The Scientifically Proven Best Video Games of All Time #82: Contra

“The Scientifically Proven Best Video Games of All Time” is a statistical meta-analysis of 44 “Best Video Games of All Time” lists that were published between 1995 and 2016. Catch up on how we decided to sort the games and the rest of the Top 100 in the Introduction.

You can also visit Video Game Canon to explore the complete list of “Scientifically Proven Best Video Games of All Time,” as well as alternate sorting options.

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Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start.

The rhythm of the words made them sound less like a controller input and more like a prayer. By “speaking” the correct phrase with their controller as the Contra title screen rolled into view, players were able to invoke the spirit of the developers and begin the game with 27 additional lives. In a way, the Konami Code was quite literally a gift from the gods behind the game’s creation, and not so dissimilar from the God Mode cheat that was included in early first-person shooters like Doom.

The Konami Code was originally programmed into 1986’s Gradius by Kazuhisa Hashimoto as a way to unlock a huge weapons cache in the notoriously difficult shooter. He has even joked that the button sequence was left in the game by accident. The Code quickly became an accepted part of the of the publisher’s identity, and its inclusion in Contra (along with Super Mario Bros.‘s Warp Zones and Metroid‘s password system) changed the way people progressed through a game’s levels. These features meant that players were no longer forced to follow the same trail through a game. Now, they could veer off in new directions, and discover what secrets a game held on their own.

Originally developed as an arcade game, Contra rose to prominence thanks to a home version released for the NES in 1988. Like many action games released in those days, it also borrowed large chunks of its story and setting from the local multiplex. The game’s cardboard cover even took main characters Bill Rizer and Lance Bean and transformed them into exact copies of cinematic titans Arnold Schwarzenegger (from Commando) and Sylvester Stallone (from Rambo III).

These two cigar-chomping avatars of 80s action cheese revisited copyright-friendly facsimiles of the jungle from Predator, the factory from The Terminator, and the research station from The Thing. Red Falcon, the alien entity at the center of the invasion, was smoothed out and made over to look like one of H.R. Giger’s Xenomorphs from Alien. Within the game itself, several massive Giger-influenced aliens and an unending stream of facehuggers attack players during the final level.

Due to their arcade pedigree, action games from the 1980s were also well known for their intense difficulty, and Contra quickly became the poster child for impossible gaming challenges. This ultimately morphed the Konami Code from a fun secret for fans in the know to a mandatory part of the game, and tapping out the Code before starting a game became something of a sacred routine. Inspired by Hashimoto, other developers added cheat codes like the Konami Code to their own work to compensate for the often insane difficulty spikes.

Without needing a pocketful of quarters, plugging in the Konami Code before a game of Contra eventually allowed me to see the entire game. I battled an alien dragon at the top of a waterfall and toppled a colorful robotic guardian that my cousins and I dubbed “Macho Man” in honor of wrestler Randy Savage. And once I reached the end, I came face-to-face with one of the most memorable bosses of the NES era… a massive heart. Sometime before the final stage, my grizzled commando had apparently been swallowed by the Red Falcon.

Contra made such an impression on my young self that, over time, I didn’t need the Konami Code anymore. Eventually, I even attempted to break the game’s internal score counter by completing the game eight times in a row for a max score of 6,553,500. But alas, I was never able to do it. Maybe someday.

At the time of its release, Contra was part of a larger wave of “run and gun” shooters that all shared a common bond with those earlier Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies (including licensed game adaptations of Predator and Rambo). While the two actors expanded their range with different types of roles in the 90s and 2000s, game developers continued to slip references to blockbuster movies into their projects. The Resident Evil franchise was so heavily influenced by George Romero’s Living Dead series that when it came time to create a film adaptation of the games, Capcom originally offered it to the director. Rockstar Games went the other direction and created Grand Theft Auto: Vice City as an expanded and reskinned version of De Palma’s Scarface. And Sega’s underappreciated Binary Domain outright stole visual elements and plot points from both I, Robot and The Matrix.

Contra continues to exert a large influence on the game industry even though “run and gun” shooters waned in popularity in the 2000s. Konami has published more than a dozen new games in the series, and several members of the development team behind the series broke off to found their own studio, Treasure, after releasing Contra III: The Alien Wars in 1992.

The Konami Code has earned a second life as well. The button sequence (or a close variant) has been hidden in hundreds of games, and it’s also wormed its way into the source code of dozens of websites. Some of those same websites are also happy to sell you t-shirts, pins, stickers, and other swag adorned with the Konami Code. And after a long hiatus, the game publisher introduced the Code to a new generation of players when they selected Treasure to develop Gradius V in 2004. The keys to the franchise that originated the Code had been handed to the developers of the game that immortalized the cheat. Critics loved the game, and Treasure even managed to hide the Konami Code within the game’s pause menu.

You know, it’s been almost 30 years, but I think it’s time to take another crack at breaking Contra’s scoreboard. Pray for me.

Even in the era of endless remakes and reboots, Contra is surprisingly hard to play in 2017. The publisher has almost completely retreated from video game development (their main focus today is pachinko machines), but the original arcade version can be downloaded through the Xbox Games Store on the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and used copies of the NES adaptation can likely be found at your local game store.

The NES version of Contra can also be found as a hidden bonus in Contra 4 for the DS. Amazingly, it’s not unlocked by keying in the Konami Code. The game’s developer, WayForward Technologies, kind of dropped the ball on that one.

Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami
Release Date: February 20, 1987 (Arcade), February 2, 1988 (NES)

Average Ranking: 73.18
Selection Percentage: 34.09% (15/44)
Scientifically Proven Score: 139.09

Publication Rankings For Contra
Hyper (1995) 1*

Next Gen (1996)


Next Gen (1999)


Edge (2000)

GI (2001) 13

GameSpy (2001)


Edge (2003)


EW/G4TV (2003)

GameSpot (2003) 1*

IGN (2003)


1UP (2004)


The Age (2005)

IGN (2005) 83

Yahoo! Games UK (2005)


Edge (2007)


IGN (2007)

IGN HoF (2007) 1*

Stuff UK (2008)


Edge (2009)


Empire (2009)

GI (2009) 22

FHM (2010)


GamesTM (2010)


The Phoenix (2010)

Gamereactor (2011) NR

GamesRadar (2011)


Stuff UK (2011)


1UP (2012)

G4TV (2012) 60

GamesRadar (2012)


Time (2012)


EPN (2013)

GamesRadar (2013) NR

Gaming Bolt (2013)


PC & Tech Authority (2013)


GamesRadar (2014)

Popular Mechanics (2014) NR

Slant Magazine (2014)


Stuff UK (2014)


Edge (2015)

GamesRadar (2015) NR

IGN (2015)


GamesMaster (2016)


Time (2016)


Conradt, Stacy – Mental Floss – 23 Places Where the Konami Code Lives On – 2014

Craddock, David L. – Waypoint – How Cheat Codes Vanished from Video Games – 2016

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John Scalzo is Warp Zoned's Editor-In-Chief and resident retro gaming expert. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at john AT warpzoned DOT com.

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