*Review based on Contra III: The Alien Wars’ release as part of the SNES Classic Edition*
Contra was one of the pioneers of the run-and-gun genre, made famous by its hectic action, steep challenge, and for popularizing the Konami Code. On the NES, Contra became one of the premiere third-party franchises for the console. It made perfect sense then, that Contra would make the jump to the Super NES, like so many other NES franchises did. But while the likes of Mario, Zelda and Mega Man found new life on Nintendo’s 16-bit machine, Contra’s leap to the SNES felt more like a continuation of the NES games, as opposed to their evolution. There’s still fun to be had with Contra III, though playing it today, it seems less impressive than many of its SNES peers.
The setup remains the same, with one or two players taking control of musclebound heroes who are armed with machine guns of unlimited ammo. You run, jump and shoot your way through stages, fight waves of enemies, and take on massive bosses.
It’s standard run-and-gun action, but there are some fun twists added to the mix. Notably, you can carry two different weapons at once. Picking up power-ups gives you new weapons – such as powerful lasers or the impossibly useful homing missiles – and you can carry two power-ups at a time by picking them up when a different weapon slot is selected. But should you die (and you will), you will lose whichever power-up you had in the selected slot when you died.
This makes it rather difficult to hold onto weapons, because Contra III is no slouch in the difficulty department, with a single enemy attack costing you a life. With how often the screen fills up with enemies, it can be hard to master your way around them to survive. And that famous Konami Code doesn’t work here, so there’s no easy access to extra lives. You have to tough it out the old fashion way.
On the bright side, you can find extra lives by defeating certain enemies or destroying certain objects, and you have a few continues to hold onto. On the downside, many enemy projectiles are incredibly small and hard to make out, so you’ll often get killed by an enemy shot that you didn’t even notice because of everything else that’s going on. Worse still, if you run out of continues, it’s back to the beginning of the game.
Admittedly, no matter how often you have to start over, you aren’t going all that far back, because Contra III only boasts a grand total of six stages. This means that Contra III is an incredibly short game, even for its day. While the SNES saw many franchises grow bigger when they made the jump to 16-bits, Contra III feels more like an NES game with a visual overhaul.
Back to the bright side of things, that visual overhaul comes with some benefits, the best of which being the second and fifth levels, which ditch the sidescrolling action in favor of a top-down perspective. Taking advantage of the SNES’ scaling and rotation capabilities, players can spin their character 360 degrees by the presses of the shoulder buttons. These stages make for a nice change of pace, and add a little variety to the equation.
Contra III: The Alien Wars remains a fun and exciting run-and-gun title, and provides a truly testing challenge, especially for two players. But it also feels a tad shallow, and maybe even a little outdated, due to its exceptionally short length. Though many still regard Contra III: The Alien Wars as an SNES classic, it feels more like a “pretty good” NES title that just happens to be 16-bits.