Contra III was both a sobering reminder of the importance of selecting your difficulty level in a game and an example of the problems with games having multiple difficulty levels. The Contra series is pretty well known for its difficulty, with your character instantly dying the moment they take a single hit, but to mitigate that hurdle, this game has multiple difficulties in the form of Easy, Normal, and Hard, as well as the ability to up your lives to 7 in the option menu (although the 30 lives cheat is only present in the Japanese version for some reason). However, despite giving this way of easing the issue, Contra III also gates its true ending and the last form of its boss to the Hard mode, denying you true completion unless you are willing to go through the game’s hardest difficulty.
I certainly don’t agree with the practice of denying content based on difficulty in general save where a game might offer something akin to a Practice difficulty, but the real problem I experienced with it is that since Hard mode is the only one that truly counts as beating the game, I and others like me will try and tackle that first, and this is a major disservice to the game! Hard mode is challenging, but not in an interesting manner. Easy and Normal both lay out manageable challenges even with that drawback of how easy it is to die, but the enemy amount and boss health make it manageable and surmountable, with continues providing you a way to deal with more difficult areas even though the continues set you back pretty far. However, Hard increases its difficulty in the laziest manner, simply turning up the numbers on everything to make things more difficult. There are more enemies, bosses have more health, things fire more often, and enemies move faster. It’s an inelegant crank on a lever to up numbers rather than the planning required to make for an engaging challenge, such as adding new elements to battles or having levels and foes require different strategies. It can eventually be mastered… just not on your first go. I slogged my way through Hard mode and got the true ending, and to reward myself, I decided to take a look at the Easy and Normal modes… and after having played a game I had very little fun with before, I was suddenly having a blast! This still doesn’t take back my troubles with this game’s Hard mode, but Easy and Normal both provide much more enjoyable experiences that certainly should be played before Hard is ever touched. I only wish the game hadn’t made them inferior to scare people away from trying them.
If you do play Contra III: The Alien Wars on the lower difficulties first, you may not get a complete experience, but it is really fun. The game’s premise is pretty obvious by the title: aliens are attacking Earth! You must stop them! You and potentially a friend must take down the enemy forces across six stages with just guns, jumps, and the occasional bomb to hit all enemies on screen. The default gun is a machine gun and is already a pretty nice weapon, but along the way you can find pick-ups to get the spread gun, a flamethrower, and other helpful weapons that you are able to carry until you die, as well as being able to carry two guns and swap between them as you like. The competence of these weapons is what makes the game killing you in one shot manageable, as you are a powerhouse that can mow through most common enemies easily enough and bosses will have patterns and tells so you can keep alive long enough to shoot them down. The majority of the game takes the form of a run and gun adventure interrupted by miniboss and boss battles, and while most things are pretty enjoyable to kill, a few stages have bosses that are more about performing the same dodge in a loop as you slowly whittle them down, something exacerbated greatly in Hard mode when they take forever to kill. Some foes you also have to learn their strategies by most likely losing a life to them first, but save a few foes, most things are easy to adjust to after that first rough encounter.
Contra III breaks up the running with a few unique segments where you instead view the action from the top down. I think I liked these segments more than the running, although that was likely partly inspired by the fact they were less common. Here, navigation is much more carefully done and the enemies you need to kill to progress usually have some simple gimmick to overcome, although the bosses of these levels both face the looped dodging issues the run and gun levels also have. The other big change to the playstyle is the level on a motorbike, which means that even though the game does admittedly have only a few levels, they all feel pretty distinct from one another and throw new enemies and mechanics at you to keep things interesting. The small level count is also smoothed over by the game’s difficulty. Easy you can finish swiftly, Normal you might stumble a bit, and Hard will require oodles of time to conquer, but you can at least get good enough to surmount it once you know the game well enough. Even if you don’t want to endure the trial of Hard mode though, Easy and Normal are both enjoyable journeys that help balance out the slower parts with moments of high octane but manageable action.
THE VERDICT: Contra III is admittedly just about jumping and shooting for the most part, but it makes the shooting satisfying and interesting and the importance of dodging keeps the game intense even at the simplest moments. Being one small hit away from losing one of your lives and whatever weapon you’re holding keeps the action important even at the simplest moments. That doesn’t help to make a few of the simpler or longer boss fights more interesting, but it makes the moment to moment experience exhilarating. However, it’s hard to ignore that the game denies you content unless you chose its hardest difficulty, which has a far less intelligent design behind it than the easier difficulties. Still, the shortness of the game means you can train up for the harder difficulties on the easier ones, and so long as you don’t dive into the deep end like I did, I feel your enjoyment of the experience will be more reflective of the game’s overall quality.
And so, I give Contra III: The Alien Wars on Super Nintendo…
A GOOD rating. This rating was a bit harder to hand out than most, as I feel Contra III straddles the line between Good and Great based primarily on how you handle the game’s final hardest difficulty. There are people who can master it, and then there are people who will never be able to see that ending after struggling through Normal or perhaps even Easy only to see they were denied the ending. It’s an unfortunate design decision coupled with Hard’s lazy approach to upping difficulty that denies it greater heights, but its the strength of the gameplay and general design in Easy and Normal that allow it to snag such a high rating despite that.
Contra III is challenging on any difficulty, but the difficulty names are pretty apt when you accept the ease with which you die. Admittedly, if other territories had received the 30 lives cheat that was locked to Japan only, then perhaps Hard would be a much more enjoyable challenge, but having to climb through it with only 7 and a few continues seems imbalanced, while the Easy and Normal difficulties feel appropriately scaled. The simplicity, variety, and challenge marry well into an excellent Contra experience.
If you are fine not seeing the true ending, or just feel like looking it up after beating an easier difficulty, Contra III is a load of fun when it comes to a run and gun. If you are looking for an extreme challenge, you can brave Hard mode too, it’s just a shame Hard’s not as satisfying as the rest of the package.