Due in no small part to the famous Konami Code, beating Contra legitimately was the stuff of legends back in the day. Sure, with 30 lives you could see the whole game, but to actually finish it normally was unheard of! I think in many ways this code changed Contra’s legacy and made it even more memorable. Which is not to say Contra doesn’t deserve its status as a classic, because it’s a damn good game through and through.
The concept of Contra is pretty simple, but very well constructed. You’ll fight through six side-scrolling stages and two pseudo-front-view base stages, shooting everything in sight and dodging obstacles and bullets to protect your (normally) meager number of lives. You’ll find various weapon upgrades, even the worst of which is a lot better than the pea shooter you start with each time you die. The key to Contra is to never die, which seems obvious, but having a well-known code that lets players play through the game without having to worry about death can color your expectations.
The beauty of Contra is that it’s extremely difficult, but it’s actually pretty fair. There are the occasional areas where standing in the wrong place means instant death, and climbing the vertically-scrolling stage with two players is a nightmare that will likely lead to a fist fight, but for the most part you can be methodical and watch for tells of all the obstacles coming your way. You’ll have to figure a lot out through trial and error, but the game is quite short. This is based on an arcade quarter-muncher, after all.
The only real problem with Contra is that, once you can beat it, it does lose a lot of its luster. There are no secrets to find, no real alternate play styles except to use something other than the Spread Gun at all times. Of course, it’s unlikely you’ll reach that point very quickly anyway. And if nothing else, there’s always the amazing music to listen to.
Contra is a true classic which is unfortunately missing from modern collections and the Virtual Console for some reason. The NES version can be hard to come by legitimately, but it still holds up as a fun game, and one of the best games where the point is just to memorize the whole thing. (A style I used to hate, but now actually kind of miss.)