In the mid-to-late '80s, Konami found itself in the midst of its golden age. These were the years where the creative powers of its designers seemed to have reached their peak, with games as varied as Gradius, Track & Field and Metal Gear all proving sizeable hits either in the arcade or on home systems. But Contra was one of Konami’s biggest console hits of the era.
First released in Japanese arcades in 1987, Contra is a run-and-gun game inspired by the hit American action films of the day—most obviously the Rambo series and Aliens. In it, two soldiers stormed an alien base hidden on an island off the coast of New Zealand (or the Amazon for the Nintendo Entertainment System—or NES—version). The combination of side-scrolling and pseudo-3D action, together with its then-unusual co-op mode, proved to be a major hit, particularly when Contra hit NES in America in 1988. So to salute the game which kicked off a long and much-loved franchise, here are 11 surprising facts about the mighty Contra.
1. ITS TITLE WAS SEEMINGLY INSPIRED BY THE NICARAGUAN REVOLUTION.
While Contra sees two muscle-bound heroes, Lance and Bill, take on the might of an alien invasion force dubbed Red Falcon, the game’s title appears to have been inspired by real-world events that were unfolding throughout the 1980s. In Nicaragua, rebel fighters called the Contrarrevolución (or Contras) were fighting against the communist Sandinista Junta, and the whole notion of guerrilla fighters seemed to seep into the game designers’ imagination; one of the games describes a Contra as a “superior soldier [...] excelling in guerrilla tactics." One of the tunes on Contra’s soundtrack even references the Nicaraguan Revolution—it’s called "Sandinista."
2. LANCE AND BILL WERE ALIENS-INSPIRED AMALGAMATIONS.
It’s widely noted that the various creatures that screech across the screen in Contra were inspired by James Cameron’s Aliens, which appeared in cinemas a year before Konami’s game hit arcades. But there seems to another connection to that classic movie: Contra’s heroes, named Bill Rizer and Lance Bean, have been taken from actors’ names in Aliens. Bill Rizer is a combination of Bill Paxton and Paul Reiser, while Lance Bean crosses Lance Henriksen with Michael Biehn.
3. THE ARCADE VERSION HAD AN UPRIGHT SCREEN.
Although by no means the first run-and-gun game, Contra was unusual for its two-player simultaneous action—a relatively unusual addition for the time—and for its upright screen. Usually reserved for vertical shooters like Galaga or Konami’s own Twinbee, the upright screen was an unusual choice for a game with horizontally scrolling platform action. But the configuration came into its own in Contra’s pseudo-3D levels, where players fought their way through alien-infested corridors, and also gave some of the huge bosses an even greater sense of scale. Needless to say, Contra’s levels had to be redesigned to fit standard TV sets when it was ported for home systems.
4. THE ARCADE WAS NAMED GRYZOR IN EUROPE.
When Contra first emerged, it coincided with the Iran-Contra affair—a political scandal which embroiled the Reagan administration in 1987. Because of the political charge surrounding the Contra name, its title was changed to Gryzor in Europe and Oceania.
5. BOB WAKELIN'S ARTWORK FEATURES SOME FAMILIAR FACES.
When it came to videogame artwork in the 1980s, there were few better artists than Bob Wakelin. His depiction of two battle-hardened soldiers wading through an alien nest was so successful that it wound up appearing on the boxes for the American NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) version of Contra as well as the British home computer versions. It’s not difficult to see where Wakelin got his inspiration from when he painted the artwork; the soldiers are clearly modeled on some publicity shots of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action flick Predator. “A Predator /Aliens rip-off is what the game appeared to be, so I supplied a Predator /Aliens style pic—with ripped Arnie Predator poses,” Wakelin later wrote.
6. THE NES PORT WAS NAMED PROBOTECTOR IN GERMANY.
In Germany, Contra underwent some far more drastic changes. There, the NES version was called Probotector (a portmanteau of "robot" and "protector"), and the game’s content was considerably toned down to get it past Germany’s strict laws regarding the sale of violent games to children. Super soldiers Bill and Lance were changed into humanoid robots, while the characters they fought were also given a more mechanical look. Because Germany was such a major market, Probotector spread and was also played by other kids in Europe.
7. KONAMI RELEASED AN LCD HANDHELD VERSION OF THE GAME.
While the NES version of Contra retained its original name in America, later handheld releases were given different titles. A port for the Game Boy, called Contra in Japan, was retitled Operation C in the U.S. and Probotector in Europe. An LCD handheld version of the game came out in 1989, and while part of the old Gryzor name is still partly visible in its artwork, it was given the pithy title C.
8. THE NES VERSION POPULARIZED THE KONAMI CODE.
Released to rave reviews in 1988, the NES port of Contra was a big hit in America. Its success was such that the Konami Code—a string of button presses which grants extra lives—is closely associated with Contra. In reality, the Konami Code was first slipped into the space shooter Gradius by programmer Kazuhisa Hashimoto two years earlier. But Contra was the bigger hit in the U.S., and the link between it and the Konami Code stuck in the mind of a generation of gamers.
9. THE JAPANESE NES VERSION OF CONTRA FEATURED ADDITIONAL CUT-SCENES.
In Japan, videogame manufacturers used to create their own cartridges for the Famicom—that country’s version of the NES. This allowed them to add in their own custom chips, which, in the case of Contra, meant that Konami could add in story-building cut-scenes and fancy background effects. Because cartridges were manufactured by Nintendo themselves in the U.S., using the company’s own standard chips, the cut-scenes and other frills had to be cut to fit the game in the cartridge’s smaller ROM.
10. MINT COPIES OF THE EARLY CONTRA GAMES ARE HIGHLY COLLECTIBLE.
The fan affection for the Contra series is such that early entries in the series are now highly sought-after by collectors. A copy of the Japanese Famicom original in good condition could set you back around $75 or more on eBay, while Japanese copies of Contra: The Hard Corps on the Sega Mega Drive—one of the rarest of the sequels—could cost upwards of $400.
11. IT INSPIRED A VAMPIRE WEEKEND ALBUM.
In 2010, the indie rock band Vampire Weekend released an album called Contra, and lead singer Ezra Koenig has made no secret of its geeky connection to Konami’s '80s classic, as well as its allusions to the Nicaraguan Revolution.
“Look, I was born in 1984, so I’m not going to name an album Contra and not think about that video game,” Koenig told MTV. “I did have a moment where I stopped and thought, wow, everybody my age, when you say ‘Contra,’ thinks of the video game, and everybody my parents’ age thinks of the counter-revolutionaries in Nicaragua.”
This post originally appeared on our UK site.