Contra Anniversary Collection Review

Who needs an army when you have one-or-two shirtless heroes with big guns? Though it doesn’t make sense that the protagonists in the Contra franchise can’t find any backup (or clothing) on the planet to help them protect the Earth from an alien invasion, the circumstances made for some great action games in the 80s and 90s. Contra Anniversary Collection compiles most of the games released during the franchise’s peak years, including the long-absent NES original and a few international versions with a few unique twists.

Once you boot up the game, you’ll have the option of choosing from one of 10 Contra games, or accessing the game’s bonus book that contains concept art and interviews with the developers among other goodies. While there are 10 selectable games, not all of them are entirely original. The two Probotector games are just the European versions of Contra: Hard Corps and Contra III: The Alien Wars. The differences are that the Probotector games replaced the human heroes with robots for European censorship reasons at the time of their original releases, and both have the option of playing at the PAL refresh rate of 50hz. It’s a nice touch for European players who want the experience they grew up with, while everyone else gets the opportunity to experience the slightly-different versions of Contra that Europe received.

The other quasi-duplicate is the Famicom version of Contra. Released a year after the version many of us grew up with, it features a number of improvements, from the inclusion of “cutscenes”, to an overworld map, to in-game improvements such as the palm trees in stage 1 swaying in the wind. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the classic Konami code works here. Anyone know if there’s a 30-lives code in this particular version?

If you want to get pessimistic, Contra and Super Contra are the arcade sources for NES Contra and Super C. This would technically only leave five unique games in the set. While the similarities are obvious, the differences between the arcade and NES games are quite dramatic. The arcade games have vastly different presentation, from completely different graphics, to rearranged music, to a completely different viewing angle, as the arcade games were formatted for a vertical screen. I think they’re different enough to justify their inclusion. If anything, it’s great to see how Konami translated these games to much weaker hardware while actually making the NES versions more fun overall.

Where the selection of games becomes problematic is when you consider what got left out. Was there really no way to rework Contra 4 from the Nintendo DS? Granted, I understand it would take extra work to solve around the dual-screen setup, but it is a mainline game in the series that could help round out this collection. How about Contra: ReBirth, which is now gone forever as it was only released on the now-defunct WiiWare service? Or even the oddball Contra Force? The catalogue isn’t that deep, making the omissions and repeats more glaring.

Minus those, you’re still getting some of the best run-and-gun action games in existence. Some of these, such as Contra on the NES, Contra III, and Contra: Hard Corps are heralded as being some of the best action games ever. Contra and Contra III are some of my all-time faves that hold up to this day. Operation C and Super C are overlooked gems. Hadn’t played Operation C until I got this collection and it’s really impressive how well the experience is translated on the Game Boy. Despite being arguably better than its predecessor, I don’t think Super C got the love it deserved simply because it didn’t have the name Contra in the title. Struggling to find the exact reasoning for this online at the moment, but I believe it was due to a political conflict at the time that had the word “contra” in it.

Nothing has been changed with the games themselves, but the wrapper housing it all does provide players with a few quality of life options. You now have the ability to set the controls however you want. Even with the extra life codes, these games are brutal, so having one save state per game is handy. A few display options are also offered, such as borders, the ability to stretch the view to widescreen, or add scan lines for the additional retro effect. Oddly, you can even save and rewatch your replays.

In theory, it shouldn’t take much for modern consoles to emulate these old games well. In most cases, this holds true. Right down to specific moments of characters flickering or slowdown occurring right where it originally did. Everything looks great and the sound seems fine. I noticed a minor quirk in NES Contra where my character sprite would flash for a frame at the top of the screen when I died, but that’s no big deal.

One game that seems to have serious emulation issues though is the arcade version of Contra. That game chugs non-stop to the point of being unplayable. Based on my research, this only seems to affect the Nintendo Switch version. It stands in stark contrast to its direct sequel in Super Contra, as that game runs beautifully with no signs of unintentional slowdown.

Another quirk worth noting is that you’re getting the North American version of Contra: Hard Corps. Unlike the Japanese version, where each character got a life bar and you could use a code for 70 lives, the North American and European versions have one-hit kills and no extra life code. This makes the game insanely brutal. Supposedly, an update to the game will add the Japanese version for ease of play, but for the time being, you’re in for a bloodbath.

As quirky as this package can be, the Contra Anniversary Collection is going to be a must for anyone that wants the NES original on a modern platform. Its notable absence in modern times makes this the only place you can play the most iconic run-and-gun game without having to hook up an NES. On top of that, you’re getting a number of other great action games with a few extras that showcase the differences that came with translating the games across different platforms and territories. I wish a few more Contra titles made it in the package, and I hope Konami sorts out some of the glaring emulation issues, but it mostly does its job of providing old fans and potentially new ones with a glimpse of what the pinnacle of action games were at the time.

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