Super NES Retro Review: Contra III: The Alien Wars

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Out of all the people who grab the SNES Classic Edition off the shelf on a whim (if they're lucky enough to see one on the shelf), more than a few will do so because Contra III: The Alien Wars is loaded onto the little system.

Contra III is one of those rare games that are practically synonymous with SNES ownership. If you had an SNES as a kid, there's a good chance you had Konami's run-and-gun title. There's also a good chance you have incredibly fond memories of tearing through the game's war-worn streets with your guns blazing.

Er, not me, though. For ages, I only knew Contra III through the brief snippets religious groups wove into commercials about Everything Wrong With Kids Today. I never even picked up the game at any point through adulthood.

So when I started writing Super NES Classic Game by Game, I immediately began worrying about Contra III. "Will I hate it?" I asked myself. "Will I have to say 'All ya'll best take off your nostalgia glasses, because this game actually sucks?'"

"Excuse me sir, have you heard the good news about Jesus ChrisT-1000?"

Nah. From the second you hit "Start," Contra III swaps every drop of your blood for adrenaline. There is rarely a second where you're not fighting for your life against enemies, pits, and stage hazards, and yet each stage flows as silkily as melted chocolate from a ladle. Your childhood adoration for Contra III is assuredly rust-proof.

It's probably a good thing I'm not awarding points for story, though: Contra III's overarching narrative is slim pickings. Aliens are ripping up planet Earth, and Konami's meatiest heroes immediately take up arms to stop them. In North America, the heroes are named "Jimbo" and "Sully." In Japan, they're Bill and Lance. You can call them Big McLargeHuge and Crunch ButtSteak for all the difference it makes. The important thing is that both are very talented with an assortment of guns.

Thunder von Beeftallow and Concrete Thornsteer.

Said guns are your only friend in Contra III (other than a Player 2, if you can rustle one up from your storage). The series is well-known for its robust arsenal, and Contra III is just bursting with goodies. From the classic spread gun to the homing gun (perfect for crowd control) to the devastating flame thrower, you never find yourself in bad company. Even the default machine gun spews an unbroken line of bullets when you hold down the "fire" button.

The machine gun is a big reason why Contra III is such a well-paced game. You lose your special weapons when you die (except for any guns you hold in storage, a la Super Mario World's back-up power-up), but the machine gun is hardly a pea shooter. It easily mows down the endless waves of cannon fodder – enemies that take a single hit to sort out – but it's never a bad idea to scrounge up something more powerful by the time you go up against a mid-boss or an end-stage boss. Luckily, airborne power-up capsules are as plentiful as seagulls at the seashore. You just need to grab them without inadvertently jumping into an enemy (death), running into their gunfire (also death), or falling down a pit (assured death).

Like Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts, which is neighbors with Contra III on the SNES Classic, Contra III is as difficult as a classic Nintendo experience gets. I think Jimbo and Sully's romp through Armageddon is a lot more fun than Arthur's adventure, however.

No dogs allowed. You're not our crowd.

I need to be fair: Though Contra III and Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts are both hard, they're still very different games. The former is about handling your weapon deftly and thinking on your feet, whereas the latter is more oriented around careful platforming. But Contra III's blistering pace makes me much more eager to jump in and try again when I inevitably die. When you lose a life in Contra, you stand right back up again. The only time you trigger checkpoints is when you use a continue. Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts forces you to watch a death animation, return to the map screen, and then it starts you halfway through the stage – but only if you hit the necessary checkpoint.

Contra III doesn't ask for that kind of commitment. Though you certainly get better at the game the more you play it, it's easy to drop in and have a blast until you lose all your lives (or finish the game, if you can manage it). I have "warm up" games that I like to fiddle around with until I'm ready to settle into a longer play session, and Contra III strikes me as a good title to limber up with.

Mario's not the only dude who can hop around girders.

The game still deflates at a couple of points, though – namely, the top-down stages sandwiched in between some of the regular side-scrolling levels. I understand these "mini-challenges" are common in Contra games, but I don't enjoy spinning the battlefield around in Contra III to shoot clumsily at Mode-7 bosses and turrets. The controls in the side-scrolling portions of Contra III are razor-sharp, whereas controlling your warrior from the top-down feels like steering a shopping cart full of bricks through a parking lot filled with potholes. The challenges that bridge Contra III's levels aren't game-ruining by a long shot (and thankfully, there aren't many), but they do feel jarring and superfluous.

Otherwise, I enjoyed working through Contra III by myself, and with my husband (who's shot Red Falcon full of holes more than a few times). Though it looks mindless at first glance, it has a certain elegance behind its enemies' movements. It's like a ballet of fire and blood.

One of the questions you'll be asking yourself when you carry your SNES Classic Edition up to the cashier is, "Are these games still good, or is my memory just fogged up with nostalgia?" Let a fresh pair of eyes assure you that at the very least, Contra III is still a great game.


Tagged with contra, Konami, Platformer, Retro, Retro Reviews, Reviews, SNES, Super Nintendo Entertainment System: Classic Edition.

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