On November 25, 1986, then-Attorney General Edwin Meese revealed to the American people a shocking secret: The United States was secretly selling weapons to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The sale of the weapons violated an arms embargo the United States had against the country, but the reason for the sale was an even greater shock. But more shocking than that was how this diplomatic fiasco eventually inspired one of the most badass video game franchises of all time.
The U.S was taking that money and using it to fund a variety of right-wing militias in Nicaragua, who collectively called themselves la contrarrevolución, or Contras for short. The scandal was tremendous for the Reagan Administration, dominating international headlines for years, becoming known as “Iran-Contra.”
Contra: Hard Corps is just one of many excellent Contra games.
A few months after Meese’s revelation in February 1987, Konami released a run-and-gun game for arcades called Contra set in the distant future near New Zealand, although the American release altered this setting to present-day Brazil. There’s not much evidence that the games were influenced by the Contras beyond the name, but the game’s ending theme is called “SANDINISTA.” It’s a clear reference to the real-life Contras’ socialist enemies, so this suggests the developers knew exactly what they were doing.
Contra the game became a smash hit, clearly influenced by the non-stop action of ‘80s movies like Predator. A series of sequels came afterward on various Nintendo systems, moving beyond the Reagan Era and well into the Clinton years. By 1994, Contra made a move forward of its own, switching consoles to the Sega Genesis.
Contra: Hard Corps was the fourth game in the series, and it is an absolute blast. And it’s available right now if you’ve subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.
For me, at least, Contra is not a series heavily focused on lore. Apologies to all the fans of the Alien Wars out there and the stories of Bill Rizer and Lance Bean, the commandos at the center of the first three games. Hard Corps ditches Bill and Lance in favor of four new protagonists, some of whom offer distinctive modes of gameplay.
There’s Ray Powered, a classic Contra star in the mold of Bill and Lance. So is Sheena, except that she’s a woman. But then there’s Brad Fang, a wolfman with cybernetic arms, and Browny, a small robot who can hover. I cannot be stressed enough: Browny is very cute.
The development team leader of Hard Corps, going by the name “Oh!Aji,” told BEEP! Magazine in 1994 that this break from the past was very intentional.
“Those who want the traditional Contra experience, with the tough, edgy atmosphere of the previous games can pick Ray Powered,” he said. “But if you use someone like Browny the mood of the game changes to a kind of comic farce: ‘Is this really Contra??’”
The answer is yes. Playing as Browny is definitely a little farcical. He’s so short that sometimes enemy attacks go over his head! You little scamp! But most of the time, Browny’s abilities are tertiary to the fact that enemies are A) around the player, everywhere and B) they are constantly attacking.
Contra: Hard Corps put the pedal to the goddamn metal, creating an exhilarating rush of shooting, jumping, and dying. Cities are on fire from alien invasions, and the player is shooting everything that moves. There are enemies of all sorts, from robots to guys on motorcycles, but they rarely lasted long enough for me to get a good look, because to quote Frank Reynolds, “I started blasting.”
The game is quite hard, and if a player is dead-set against using the Switch’s handy rewind feature, they’ll find themselves starting over a fair amount. But the weapons you have at your disposal keep the fight at least somewhat fair, considering how varied they are. There’s a blaster, some type of yo-yo ray that shoots out and comes back at you, a circle of protective red and blue balls that surround you but, when released, target opponents. These weapons can be upgraded through periodic drops, with fascinating results: the blaster upgrades to blue laser-style arrows. Having a guide to help even name these weapons would be handy, but what can one do.
There’s a small branching story aspect to Hard Corps, with choices more focused around what type of enemies are faced as opposed to the story. But the momentum rarely stops, so anyone with an itchy trigger finger will surely find some release here.