to Stern’s prodding, Barnard and his crew dedicated their efforts to creating a quality show for their listeners and the show retained its loyal following. All the while, the cockiness and brash behavior of Stern and his troupe became off-putting and abrasive to the public. It was only a matter of time until the station that brought Stern to Minneapolis/St. Paul decided that his presence was unnecessary and unprofitable.

Here in 2013, media is taking the opposite approach. Programs of various styles are beginning to see that community wins over competition, and that there is a place for everyone to produce content and find a following. Prolific vloggers on Youtube – collectively known these days as “youtubers” – are seeing the benefits of collaborating. Appearing on each other’s videos only spreads good will and popularity and usually boosts the audiences of any and all creators involved. People like Grace Helbig (DailyGrace) constantly feature other vloggers like Hannah Hart, Felicia Day, Harley Morenstein, and others in an effort to help out their peers.

We are even now at the point where Youtube hosts themed weeks of programming, such as Comedy Week or Geek Week, in which they have a number of notable creators contribute to the theme and promote said videos as a group effort. The crossover can only benefit those involved. The same has also happened in podcasting, to an extent.

But again, there are those who seemingly want to exclude. The other night, I witnessed someone state that they felt as if one of their ideas had been plagiarized. Normally, this could be a notable accusation among content creators, especially if it’s one based on an intellectual property or other artistic vision. In this case, however, the idea in question was merely one of basic format and scheduling.

While these two groups may share a number of viewers, there is very little reason for them to compete with each other. Both are independent productions and are not monetizing their content in any way (as far as I know), so for there to be any kind of clash between them is pointless. Each endeavor should be free to establish an audience and attempt to thrive however they choose, free of the environment of accusations and publicized grumbling.

How this specific situation will play out is up to the parties involved, but if the video gaming community and, by extension, the streaming community want to grow as a whole, there has to be a mentality of inclusion within them. If two or more outlets want to create and happen to share a schedule for their work, then it falls to their supporters to decide which they choose to watch and when. Luckily, most outlets archive their stuff so that we can elect which to view live and which to go back to after the fact. Either way, creators must allow each other to produce content without discouraging one another from doing so. Embracing others’ efforts can only serve to establish positivity and a stronger community for all participants. Being competitive and possibly divisive will only lessen the sense of inclusion, and would likely intimidate newcomers from becoming a part of the fun.

* * *

Currently, the KQRS Morning Show is on its presumed final stretch, according to its host. Barnard tires of terrestrial radio and its outdated revenue model. However, he still loves performing for his loyal fans and friends, and so he has also dived into the podcasting world with his own show, The Tom Barnard Podcast. Recently, he has taken the show to a live streaming format similar to radio but without the ad interruptions and incessant station messaging that usually goes with it. His embracing of social media and its power to reach a wide audience has inspired him to produce something that he enjoys doing without having to worry about ratings and ad sales and my butt of corporate machinations hanging above him. He’s even reached out to other radio personalities and former “enemies” – except for the aforementioned Stern – to appear on his show as guests. In his eyes, he also wants to help build the community he is now a part of.

And that’s really the underlying message that I feel should be focused on. If you want to produce content, do it because you enjoy doing so; because you like the process of creating and showing what you’ve made to the world. At the same time, others are probably doing something similar but instead of getting catty about it or wanting them to disappear, we as creators should embrace that growth in both our respective media and the communities that surround them. It’s a whole wide world out there on the web, and we all have plenty of room to coexist and still have fun doing what we do. Let’s actually practice this message of inclusion that we hear so much about and maybe we’ll all be better for it.