“WTF Dude, you’ve never beaten Contra before?”
“Well, no,” I said, feeling the need to defend myself but instead just letting it go.
“Why not? It’s not that hard.”
“It’s not that hard,” I mocked sarcastically. “Yeah, it is. It’s tough. But to be honest, I’ve never really taken the time to sit down and try to seriously beat it. I’ve only just dabbled a few times.”
It was true, I had the game as a kid. It was a hand-me-down from my older brother but by the time he passed it on I had already upgraded to a Sega Genesis and didn’t play with the NES as much. I played a few times because I still occasionally got bored as a kid between playing Sonic and exploring my body but always died early in the game and always lost motivation to power on. It actually wasn’t until I was much older that I realized people saw the game as a classic and a rite of passage in some ways to having NES-cred.
That guy, a friend of mine I visited out of town, and I played two player with the Konami code. I burned through all of my lives and all of our continues while he powered on and beat the game. In my defense, I was a little inebriated and he had beaten the game over and over again as a kid. I saw how it was done and I thought, “Nah. Too hard.” Just too much to memorize, too little reaction time was necessary, too many chances for cheesy deaths. I could see myself bitching and throwing things if I gave it a serious go so I decided to come back to it whenever I felt I had the chops.
That was four years ago. This week I fucking beat Contra. This is my story.
It may not be a big deal to some, especially if you put in the time as a kid. The game may come easy to most people who have memorized where every enemy appears and the trajectory of every bullet to come at Lance or Billy, but if you’ve only ever lightly dabbled and then tried to take a serious stab at it, the learning curve can be immense.
I made a RetroPie Emulation Station for another friend of mine. A different friend than earlier mentioned and one that missed out on a lot of NES games as a kid like I did. I currently own all the games of the roms I put on his system and gave it to him as a gift. I don’t know the legality behind that but that’s my disclaimer. To motivate us both to play through some of the old games, we pick a game that evaded our childhoods and play them over the same few days and update each other on progress; like a dude-bro game club. It’s fun. When thinking of a new game to tackle, he says “What about Contra?” And I said…
“Fuck that. Too hard,” remembering my last experience with it was getting brutally murdered while my savant friend breezed through it and made fun of me for being so bad.
He said, “Ah, ok. Well what else then?”
I came to my senses suddenly. No more knee jerking that it was too hard. It was time. I’m a man now. I beat Paperboy two weeks ago.I beat Super Mario Bros for the first time last week. My childhood was taking it in the ass this month and the train needn’t stop here. “Okay. Let’s do Contra.”
“What did you just say about your childhood?”
“What? I said that out loud?”
I went hard at it day one. Always getting frustratingly defeated on the waterfall level. “Jesus Tapdancing Titty Shits” I would say, “Why do these fucking bullets keep murdering me!?”
Since he and I agreed that any way you could practice playing the game would be okay as long as you only consider actually beating it by doing so with the number of lives and continues made available without a boost, I used the Game Genie and he used Emulation save states. I went the infinite lives route and made it to the end of the game counting my deaths.
“How many times?”
“Eighty,” I said, flatly.
“You died EIGHTY times?”
“Yeah! Dude, it’s fucking hard. There’s a snow level I’ll probably never see again. There were grenades everywhere and dudes with shields. And don’t even get me started on the factory.”
“Yikes. There’s a factory?”
Day two, I decide to just take a few runs with the Konami code. Instead of infinite lives, let’s see if I could manage to do it with thirty. You know? Like a man. I make it to the end but I have to continue twice. The second time I have to continue just once.
“You making progress?”
“Yeah, man. I’m only dying like 50 times now,” I said sarcastically in defeat.
“That’s nuts. I can’t get the controller working with the RetroPie you gave me so I’m not able to play. You keep at it though.”
I did that. Day three rolls around and I beat it with just 27 lives lost. I never once saw the continue screen with the Konami code.
“Cool! Also, this thing you made me doesn’t work right anymore, WTF?”
“Uh, sorry I think I’m losing signal, I’ll call you back…”
Day four. I will not use the Konami code. I will not use the Konami code. I will not use the Konami code.
I have the best run ever. I don’t lose a single life until the snow level and those coward ass grenade tossing tree line bastards steal one at the start. I scald my ass on one of the torches in Energy Zone and die a lot at the hands of a few of the bosses but I’m still hanging in there. My wife sits beside me on the couch and I take notice that she has her phone with her which is important because I take a picture of the victory screen on games to upload to my Instagram. You know? Like a manly man who does man things would do. I look at those Instagram posts longingly later on and softly massage my loins whilst thinking of how awesome I am at Nintendo. Anyway, I get to the Alien Lair and I have two lives left and zero continues. I know this is the easiest level in the game and I have the spread shot. Piece of cake.
“Get out your phone Babe, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh.. ok,” she says as I interrupt her from scrolling through Facebook. She’s only slightly annoyed.
“Yep. About to beat it, I just need you to get ready to take a pic of the screen, ok?”
I survive the shrimp-hocking alien phallus and start spread-shotting those willow spitting rock vaginas left and right to get to the last few. The ones on top and bottom both spit out their heat seeking willow missiles and I misfire. I’m trapped awkwardly by three and try to jump out of the mess but take a hit and lose my spread shot.
She’s silent but I can tell she’s anticipating my extreme anger once I die and lose my last life on the final boss screen. She adjusts the phone in her hands nervously as I face the scorpion-shitting Red Falcon heart. I’m jumping scorpion aliens and dodging the dropping ones and get a good number of shots in. Three alien-scorpions come from the bottom in awkward spacing and one drops from the top as I attempt to clear them in the air and I take a hit, losing my last life.
I smack my knees with my palms and then bury my head in my hands. I see her pull her phone back down and resume looking at Facebook. I figure she’s probably trying to wait out my tantrum but I hold it together and try to show her I’m an adult and not dying inside by saying, “Well FUCKITY DOO! That was bad luck, huh!?” Really, I’m trying to choke back the temptation to just start jerking all the curtains down in the house because I think that would feel good to do about now.
She doesn’t look back.
“Okay, I’ll try one more time.” I take a deep breath and hit start.
This run doesn’t start solid as the first one but it never does. I get off to a rocky start with a few of the early bosses but I make it through the Snow Level and Energy Zone flawlessly. I lose a few in the Hangar like a dipshit and the final Hangar battle is a bit of a crap-shoot to me still. I survive and make it to the last level with a spread shot and at least one continue left. I make it all the way to the heart and pause the game.
“This is it Babe! Get it ready!”
She sighs and opens back up the camera app. I make quick work of Red Falcon’s heart, it disappears, and the image of me leaving the island is shown on screen. She snaps a few pics and I sit back in disbelief.
All in all, I think, the game isn’t that hard and I’m surprised I think this but realize it’s because I’m a dirty rotten cheater for having practiced with the Game Genie and with the Konami code. Oh well. I eventually beat it without those perks and I only died a handful of times, that’s what matters to me. The perks of playing with extra lives no doubt benefitted me in terms of how many times I would have had to replay the last few levels to learn them but does that detract from my overall ability to beat the game or just expedite the process to a point I would have eventually arrived at anyway? Those ethical questions will cloud the experience for me but above all else I’m amazed I actually was able to beat this thing in under seven lives after being pretty intimidated by it. I don’t think it’s an easy game now but I think it’s a well-made game that practice rewards with sure victory.
“I just beat Contra,” I texted my buddy.
“Damn Dude. What do you want to play next?”
I thought for a second and took notice of my sweaty palms and sore thumbs from hours of slaving over Contra. “Ever played Kirby?”