Insomnia | Commentary

Untold Tales of The Arcade: I Shoot, Therefore I Am

By Francesco-Alessio Ursini / March 23, 2009

Disclaimer: If you're looking for information, you're reading the wrong article. In this work of mine, I rant about my navel and its relation to a series of videogames produced by Konami: Contra. To the horror of completists, I will only rant about some of the games with our buddy Bill Rizer. I don't even think that Bill appears in The Hard Corps (I swear I'll check when I write that part). In any case, I think this disclaimer is necessary, because here at Insomnia we do like to give you some serious content about the facts of games and, more importantly, of gaming.

But personally, I'd like to share my point of view with you. There are other times and places for facts and methods, for discovering the mathematical intricacies of gaming. This is more about my chunks of life spent with these curious hybrids of Art and Science. I'm trying to give you a rendition of what I felt and thought when I played these games. I can't honestly say that you'll be able to exploit this information for any useful increase of knowledge. Perhaps you might, simply by learning the experiences, ideas and feelings of someone else. Maybe you'll find them funny (which would make me very, very happy), or maybe you'll look somewhere else for some more serious content. But I'm not going to be serious here; today, I have other goals.

And now, on with the show!

I Shoot, Therefore I AM: The Legacy of Contra

I remember getting Contra: Shattered Soldier in 2002, on the third day I was in Utrecht, Netherlands. It was a rainy day, and I had a shitty life, and every day in my future looked rainy and shitty. I put the game in my PlayStation 2, and went to piss. Suddenly, a nasty, ruvid heavy-metal tune invaded my urinating privacy, and I wondered if World War III had started. Done with my needs, I went to see what the hell was going on. Chaos, death, a world on the brink of collapse. And Bill Rizer.

Huh? Wasn't he dead?

Let's go back to the beginning.

Contra, the original, is a nice little platformer by Konami. Maybe not entirely a platformer; it makes me think of Shinobi and Rolling Thunder, but with the platform aspects greatly downplayed. The game itself isn't particularly gory. In fact, it's rather colorful, though it has a bizarre undercurrent of Reaganophilia in it. Just look at the attract screen. There's a blonde guy chomping a cigar (Bill "Mad Dog" Rizer) and a dark-haired guy (Lance "Scorpion" Bean) standing back to back. But for us innocent souls growing up in the Reagan era, they were the Aryan bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Italian-American brawler Sylvester Stallone. And these two cheesy rip-offs of characters from uber-pro-America action movies are fighting against the mysterious Red Falcon organization. Red? Probably not a coincidence!

But back in 1987, Contra captured my childish attention easily. An Arnie clone shooting in eight directions and doing quadruple somersaults? Of course I'm in! After the first easy stage, you're treated to an over-the-shoulder section with electric barriers and a bizarre vertical boss fight. Next, there's another vertical section where you have to get to the top of the screen by jumping. Then another over-the-shoulder section, and finally the Contra style kicks in, in stage 5. It's a forest at night, covered with snow. There are a few enemies and then a mid-boss. Then a few more enemies and another mid-boss. Repeat a few more times, and you're in the core of Red Falcon's lair, straight out of James Cameron's Aliens.

Contra is easy, regardless of all the wimps who cheer at anyone who 1-lifes the NES version. I was nine, and on my first try I reached the last stage without too many difficulties. A few more credits, and I finished the game. A few more days of practice, and I could 1-credit the game; soon, I could 1-life it at will. And in the years of Reaganomic self-satisfaction, I really enjoyed finding a nice and easy title; I was happy to build my self-esteem by shooting baddies dressed in red while somersaulting around in the name of justice. In the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal, I played these propaganda-embedded titles even while chuckling at my dad's strips of Doonesbury and Bloom County. And soon, Konami gave us a sequel: Super Contra.

Now, I thought Contra was a rather cute game with nice art, cool music and whatnot, but the first time I saw Super Contra I was completely mesmerized. The game was the cherry on the cake of the year 1988 (or the icing, or whatever you like to put on top of cake). Super Contra was a quantum leap in visuals and sound compared to its predecessor. I put in my coin, and I felt completely in the heat of the battle. Soon, I was facing a tank that would crush me if I couldn't take it down as quickly as possible. And after a few more enemies and explosions, a HUGE helicopter descended into the screen, and the main theme, in its epic style, became something more sinister and up-tempo, which told me clearly that something weird was going on.

Super Contra (much like Gradius II) was setting a standard for the series: the standard of the boss-battle extravaganza. The next stages followed the same pattern of a few enemies trying to score a cheap shot followed by a quick mid-boss, repeated two or three times, for five stages.

But Super Contra really becomes amazing in the last two stages, with the brilliant design of the Hive and populated by Red Falcon's minions, who show a striking resemblance to the creatures of Acheron. The garish explosions and the barren landscapes of war quickly give way to a much more morbid setting of living walls and nightmarish creatures. The slow and dramatic crescendo before the final battle with Red Falcon is one of the most cinematic moments of those years. There you are, in front of the most dangerous threat to mankind's survival. The gray walls are made of bones. The suffocating deep of Red Falcon rhythmically haunts you as you finally banish him (or her, or it) to its dark moon -- for the freedom of the earth.

Funny how freedom appears in the most improbable contexts. Because Super Contra -- like all other Konami arcade games -- is most defined by coercion. If we look at the arcade Gradius games, or the arcade Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle games (or the arcade Contra games, since we're already here), coercion is the fil rouge throughout these titles: the levels demand memorization; simple tactics must be rigorously perfected; and there are no decent weapons unless you can complete the game in one life. Super Contra is Konami memorization taken to the next level, so to speak. Its stages are manifestos against free will: you are forced to do as the game says if you want to survive, and that's that. And once you have the enemy sequence hard-wired into your brain, every cheap shot and every lame ambush, you win easily. But that's the price we pay -- for freedom.

The two arcade Contras had a kind of optimistic Manichaeism about them: us good, them bad. But the next chapter obliterated that colorful dualism, and threw humankind into a barren wasteland of concrete jungles, mutating monsters, and dark and hopeless cities full of the menacing occupiers. Contra became a much darker cosmos; humans were nothing but animals struggling for survival. Contra III: The Alien Wars saw light on the SNES in 1992, and the new Contra, much like the new decade, did not promise a superhero triumph of apple pies and liberty. Red Falcon was resurrected, and Bill Rizer and Lance Bean were dead. Their heirs had to rise and fight this cruel dictator.

My first impressions of Contra III were mixed. On one hand, I wasn't particularly impressed by the overall look, though the SNES effects were groovy (I always liked scaling and rotations). The sound effects were rather bland, but the music perfectly suited the new darker settings. But when I played a few credits, I realized something that had been in my mind for a while: stages are lame; bosses are what I really enjoy. This game delivered a new flavor of action, more like the boss-battle blowouts normally associated with Treasure. A few more plays, some more exposure to this new approach to gaming, and my mind was decided on this issue; and something in me, as a gamer, started to change, rather quickly.

And, of course, victory was mine, again. But there was something about Alien Wars, something grim and brooding, something that still leaves me a bit depressed and nostalgic every time I play it. There's a despair and a sense of drab hopelessness that clearly wouldn't have been possible if super-Ronnie could have really triumphed over evil. And there's something sad about the cruel twist of the series' milieu, something that made me sigh, "Another world turned into a post-apocalyptic nightmare." All my glorious dreams of freedom and supremacy were shattered, the fragments swept away.

There was a gaiden (side story) to Contra III on the Mega Drive, Contra: The Hard Corps. It was good, it was fast, it had lots of bosses, but it was somewhat soulless, for reasons that I have yet to understand. A title that never grabbed me as something alluring and disturbingly charming, but rather as a cold and flawless exercise in boss-fest.

And a boss-fest it was. My friends would invite me to their homes to clear the game that was driving them crazy, and the number of boss battles and the mechanical rigor they demanded gave me a robotic pleasure.

But what is it that is missing in this short but intense Treasuresque series of violent fights? I'd say it lacks a vivid moment. Consider that I can still watch, through the eyes of memory, my first experiences in the first Red Falcon lair in Contra. And I can still feel the gray netherworld of Super Contra's final stage; the slow pulsating beat echoing in my ears when I think of the fight against the devilish alien.

Then, everything was lost -- not in the literal sense, perhaps. The series went over to the consoles, and while I appreciated the violent careen in the boss-fest direction, the appeal of the series disappeared. The next games were made by Western groups, and I left the series.

But then, into the darkest period of my life, the darkest Contra came: Contra: Shattered Soldier.

The first thing I noticed was that Bill Rizer had become a pawn. He'd always been something of a pawn, but he had clearly been proud of it before. Now, the apocalypse is past, men have been judged, and three old men join together for a firmer grip on the few superstates. They unite themselves like supercomputers that formed AM; they become the Triumvirate, to obtain absolute and final submission of all of earth. And the final swing of the pendulum, the last boot on the last upturned face, is our hero, Bill Rizer.

It always was this way, actually. No one has lived in the past. No one will live in the future. The present is the only form of life. Poor blond fool, did you really think that you were building something great? Fighting for freedom? Ah, so puerile, your stupidity disgusts me.

We help Bill Rizer and the android Lucia in their futile quest against Lance Bean, another hero turned puppet? Now a renegade leader of "Blood" Falcon? Now dressing in an SS uniform?

No. Stop it. Nothing's making sense.

Contra used to be filled with that shallow, shiny sense of benevolent supremacy. It was about easy settings and making a lot of noise with automatic weapons. This Contra has no sense of democracy whatsoever. Its mechanics are absolutely fascistic in nature: place yourself at point x, shoot with weapon y, repeat or die. No choice, no independence, nothing but the bleak landscapes of a world which is itself a fascist dictatorship. Work, produce, eat, sleep, and get drunk in your ghetto trying desperately to copulate with some other damned member of the hive, Nimdok.

And the pervasive mantra encoded in this exercise in totalitarianism made game consists of learning religiously every single moment, and repeating it as fast as you can. Day by shitty day, you learn the jumps and the charge shots, and you progress in the quest to defeat the AM-like Trimurti, and their insane attempt to awaken the power of the Moirai, the ancient triune Fates.

No room for creativity, no one asked you for that. Learn their rules, and become their own game. This is the way the AM has designed itself, and the world, and the game. And then there's the horrible reality check. The Triumvirate, the ones who sent you in the name of freedom and justice, they were never the good guys. They used you to completely fuck over the planet, then accused you of the worst possible crime, the murder of your best friend, Lance. And after all the lies and the propaganda and the deaths, humankind barely surviving, they send you again to confront a final enemy. Lance is not dead, he's just the last remaining resistance, and you fight and kill him, your friend, the only one who could help you to destroy the true enemy. They, Them, the Three, the Trinity, the Fates, the Trimurti, the Triumvirate, AM.

Contra has gone from blind, bright optimistic propaganda to bitter, apocalyptic despair. Along the way, I went from dreaming its cheesy Aryan dreams to fighting for anything other than my dreams. And through it all, Bill Rizer, the shining Aryan hero at my side; Bill Rizer, the lone wolf with the dead blue eyes; Bill Rizer, an emblem of eternal battle.

And what of the future? Well, Bill has another sequel in which to star, Neo Contra, but that's already old news. You and I, we have to get rid of our juvenile dreams, before it's too late. But at least we still have the option that Bill and Lance and Nimdok and Ted lack: we can always scream.