Retrospective: Handheld & Bootleg 'Contra III - The Alien Wars' Ports

Contra-III-RetrospectiveContra III is wonderful. It's a game that sets a blistering pace from the moment you press start, never missing a beat in it’s 30 minute runtime. It constantly introduces new ideas to launch you forward, quite literally by the end of the fourth stage. In the first level alone you have destructible cars, a rideable tank, feral dogs and an air raid turning the level into an inferno, none of which are seen again in the game. Each level brings its own mood and locale, but this goes beyond simple palate changes. From the emphasis on climbing in level 3, to the forced scrolling by way of bikes and missiles in level 4, each stage feels fresh and provides a new challenge to contend with. Visually it sets the tone perfectly taking us through futuristic cityscapes at war before arriving at the oppressive Alien core, with more than a handful of geiger-esque monstrosities to deal with on the way. Of course much of this was ripped wholesale from popular sci-fi movies of the era, mainly Alien and Terminator, but when it’s executed this well, does anyone really mind? The soundtrack too has shifted from the relatively straight forward melodic hummable tunes of the NES Contra. Instead we have an ambitious, multilayered, sometimes atonal score which focuses more on setting the mood than whether you can tap your foot to it.

Folks in Europe wouldn't see a game released using the Contra name until the first PlayStation. Thanks to strict human on human violence laws in Germany the protagonists and enemies were switched out for robots and the series was retitled as Probotector. While my American counterparts were playing Contra III: The Alien Wars, and kids in Japan were playing Contra Spirits, I was running as a robot in Super Probotector: Alien Rebels. I admit it’s likely nostalgia clouding my judgement, but I’ve always preferred the robots. You have aliens waging war and you’re going to send two fleshy vulnerable guys to wipe out an entire invasion? Don’t send a human to do a robot’s work. The subtitle has always bugged me though. What were the Aliens rebelling against? Or is this like "The Martian" and *we* are the Alien Rebels?

The aesthetics and gameplay have always felt inseparable to the Super Nintendo, so let’s take a look how the game fared when it ventured away from it’s home system. Do the ports hold up or are you better off just sticking with the original SNES version?

Contra: The Alien Wars - Game Boy

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Thanks to some thoughtful decisions by Factor 5 (yes, that Factor 5) the Game Boy version manages to give a compacted, cut down version of the game, while still maintaining the same panicked frantic feeling. It's a slower pace, you can only hold one weapon and many of the mid bosses have been dropped, but the bosses that remain have had their patterns smartly changed and still keep the detailed sprite work seen in its bigger brother. As the speed has been reduced, the bike level hasn’t made the cut but surprisingly the overhead levels remain and don’t feel nearly as awkward as you’d imagine with the limited amount of buttons available. It also offers an enhanced color palate for the Super Game Boy which won't set anyone's world on fire, but gives a different color to each level giving a bit of variety. Knowing the limitations of the Game Boy’s sound chip I feared the worst for the sprawling soundtrack of the SNES version, but they carefully highlighted just the right parts of each piece to really make it shine.

The number of lives here is tied to your difficulty level, so when playing on the harder settings you have to contend with a more hectic level coupled with fewer lives available. However, do be warned that if you feel like waltzing through the game  on easy the game stops cruelly short just after the fight with the blue T1000 at the end of the third level with a message telling you to start again on normal to see the remaining two levels. Mercifully, and likely due to the handheld nature of the game, there is a password system to pick up at the start of a level if you die. Or you can use it to cheat and run through the game with unlimited lives essentially reducing the threat of death to losing your cool gun.

Overall, if you set your expectations right, you’ll find a cut back version of a classic making some interesting choices to maintain the feel of the original on limited hardware. What it lacks in accuracy it makes up for in the Contra Spirits spirit.

Like Super Probotector, this was released in Europe with robots replacing the protagonists under the title Probotector 2. Not to be confused with Probotector II for the NES, the European version of Super C.

Contra Advance: The Alien Wars EX - Game Boy Advance

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The GBA version, available on WiiU virtual console,  gets so close to the original that it makes its shortcomings all the more apparent with a few little issues that bring it down. It has has the same one weapon restriction as the Game Boy version but bizarrely scraps the smart bombs.  The audio follows the same compositions as the SNES version, but using noticeably inferior instrument sounds. For most of the levels, there’s just a nagging feeling that it’s not quite right so while the GameBoy version feels like it’s own thing, the GBA version just leaves you wishing you were playing the SNES version instead.

However, the big change with this version is that the overhead levels are completely gone replaced with levels from the Genesis game "Contra Hard Corps" (which is the third game to go simply by the title “Probotector” in Europe.)  It’s less of a straight port and more of a best of mash-up between the two 16 bit Contra games, so much so that in Japan it goes by the name Contra Hard Spirits.

Like the Game Boy version, it has a password system so you can pick up where you left off, but it has a few bugs and will sometimes give you a non-functioning password. Proceed with caution.

Contra III - Nintendo Famicom (Pirate)

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Finally today, let’s look at a version of the game that was released on the Super Nintendo’s predecessor. Not quite a homebrew, not quite a fan hack project and certainly not officially sanctioned, Contra III made it to the Famicom thanks to the hard efforts of pirates in China. Famicom carts from China are often poorly made reskins of existing games which simply replace one game’s assets with another and introduce half a dozen game-breaking bugs in the process. Sometimes you’ll come across games of a later generation remade for the famicom such as Donkey Kong Country to Final Fantasy VII for those who want to play those titles, but don’t have access to later systems.

Contra III for the Famicom is a genuinely impressive attempt at squeezing the game onto a much smaller Famicom cartridge. As is often the case, the main player sprite looks to be ripped from the first contra, but many of the assets seem completely original. In fact, the game seems to go out of its way to avoid asset pinching, creating entirely new versions of bosses in Contra III which could have easily been taken from earlier Contra games. Take the strange lady-faced-turkey-legged...thing that appears in the last level. She also appeared in Super C, but the developers opted to create their own version.

Contra-III-Pirate-Famicom

Mechanically things don’t quite feel as smooth or as polished, but it’s surprising how little content has been cut. A few mini bosses here and there, and second overhead level is gone but the first remains and even the bike level is still here, keeping the ridiculous section which has you jump from missile to missile.

Aesthetically, it becomes a bit more clumsy. The palette choices can be somewhat garish and the sprites lack the finesse and details of other versions. The Game Boy adaptation took a considered approach to the music carefully choosing the right sections and tone to reproduce to keep the action moving while imposing a sense of dread and atmosphere. The Famicom version in comparison feels like the music has been pushed through an automated program which neither plays to the strengths of the hardware, nor understands the subtleties of the original compositions. Worse still, it glitches out within seconds of play forcing you to pause and unpause if you want to hear anything but the sparse bass line (this makes the track play from the beginning again.) 

They also ported over the intro, but much like their aversion to stealing sprites, they decided against using the readily available English translation and using their own. Instead of “Let’s attack aggressively” we get the somewhat less iconic “THE WORLD OF GAME. A GAME. END”

The slavish attention to detail in replicating the SNES version really makes it worth checking out if nothing else but for a curiosity. It feels less of a mindless cash grab that plague so many hacked famicom games, and more like a passion project by a team whose ability couldn’t quite match their ambition.

Summary

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Contra III is an amazing experience. It’s also a short game. If you’re at all interested about the other versions, it doesn’t take much time to try them out. Recently, the original has been released for the New 3DS virtual console, sadly lacking multiplayer. However, the ports that directly emulate the SNES original are the only ones which allow you to have two weapons meaning they’re the only ones that allow you to hold a pose with two guns as you stand waiting for a plane to drop bombs at your feet. And that makes it brilliant.


Last Updated ( 07 June 2016 )  
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