GameSpite Journal 10 | Contra III

Contra III: The Alien Wars | Dev.: Konami | Pub: Konami | Genre: Run ‘N Gun | Release: April 1992

Before consoles were designed around control methods and oceanic strategies, “bigger and better” served as the driving impetus for a system upgrade. While Sega and NEC released hardware to challenge the modest NES and its dominion over the living room, power players looked to Nintendo’s own Super NES as its one true successor. A bit more color, a bit better sound, a bit more enemies… and so on, went the commercial. Developers, like consumers, waited eagerly to see what this uber-console could do—or, more accurately, how to show off the amazing feats they could do with it. This burden weighed especially heavily on game makers like Nobuya Nakazato, assigned to high-octane action series Contra. These games already used “bigger and better” as their claim to fame, so how could they become that much biggerer and betterer? Contra III: The Alien Wars demonstrated exactly how amazing an action experience the SNES could provide, and all before the midway point of the first stage at that.

The very first thing players see after starting Contra III is a familiar item pod, floating overhead in its comforting sine-wave pattern. The second thing, though, is the big one: A car in the middle of the road. It’s a beautiful cherry red, rendered as shiny and sexy as the SNES could manage and flanked by an advertisement for itself as if to say -- this is one sweet ride! On old hardware this would be a background element. “Look at that car in the background,” a player might say. This car, however, parked itself squarely in the critical path for players to instead wonder: What can I do with this? Contra being an action series, the simplest answer was also the best: Shoot it.

The car explodes after merely a second of fire (10 bullets, in Contra terms), its frame lifting high off the ground amidst a repeated flurry of explosions that open to full bloom over and over again. The car’s tires and chassis break apart, blown sideways in increasing irrelevance. Explosions envelop what’s left of the frame as it descends, melting the remains to nothing. And that’s that. The player then guides Bill Rizer (or, ahem, Jimbo) into the game proper to shoot aliens, leap pits, avoid traps, and die at the hands of myriad boss encounters.

Lasting infinitely longer than the car, however, is what it represents: People planned, created, and placed this car just so the player could blow it up. Doing so doesn’t open a hidden passage, reveal an item, or weaken the stage boss. It serves no purpose at all beyond, well, it’s just cool to blow pretty things up. In perhaps the first instance of “big dumb action movie logic” being an achievable gameplay element, the Contra car is a gateway to the greatest action set pieces gaming had ever seen by 1992: A city on fire, a building-busting turtle monster, a room-sized T-1000, an airborne chase aboard cruiser missiles, and more. However, none of those genre-defining moments could be reached without razor-honed action gamer reflexes. Yet everyone got to blow up the car.

By Tomm Hulett? | Nov. 29, 2011 | Previous: Super Scope | Next: Arcana