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.
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.
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
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.