If there were a handful of games that really sold me on the idea that the NES was something I had to look more deeply into, Contra stood tall atop that list, its manly chest puffed out far beyond those of its limp-pectoraled companions. I was formally introduced to it by my friend Mike (I might have played it briefly before--I don't really remember), who had a modest collection of NES games and a lot of those middling-to-decent titles I would've been predisposed to overlook. Contra wasn't one of them. No--I knew it was something special no sooner than our trespassing of the that first exploding bridge, which cemented just how much this was an action movie come to life. Before even knowing the true inspiration for its box art, we'd pretend we were Arnold and Sly taking down the invading enemy force!
Mike's mother preferred that he not bring friends into the house, lest fellows like me would spew about my people germs amid her luxurious middle-class abode, so I played it more so with Dominick and my cousins, who got the game during the same time-span. For the longest while, it was our chief go-to game for any game-relating get-together, trumping all other NES titles. One of the first things they taught me about Contra was the 30-life Konami code, which they assured me we'd never survive long without. It will forever be burned into my memory: Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A and Start. For us there was usually competition to see who could input the code the quickest, with many resets following our spasmically failing attempts. "Upupdowdwnnnlftrigihith--FRACK!"
Our interactions with Contra were typical: We loved the Spread gun, hated the Laser, couldn't help but scroll each other off the screen in the Waterfall stage, and could never correctly time our jumps to avoid the vertical flamethrowers in the Energy Zone. Personally, I was almost sure that there was a way to fire a bullet up into one of those interconnected pipes and have it exit down through another, but it wouldn't work no matter how much I tried to will it. Call it a missed opportunity.
Contra was certainly on my mind when I asked my parents for an NES in 1988, but I wound up never adding it to my collection. I think it was a combination of by then having played it to death and the fact that all my friends already owned it, so I had ready access to it on a daily basis without having to waste a birthday or Christmas request. I'd derived maximum value from it regardless. For that reason, I never felt bad about not purchasing it. My only regret is that I was oblivious to the original arcade game, which definitely would have sapped some wealth from me, even if it was just for curiosity's sake.
I almost never played Contra alone, since I perceived it as a super-difficult game that was already enough trouble when a friend was by my side. That mindset never changed. Except for a few aborted single-player runs on random boring days, I've never really returned to Contra with as much zeal as I had in the 80s. While it's probably not as difficult as I've given it credit, its perception as daunting and menacing is a large part of its personality and how I prefer to remember it. Even then, I still consider it tops and would play through it anytime I could find someone willing to play alongside me.
There wasn't a Contra game in following that I really liked or that I felt surpassed the original's masterful level design and aesthetic qualities (namely its all-time-great soundtrack). Super C and Super Contra, I felt, were solid games, but they never satisfactorily answered my question: "How do you improve upon something that's already perfect?"