For many, the experience of long Contra sessions on the NES are some of the fondest gaming memories they'll have. What's surprising to these same people is that it started in the arcades, in a far shorter horizontal action platformer. It's hardly the same classic it was on the NES, but the brief arcade version still provides some decent run and gun action in this Xbox Live Arcade port.
In a standard "aliens invade Earth" scenario, Contra sends players through a wide array of locales, blasting away the foreign threat. Upgradeable weapons fly onto the screen, including the always-popular spread gun. It's short enough that the achievement for beating the game in less than 12 minutes is easily attainable once you've memorized enemy patterns.
It's the addictive nature of Contra that helps it stand against time. Even with a small number of sprites on screen, the intensity is still felt. A newcomer can easily become overwhelmed in the early moments, especially when the game briefly changes to a behind-the-back view as alien tunnels are destroyed room by room.
As an arcade game that ran only a few quarters per play, Contra provided decent value. On the Live Arcade, it has trouble making up for the five-dollar tag. It's hard to accept this instead of the NES translation the majority of fans remember so fondly. The rough jumping controls, stripped down levels (some lasting only a few screen lengths at best), simpler bosses and hard to identify power-ups make this the lesser of the two choices.
Contra could have been saved with online play. Co-op play is the only option, and it's broken beyond repair. At some point in all multi-player games, something goes unbelievably wrong, giving the host the impression their partner has died as Game Over blinks on their screen. In reality, the person on the other end is doing just fine. It's possible to end up a full two levels ahead of the other player. It's more or less two players playing the same game side by side at their own pace once past a certain point, which seems to be random.
On the same console, two players will have no problems. It's a smooth experience, and adds an extra layer to the title as both struggle to keep pace while staying alive. It makes the glaring flaws with the online portion even more evident and inexcusable.
Additions to this Live Arcade translation include the now standard enhanced graphics and soundtrack upgrade. The visual changes include some translucent smoke effects, better shading and better resolution. Most of those changes are meager. The audio update is a wonderful one however, providing solid remixes to some classic video game music, and eliminating the annoyance with certain sound effects.
After flying through Contra, you'll sit back and wonder if the 400 points you spent to purchase this could have been better used elsewhere. It's worth noting that this is the first time the true arcade original has been presented on a home console in unaltered form. That will end up a fair price to fans, while those with vague memories (or none at all) will be left saddened and angered at the useless online play.
Contra is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Animated Blood and Violence.