Contra is a distressed asset, a video game series in dire need of some sort of unifying vision. Nothing of note has happened within the series for 18 years - some sort of unfortunate record for an ostensibly major series. Even Mega Man, arguably the most abused of the 8-bit icons, has had a few successes since 1992. Contra, however, has been a downhill slide, marked not with a sort of noble and tragic path, but with a long and protracted whimper unbecoming of its masculine action roots. The archetypal Army of One, Contra's thicket of signification is so particularly centered in 1987 and 1988 that one despairs of a way out. Let's instead seek a way in.
First the name. Contra. From the Latin, it means simply against. Applied, as it is in this instance, to people in jungles with lots of guns, and particularly in 1987-88, it refers inexorably to the Nicaraguan Contras of Iran-Contra Affair fame. This is familiar territory from Cobra Command, but let's historicize it this time in the broader context of Reagan's America, itself a marginally glossier version of Thatcher's Britain. In 2010, living more in the wreckage of the conservative revolution than the light, it is easy to deconstruct Reagan's grand project and see the relative truth of Mario Cuomo's words at the 1984 DNC - "There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don't see, in the places that you don't visit in your shining city."
This was less true in the 1980s, when Reagan's morning in America seemed a plausible brightening after the darkness of what were, even if he did not serve through the majority of them, Nixon's 70s. This is what morning in America was. It was not until 1986, when Reaganism ran smack into the wall of the Iran-Contra affair, where it turned out we were kind of maybe a little selling weapons to Iran, ostensibly our enemy, in order to funnel the money to Nicaraguan rebels.
Nothing in the first two levels of Contra, nor in the vast bulk of the third level suggests that the game is about anything other than this situation - a bunch of jungle rebels attacking a military installation. Sure, the military installation has a measure of sci-fi weaponry, but the sci-fi touches - a laser gun here, a giant wall of gun turrets there - hardly seemed excessive.
Then, at the end of level three, the whole thing goes, to be blunt, tits up as the boss monster is a giant alien in the H.R. Giger tradition. Giger is described by Wikipedia as a Swiss surrealist, but this hardly does his vision justice. Giger shot to prominence by designing the eponymous Alien of Ridley Scott's 1979 film. His style is one of harsh mechanization, with human and organic elements fused unnervingly to machines in chilled monochrome canvases. The zenith of his vision, for my money, are the two Giger Bars in Switzerland, where you can enjoy a nice lager while being loomed over by horrific biomechanical monstrosities of bone and circuitry.
(My awareness of all of this? Fuck all. I didn't know Giger until I played Dark Seed, a 1992 PC adventure game he did art design for, and there I'm pretty sure I didn't play it until a good two years later. The Iran-Contra affair I probably first heard mention of in 1995 or 1996 when Oliver North got himself a nice cushy TV job, one of the first in a grand tradition of scandal-tainted conservatives going on to television careers. [Back in the good old days, scandal-tainted conservatives had to make more esoteric livings, the best of which was G. Gordon Liddy, who went on a speaking tour with Timothy Leary. These things, tragically, never happen anymore.] And for that matter, it was years until I played the original Contra, although I played both Super C and Contra III with some avidness around when they came out. For me, then, Contra is not only a secret history [I really should have a standard entry to link for that term like I do for Cobra Command and Army of One. I guess this one?] but a necessary act of archeology - a buried signifier that quietly anchored a chain of experiences down the line without ever being seen on its own.)
The easiest hypothesis, then, is that Contra represents a commentary on the Reagan era, noting that the light shining from the city on the hill is stark, and the city is less a sunshiny paradise than a harsh biomechanical dystopia, possibly with unnerving aliens lurking in the shadows. This ignores the fact that the game was designed in Japan, but then, we've been ignoring Japan most of the Nintendo Project, and though we need to stop doing that eventually, now is not the time. Anyway, it is not impossible, nor even improbable, that Japanese designers would target the larger American market - it is not as though American popular culture does not enjoy an outsized influence in Japan even as Japan, in the 1980s, was solidifying its role as the Other Culture Industry (a role now also shared with India).
I noted that Reagan's America was itself an echo of Thatcher's Britain, with Thatcher having swept into power in May of 1979. Thatcher's Britain was everything that Reagan's America pretended not to be - an almost limitlessly dark and sinister place. It was Thatcher's Britain that collapsed the anarchist sensibilities of punk into the positive nihilism of New Wave, and, more to the point, Goth/Industrial. Britain positively bled angst in these days, unleashing Bauhaus, Echo and the Bunnymen, Siouxie and the Banshees, Depeche Mode, The Cure, and The Sisters of Mercy in the general vicinity of Thatcher's rise to power. On top of that, Britain unleahsed the British Invasion generation of comics writers, led by Alan Moore, but bringing along Neil Gaiman, Jamie Delano, Peter Milligan, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland, Eddie Campbell, Glenn Fabry, Bryan Talbot, and Grant Morrison, to name only the leading lights, onto the comics scene. This generation pulsed with fury at Thatcher's Britain. The US in the 1980s loved its military industrial complex. Europe, on the other hand, took a far more unnerving approach - it hated its military industrial complex, but worshipped at its feet anyway.
What is perhaps most perverse about Contra is its essentially European approach to its content. Yes, Contra mashes up images of the dark side of Reagan's America with Gigeresque treatments of the teleology of that vision. But it hardly does so as part of a subversive commentary on the above. Playing Contra, you're supposed to be enjoying it. The game could be subtitled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Biomechanical Horrors." Indeed, in Europe the biomechanical horrors were allowed to take full stage, as the game was renamed Probotector, and the main characters were changed to robots. All of this existed to dodge restrictive German laws on violent video games, but the end result, ironically, was a darker game in which the biomechanical horror is enjoyed directly.
But somehow all of this is the very definition of retrogaming - something fascinating that somehow does not speak to the present day at all. The biomechanical dystopia extending from the military-industrial complex just isn't the game at this moment in history. We've moved on to new threats. Implicit in this claim is that, just as Contra secretly historicized its era, some game sits in the current locus of classics that secretly historicizes the concerns of this present moment.
Looking at 1992's Contra Force compared to its namesake is a study in contrasts. Where Contra is both very good and very 1987, Contra Force is both terrible and misfiled - a piece of raw jingoism that was deemed too crappy for Japanese release and rapidly retuned to be a Contra game for US release. The game dispenses with the sci-fi elements entirely in favor of a sort of Dirty Dozen set of classic American soldiers - Burns, Iron, Smith, and Beans - shooting stuff. This jingoism set in 1992 is both oblivious (as nationalist myths are) and out of tune - 1992 was the year of the Bush/Clinton election, in which Bush's foreign policy experience and the victory of the Gulf War lost the election to Clinton's focus on domestic issues. The game was always backwards looking, as this sort of American Exceptionalism must be - inevitably we are great not because of anything our country does now, but because of some past mythic moment. American Exceptionalism is a nostalgic drive. In this regard it sits uncomfortably close to retrogaming - or at least, to a naive vision of retrogaming as the recapture of past fun. The emptiness of this is all too clear when one engages in the nostalgic play of something that is itself an act of nostalgia.
But what other vision of history can we have? Aside from the tourism of Contra and the hollow nostalgia of Contra Force, what can the past be except a distraction, a sideshow meant to anchor us in something other than the immediate problems of the present? The pat answer is that those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it, but what if this isn't true? What if knowing the roadmaps, knowing the standard errors, is what leads us to re-enact them? What if making new errors requires blinding ourself to the past?
But we can't. The past is what we are. A momentary construction of memories and experiences that flares for an instant before passing itself into memory. There is no action without the past. We are doomed to repeat its errors not because we do not know the past, but because they are part of the language we speak. The past is the mechanical component of our monstrosity, merged with our biology to provide a stark and hopeless circuit of history's lathe.
Unless, of course, it is possible to reassemble the past - to rebuild memory into secret histories, to rebuild the known errors into the unknown and mysterious. If the machine is not a prison, but a playground, a spaceship, a moment of enlightenment. What would such memories look like? You already know the answer to this, dear reader.
(A coda - Contra is also one of the best known Konami Code games. The Konami Code must be understood, by now, as one of the first digital spells to be unleashed upon the world. Contra's story of biomechanization is always already marked by the fact that the system can be hacked, that there is such a thing as a superuser. Take pleasure in the biomechanical, yes. But remember always - being a part of the system does not mean subservience to it. The Army of One is not a useless myth.)