In 1988, Konami changed the gaming landscape when it released Contra for the Nintendo Entertainment System, bringing 2-player guerilla warfare action against invading aliens right into your living room. But what some people don’t realize is that Contra was not an NES original; rather, it was the home port of an arcade game that had been released the year prior.
Often, when games were ported to home consoles, changes had to be made, leading us to the question: Which version of Contra is the truly superior one?
Quite possibly the biggest — or at least the most noticeable — change between the two is in the visuals, and I don’t just mean the graphics. The arcade version of Contra used a vertically-oriented monitor, giving players a greater field of view above and below them at the cost of seeing as far ahead or behind them. Few people keep their televisions sitting on their side, so naturally, this had to be changed for the home port.
That said, the graphics had to be downgraded significantly as well. The arcade version sports graphics that were closer to 16-bit in style, and even used distinct pixel art for the two protagonists, Bill Rizer and Lance Bean. Much has been made of how the two resemble 80’s action film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger (per his appearance in Predator) and Sylvester Stallone (Rambo), respectively, and while the NES version features two near-identical shirtless commandos as the player characters, the arcade version retains the style of their Hollywood origins.
However, while the arcade’s graphics appear to be the product of more powerful hardware, the colors have a sort of muddiness to them that may seem suitable for the game’s theme, but are otherwise less pleasing to the eye. The NES version, on the other hand, has simpler graphics with a bolder use of more vibrant colors.
In terms of sound, both games sport the same tunes, but executed differently. If you’ve heard a Konami game on the NES, you have a good idea of how their games sound; meanwhile, the arcade version sounds more like it would be right at home on the SEGA Genesis. Listen for yourself:
Other changes see the players grab actual guns of varying type in the arcade, rather than the Red Falcon wings bearing letters found in the home version. Animations differ as well, with the home console heroes compacting into a tight cannonball as they jump, while the arcade’s athletics tend to look and feel a little bit looser in their execution.
Another big difference is in how each version handles stages. The home version has eight distinct stages, each with its own boss at the end and a cutscene-ish transition to the next, but the last several stages of the arcade version all flow together seamlessly into a gaming gauntlet of alien assaults with no in-between breaks. In addition, boss placement varies between the two versions as well.
Finally, one change could be make-or-break for some people: The difficulty. The arcade version generally feels harder overall, and this is only accentuated by the absence of the Konami Code. The arcade version only gives you three lives across a handful of continues, much like the home version’s default. But by inputting the celebrated combination of controller commands, the NES version allows each player 30 lives to start, as well as for each continue, making the challenge much more surmountable.
All told, the NES game is generally the favorite of the two — there’s a reason it’s more often remembered than its progenitor. However, these days, the arcade version has a key advantage over its refined revision: Availability.
The arcade version of Contra can be found on the Xbox 360 (and is backwards compatible on Xbox One) and the PlayStation 4 via HAMSTER Corporation’s Arcade Archives series, and was also released at retail in Konami Classics Series: Arcade Hits for the Nintendo DS (also playable on the Nintendo 3DS, but the unlockable lacks true multiplayer either way) and Konami Classics Volume 2 for the Xbox 360.
Meanwhile, the NES version can be found on… well, just the NES, save for an unlockable version found in Contra 4 for the Nintendo DS. Its sequel, Super C, has been made available on the Virtual Console for the Wii, the Wii U, and the Nintendo 3DS, as well as being one of the 30 games featured in the NES Classic. But as for the original? It’s anyone’s guess as to why Konami has seemingly refused to reissue what’s arguably the more popular of the two games, though a rumor from earlier this year points to a clerical error on Konami’s part that’s kept not only this classic, but also the SEGA Genesis Castlevania and Contra games off of Nintendo’s services.
The arcade version is a fun time and easier to come by, but if you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to play the NES version, don’t let it pass you by.