The Video Game medium is an extremely strange place for narratives. Sequential story telling is as old as time itself, and even the concept of a reboot is fairly well understood across entertainment, but, in the modern era, it seems like only video games include stories that, like the fragmented myths of ancient civilizations, hop around like bunnies on Ritalin. The only difference is that the random disparities in Hercules’ adventures occurred because of the involvement of generations and hundreds of wannabe authors, while the inconsistencies in something like the Contra franchise exist merely because there’s some imagined demand for a reason for a muscled dude with unlimited ammo to mow down scores of creatures. It’s okay, Konami, you didn’t have to manufacture centuries of strife, we never needed a reason beyond, “Here’s some aliens, make them go away.”
Did you know that Contra, as in the original, NES Contra, takes place in the year 2633 AD? Yep! Everyone who played the game back in ’87 assumed it was just a contemporary setting mirroring Rambo with aliens, but, nope, totally the far flung future. Even if we ignore ancillary documents and just take a look at the game itself, there really is nothing indicating that Contra takes place a good six centuries into the future, forgiving a few weapons and technology that could easily be explained with “well, they’re aliens, duh.” There’s nothing here that wasn’t used in the unending war on Cobra Commander. Then we’ve got Super Contra, which, to be clear, predates the Super Nintendo, which was much the same. Yeah, it’s an enemy/alien base, but everything looks pretty modern-y, with the caveat that bird persons have popped up in perfectly present-day games all the time. Big, ominous, glowy bases were all over the place in the early 90’s. Operation C, “Gameboy Contra”, was much the same.
Then we hit the Super Nintendo, and with it, Contra 3: The Alien Wars. Now it’s undeniably 2636. Maybe it’s because the game finally featured a “city”, but everything about Contra 3 screams “this is the future”, and not just any future, but one of those lovely dystopian Terminator futures. As an added bonus, there are also Terminators. Much like Mega Man X, Contra 3 kicks off with a world that appears to be existing in mid-obliteration, but unlike MMX, it only ramps up from there, showcasing a world where missiles fall like rain drops, and a mundane desert is lousy with gargantuan alien monsters. It does not look like a happy place to be. Contra Hard Corps, “Genesis Contra”, is on the same level, though this world of 2641 looks slightly more habitable. Slightly. At least they cut down on the mutant dogs and have given bipedal wolf creatures jobs.
Contra: Legacy of War and C: The Contra Adventure, the Playstation entries, are no longer canon (and never were?), but they went right back to the original Contra’s (presumed) setting, and, by and large, seem to take place in a world very similar to that of any Predator media. Soldiers, aliens, jungles: all pretty basic “the horrors of war” meets sci-fi nonsense that you’ll find hovering around Carl Weathers.
It was after all of this that Contra: Shattered Soldier was released. If you’ve been paying attention, you may note that the Contra series’ continuity, to the lay-observer, seemed to bounce around like a ping pong ball, never quite settling on one consistent location or theme; but by stark contrast, the gameplay of Contra was decidedly dependable: you are a squishy human, run and jump to avoid bullets, and return fire against an army of mooks, robots, and aliens. The Playstation entries introduced 3-D to the whole equation, but that was simply the style of the time (see also: every game released for PSX and N64), and we all knew that wasn’t really long for the world. So Contra: Shattered Soldier was more run ‘n gun gameplay, now with more hideous aliens and the occasional missile ride, so what could be an issue? Well, the problem was that the plot ping pong ball went waaaaaay out of bounds.
Journey with me now back to wilds of 2002 AD, the year of Shattered Soldier’s release. Google? Google was a shiny new thing, primarily used to find song lyrics to post in your Livejournal. Wikipedia was a year old, and, according to a chart I found on Wikipedia, had approximately seven articles at the time. The idea of a “Contra Wiki” was just that, an idea, and the best you would likely find was a Geocities or Angelfire site dedicated to Contra, probably with a weird name like “Bill Rizer’s Rizettes” or “The Contra Turbo Connection”. The page was likely infested with animated gifs… errr… the bad kind of animated gifs. My point? It was difficult in that bygone era to get worthwhile, dependable information to “catch up” on a franchise. In the meanwhile, you were stuck with random conjecture and hearsay, which was not a good thing when dealing with what Shattered Soldier served up.
See, the story of Contra Shattered Soldier relied on a lot of flashbacks and en media res storytelling. The plot was, to type it here, pretty straightforward: Five years before the game, there was an accident that wiped out 80% of life on Earth (!) and was blamed on ol’ player one, Bill Rizer, who then, apparently, killed his old partner, Lance Bean. It was all a frame job, of course, but Bill was sentenced to 10,000 years in prison. A mere five years into his sentence, he’s released on Suicide Squad rules to join cyborg Lucia in taking down the latest threat to Earth, a revived Blood/Red Falcon led by none other than an undead Lance Bean. Pretty straightforward action plot, really, but the only problem was that mountain of backstory was never introduced before, and the player of the time had no idea as to its origins. Was this in a previous game, and we just forgot it? Was it lost in a localization? Did we miss a game? Was there some Contra anime that never saw a Western release? Wasn’t Blood Falcon just that one alien at the end of Super C? Or that giant heart? Was this a decade later or centuries? Was Contra 3 the only canon game? Where did the spread gun go?
It seems funny to think about now, when all of these answers are accessible by a mere click, but at the time, it created a particularly absurd experience. Run, gun, shoot down some aliens, and then it’s time for a cutscene that made about as much sense as Xenogears. Who’s that guy? Who’s this guy? Why aren’t there any aliens in these scenes? And then, a few button presses later, it’s back to same ol’ Contra, riding a speeder bike or surfing a missile to victory. This would be a simply generally confusing experience if it weren’t for the fact that the “finale” is locked behind a difficulty wall that requires some serious practice, so you may then, finally, succeed and experience an ending that answers… nothing. It ties up the threads of the game well enough, but it doesn’t answer the bigger questions, like were these century old cyborg dudes in charge of the Contra universe since the first game? Why would anyone follow a leader named “Nero”?
In the end, like all video game plots, it didn’t matter one iota. Neo Contra followed Contra: Shattered Soldier, and it eschewed the overwrought plot of the previous entry for a game where at least one antagonist was a well-equipped bull terrier (this, to be clear, isn’t a metaphor, the dude was a literal quadrupedal dog in vaguely WWII garb). And, incidentally, the game takes place two millennia later… yet still stars Bill Rizer. Is it any wonder we just assumed NES Contra took place around the late twentieth century? Nothing about this franchise ever focused long enough to make any sense, so, one “story driven” entry or no, we were just never meant to understand the intricacies of this Man vs. Aliens story.
And, really, that’s just fine. Much like Contra “trying on” 3-D for the PSX era, it threw its hat into the story-telling ring that made games like Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid so popular on the PS2, failed, and then went back to what it did best: wholesale alien slaughter. The mythology of Contra gets a little more muddied, but that’s never what anyone signed up for anyway. You can peruse the Contra wiki at will, and Bill will be just waiting for you to come back to the controller. There are some colossal alien turtles to flambé, and, no, you don’t need to know why. Isn’t turtle stomping enough?
FGC #34 Contra: Shattered Soldier
- System: Playstation 2, also available on PS3 PSN
- Number of Players: 2, one manly man framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and one female cyborg that forgot how to wear pants.
- Contra Ranking: This was easily the best Contra game, gameplay wise, before Contra 4 came around. A complete lack of cutscenes would have been appreciated, but you can play any completed level whenever you want, which should be a mandatory feature for all games, regardless of genre.
- Favorite Weapon: Why can’t the flamethrower have a little better range? I just love whipping that fire around.
- Puppy Power: There’s a level that starts with your hero being led by a herd of rottweilers. Has there ever been a game were you command a dog pack to, I don’t know, solve crimes and tackle bad guys? I’d play that game.
- Did you know? Both Bill Rizer, Player 1, and Lance Bean, usually Player 2 but a villain in this game, have names that are a combination of actors from Aliens. Also, their visages are clearly based on Governator Arnold and Sly Stallone. Contra Timeline be damned, I want a Contra version of The Expendables.
- Would I play again? Probably, yeah. I’d like to see it show up on my PS4, but in the meanwhile, I’m happy to occasionally give a few levels a shot on the PS3, and then quit the minute it becomes too frustrating, usually somewhere in Level 4. This is pretty much how I enjoy the whole franchise.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Punch-Out!! Wii Edition. Float like a butterfly, stink like a Donkey Kong. Let’s do this thing, Doc Lewis! Please look forward to it!