Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Even More Saturn Shoot'em Ups! (Part 3)

Ok, so here is my third list of shoot'em ups for the Sega Saturn. Normally, a third list on the same genre for one console would be unnecessary and would seem to be reaching, but this is a testament to the profound riches available on the Saturn (for the Japanese library). Here is what I consider my "third" tier of titles for this genre on the Saturn. Do not interpret "third" tier as not being any good; they are still good, they just didn't make my first two lists. Click here for part one and here for part two. These are not in any particular order.

Capcom Generation 1 (194X series)
It has been said many times, but I reiterate here what an awkward position Capcom has taken with the 194X series. I am referring to the fact that the protagonist is fighting the Japanese empire during WWII. Imagine if you were a programmer here, and you were creating a game where you are invading the U.S. Apparently they weren't too bothered, as there were sequels. This collection offers arcade-perfect ports of 1942, 1943, and 1943 Kai. Whichever version is your favorite of the series, each one offers solid gameplay and control, if a bit vanilla. These were early entries, so the lack of many now-standard shooter conventions may be forgiven. Rapid fire is a welcome addition on the Saturn controller. My only complaint is that 1941 should have been included.

 Layer Section
Also known as Galactic Attack in the west, Layer Section is one of the few notable shooters that was released in the U.S., along with Darius Gaiden. It is also the cheapest option on this list, and perhaps out of all of these lists. Don't be fooled by its budget-friendly price tag, this game stands toe to toe with many of its higher priced brethren. The gameplay divides your attention between two planes. Your regular laser shoots forwards, while your lock-on laser homes in on targets on the lower plane. The longer you hold on the lock-on button, the more enemies you target, and more points are scored. This is not the first game to employ this mechanic, but may be one of the best to utilize it. This lock on aspect is so well done, it is very adictive. You may focus so much on this method of attack that you may forget to pay attention whats in front of you. The graphic design and music are top notch, and you'll lose hours before you know it.

Time travel is a backdrop to this unique shooter, as each stage has you warping to different eras and settings. This is the most unique aspect of this game, as all of the enemies on each stage are era-specific, and thus not repeated. The gameplay is average, if solid. There is some choppy background scaling, but the visuals improve as you progress. The three selectable characters all have different firing patterns, as expected. The music is surprisingly good; very reminiscent of Soukyugurentai. An interesting game in theme, but not much more. Worth playing for sure, just a notch above the average.

Gradius Deluxe Pack
Arcade perfect ports of the two Gradius entries are what you get here. Contrary to American beliefs, Life Force was not the sequel to Gradius. The actual sequel was not released in here in the states. Its a shame, because Gradius II improves upon the first in style and substance. There is now a selectable weapon loadout, for variety. The graphics have improved and some even take on H.R. Giger-inspired designs (a little blatantly, like in stage 3). The game is just as hard, but what was to be expected. Gradius suffers from power-up let down in a big way; that if you die after being fully powered up, it is nearly impossible to advance. Most players have no choice to accept this, and just power off the game at that point. It may be a brief showing for gamers, but it is sweet while it lasts.

I'm sure there is some kind of story being conveyed here, but as it is all in Japanese I have no clue what is happening. The odd assemblage of characters, the happenings in the background, all point to some majestic plot. Since this is a shooter, none of that really matters. This is a solid, straight-forward entry from Psikyo, the makers of the excellent Strikers 1945 series, Sengoku Blade, Zero Gunner 2, and others. This one falls short of its higher profile siblings, but not much. All Psikyo games have the same tight gameplay, charging mechanics, special attacks, etc. The charge attack in this game is a less than useful melee attack that while strong, is limited in range and risky to use as you are defenseless during charging. It's not the first game I'd get, but I would definitely pick it up if I saw it.

Parodius Deluxe Pack
Perhaps one of the original "cute'em ups", parodius is Konami's parody of its own seminal series Gradius. It plays a lot like its forbearer, except that it is wacky and twisted. There's some pretty off-beat design here, from sprites to bosses to weaponry, everything is fair game for parody. There are eight selectable characters (Vic Viper among them, of course) with unique power ups and animations. Don't let the cuteness fool you, this is a Gradius game with Gradius difficulty. If you want a shooter that doesn't take itself seriously at all, try this.

Sonic Wings Special
Sonic Wings first appeared on the Neo Geo, and was a fantastic outing on that machine. It was a series that saw three entries, with minor variation between them. Sonic Wings Special on the Saturn combines characters and stages from the three games, making it...special? A no frills, vertical shooter that does only the basics but does them well.

Metal Black
A seemingly innocuous horizontally scrolling shooter from the start, Metal Black employs a unique beam power up system. You collect floating molecules that when accumulated power up your main shot as well as give you a powerful screen-wide beam shot. In an clever twist, the bosses you face are also vying for the same molecules for the same reason! Each boss scrambles to suck up as many as possible as its a virtual game of Hungry Hippos until one of you collects enough to discharge a menacing beam shot. There's some hilariously fast scrolling text at the start up, which is in English, its just way too fast to catch. The backstory in a shooter doesn't matter much, but it was something I thought was funny. Its a good game.

Twin Bee Deluxe Pack
As far as I know, there was only one North American Twin Bee game released, it was titled "Stinger" for the NES. That game had potential, and was actually quite fun. This compilation includes the arcade titles Detana!! Twin Bee and Twinbee Yahoo. The gameplay consists of regular arial shooting, and tossing bombs at ground targets with your boxing gloves(?). You power up by shooting at clouds, which release bells, which change color colors when shot, and each color provides a different power up. This is a different, and annoying method of powering up as you need to shoot to destroy threats, and incidental shots will change the intended power up. This multitasking can turn some away. You can also find power ups released from destroyed ground targets. A fun game for sure.

Steam Hearts
Originally a PC-Engine Super CD game, the Saturn port is a bit watered down and censored from its Hentai version. Despite its randy cut scenes, the shooting action is fast and frenetic, and controls well. Air and ground attacks are featured here, yet the emphasis on ground attack is not as pronounced as with Layer Section or Twin Bee.  A Health meter is a welcome addition that helps one make it to the boss battle. The sprite design is colorful and pops off the screen. It does make one feel a bit like a creep, when after each boss battle you bear witness to "interactions" between yourself and the boss character. This would never be released these days. Even still, its a good shooter that is marred by questionable extras and story.

So there you have, another ten Sega Saturn Shoot'em Ups to digest. This will probably be my last entry on the topic, as the rest of what I have does not measure up. If you are reading this you may well know that acquiring these games is no small feat, so however you come across your gaming opportunities, good luck.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Playing Hacked Games with IPS Patching

As a kid, I remember some games just being too hard to finish. Growing up with the NES meant experiencing "NES hard" first hand. It took forever to beat Ninja Gaiden, and that was something that was likely not repeated. Beating Mike Tyson was newsworthy at the bus stop. Beating Contra without the Konami code could make you a legend. But for every NES game that was beatable, there were many that were not.

Today there exists a method to play modified, or hacked games using IPS patching. I am not a computer programmer, but essentially an IPS patch is code that can be attached to existing rom code, changing the rom file. These IPS patches are already written by contributors to online forums and websites.

Be advised that the method I use to play these is with an Everdrive so that I can play on original hardware, but the same method can apply to emulators. I wrote a post explaining Everdrives here.

When I first heard about this, it seemed like it might be too technical, and required a lot of programming know-how. The process is actually pretty easy, if you have the right tools. This is how it works.

1) Download a rom of a game that you own (I am assuming most know how to do this, if not, Google is your friend).

2) Download a IPS patching program (again, Google) like Multipatch, Lunar IPS, etc.

3) Go to Romhacking.net. Click on rom hacks on the left hand side.

Choose whatever filters you want to help you find the available rom hacks for your game. I chose Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom - Restored as the original was a bit to harsh for my liking. This rom hack lowers the amount of damage that you take, gives unlimited continues, and adds a password feature. That last piece may not be all that necessary today, since you are not playing on an original cartridge and can use save states, but hey why not?

4) Open the IPS patching program. I am a Mac user, so I used "Multipatch", but there are others out there, and they generally work the same way. Select the patch on your computer, select the rom, give it a name and save location, click apply patch, and done. You can now load this patched rom onto your Everdrive or Retropie, or whatever.

This ability breathes new life into games that were formerly thought of as unplayable. Hacks provide all kinds of tweaks, improvements, and other curious effects. A well known example is the hack to make Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest more playable by providing clearer hints from villages, making invisible pitfalls visible, and speeding up night/day transitions. These improvements make the game vastly more playable, and into an enjoyable experience. This is just one example of the possibilities.

Another major benefit is to apply translations to games that were never released in English speaking territories. I know that this is especially helpful to fans of RPGs. I myself prefer action-oriented games, so text is not that much of a factor in gameplay, but I could do it if I wanted to.

For owners of the premium SD2SNES cart, you can apply MSU patches to add cd-quality audio to Super Nintendo games. Super Metroid, A Link to the Past, and F-Zero are shining examples of this done right. Be advised that these patches are larger, since they are audio files, but if you have an SD2SNES cart, you probably already know this.

Genesis owners can get in on the action as well. The process is identical, regardless of which cartridge console you have. I personally prefer the Japanese version of Contra: Hard Corps, which has three hit points per life. This feature was removed for the North American release, but now you can restore that feature!

Notice the three hit points underneath the shot type.

Another type of hack that is gaining popularity are color restoration hacks. For example, The Genesis' color palate for Golden Axe is slightly different than the arcade version. The color restoration hack modifies the colors to better match the original. A subtle effect, but it interests people enough to make them.

The ground coloration is more subdued in the color restoration hack of Golden Axe.

New rom hacks are added all the time, and some games have a plethora or rom hacks like Metroid, Super Mario games, Zelda, Contra, and so on. I particularly enjoy rosters updates to Super Tecmo Bowl.

Super Mario World Return to Dinosaur Land is a popular rom hack.

I hope that some of you found this helpful. For older gamers who appreciate original hardware like me, this is a fascinating ability and makes the hobby that much more enjoyable.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Sega Saturn Shoot'em Ups part 2

Sometime last year I posted my top ten Sega aturn shoot'em ups. If you haven't read that, you can find it here. This list is for the next tier that didn't make the top ten, but are great in their own right. They are not in any order, and this may not even be the last list. They are all worth playing, whichever way you choose to play them. In today's marketplace, it is hard to suggest purchasing any retro games that command top dollar, but as Google may show you, there are ways to play them regardless.


One of the first things you notice about this game is the awesome background depth and detail. Gunned down enemies will either explode, or careen down to the surface below leaving a smoke trail. The game has very well designed sprites. The weapons power ups consist of a spread-like vulcan, missile salvos, and an electricty wave that tracks down enemies and clings to them until they are destroyed, somewhat reminiscent to the purple toothpaste laser of the later Raiden series. This is lots of fun to use, but you have to be mindful that if your laser is caught up on a large enemy, it will take some time before you can fire again, so strategy must be employed. The music is meh, and the boss battles are hit or miss. This game was released domestically on the Playstation as Gekioh Shooting King, and largely went unnoticed. 2-D shooters did not fare so well during the 5th generation stateside, for they were deemed archaic, and reminiscent of old tech. In Japan, there was no such stigma, and this the abundance of 2-D shooters. Overall, it is a relaxing shooter in that you don't really feel stressed out while playing it, even though its not that easy in later stages. Its pretty good.

Blast Wind

I reviewed this entry in a previous post, under the context of its market value. This is one of the more expensive games, but not worth the several hundred dollar asking price. It is a Tecnosoft title, so it has tones of Thunder Force here and there, but not enough to make it as good as them. The action is smooth, visuals are above average, but the sound mixing is off. What music is present is drowned out by too-loud sound effects. Switches throughout levels allow you to change your course occasionally, but not enough to change the scenery all that much; I think you end up at the same bosses regardless. A good game, just not worth the asking price.

Hyper Duel

Another rare Tecnosoft entry, this game is highly coveted and it makes sense. The action is fast, yet forgiving. The game offers variety in your ship configuration, which alters your fire pattern. In the standard ship mode, you fire straight ahead, as expected. In mech mode, you can fire in different directions, and your fire is a wider shot; you can focus on offense more, but you are a bigger target. You pick up helper drones that come in either ship or mech mode, and they fly alongside you, seemingly firing at will. The gameplay reminds me of Gate of Thunder, and that's a good thing. The music is nothing short of awesome, to be expected from this pedigree. Fans of the Thunder Force series will feel right at home here. Unfortunately, this is a pretty rare titles, and commands top dollar. Whether it is worth it depends on how much you like these types of shooters. This may be the most expensive Saturn shooter as far as I know. Put it this way: it is worth Radiant Silvergun money but I wouldn't pay more. In retrospect, I should have included this in my top ten Saturn Shoot'em Ups list.


The precursor to Dodonpachi and its progeny, Donpachi shows the early ear marks of today's bullet hell shooters. While not the first, it solidified much of the formula seen today: hit counts, trade offs in ship firing and maneuverability, spread bombs or laser bombs, and so on. This Saturn version is somewhat maligned for its poor sound mixing (the vocal audio samples are clipped) and its interlacing on screen gets shifty when in certain viewing modes. Purportedly, the Playstation port is better in these regards. Aside from those issues, this is still a very solid and enjoyable game. The challenge seems to escalate at an appropriate rate, getting difficult at about the right time.

Strikers 1945

Although this is a port from a Neo Geo release, I have only come to know it on the Saturn. I reviewed this game a few years ago, and I still stand by it as an excellent under-the-radar selection. It is set in some alternate post WW2 inspired setting, with aliens attacking under the guise of conventional weaponry. During boss battles, the bosses change from the usual suspects to their true mecha selves, and of course have several forms each. I love the ship variety and special attacks; there's lots or replay value here to see how each of the ships play. From charge attacks, to bomb attacks, each ship is unique.

Game Paradise

In the Game Paradise, you fly through the environs of an arcade. You are flying over arcade cabinets, through claw machines, and the like. It is quite the sight, and a very unique twist on the genre. There is some dialogue and menu options that are not in English, but I just go with the first option on each screen and that gets me to the main game. At the start you can choose your character, from a roster of a robot, a girl, a pig and a dude. I choose the robot as he sports a lock-on laser that is helpful when things get chaotic. You also can pick options, which happen to be little versions of the characters available to play as. The gameplay is wacky, a cute-em-up of sorts, and there's some bizarre happenings in this game's story. I can't read the dialoge, but I think even if I could it wouldn't make sense. A fun game though, with some creative stage design.

Thunder Force Gold Packs 1 and 2

This may be cheating a bit to include two titles in this spot, but hey, they have the same name (mostly). Pack 1 includes Thunder Force 2 and 3, and are perfect ports of the Genesis versions. Pack 2 offers Thunder Force 4 (Lightening Force here in the U.S.) and Thunder Force A.C., which was an arcade release. Thunder Force A.C. was primarily TF3, with some stages swapped out for entirely different stages. Since three of the four of these titles were 16-bit Genesis titles, I kinda felt as if Tecnosoft should have made this one collection, instead of selling it over two discs. If you already have the Genesis carts, there no reason to get pack 1, but as far as I know this is the only way to play Thunder Force A.C. at home.

Cotton 2

The Cotton series was very popular in Japan, but was nonexistent in America. The cutest of "cute'em ups", Cotton is a which that flies on a broom and shoots. The environments and graphical design are excellent and stylish, and the overall vibe is light hearted. Everything is highly animated, and the drawn sprites are just gorgeous. The gameplay is fine tuned and very accessible, and would be a recommended entry point for beginners, if it weren't for the price. If you have sought any of these out, you already know this.

Sexy Parodius

The Parodius series is Konami's tounge-in-cheek parody of one of its founding series, Gradius. This is actually the third or fourth entry in this series, I'm not sure which. It is just as zany as the rest, and it takes its name from the cheekiness that abounds throughout. Semi-naked girls litter the backgrounds and some are even bosses! While the title "Sexy Parodius" may insinuate many things, it just refers to the visual aesthetics of the game, and some more suggestive than other games have shown up to this point. Still, there are sixteen (!!) characters to choose from, each with their own blend of power ups and animations. This game is truly a Saturn game; the earlier entries were passable on the 16-bit snes, but the on screen action reaches new heights, and to port it down would be an utter disservice.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Book Review: Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library

When people get into retro gaming, they want to seek out reviews and lists for the best games to play. There are a plethora of these sources online, but not so many in print form. Perhaps it is indicative of the age range of the primary retro gaming audience that many want a physical product. While there may be books written of about gaming in general, there are not too many on the topic of retro gaming, and even less focusing on the breadth of games available for retro systems.

This is starting to change. Brett Weiss was one of the first to specifically write about the game libraries with his Classic Home Video Game Series (2007-) of books. Jeffrey Wittenhagen chronicled the NES library in his The Complete NES: Officially Licensed US Releases (2015). This review is on the the newest entry in this young genre of video game compendiums, Pat Contri's Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library.

Pat Contri is most well known for his YouTube channel: Pat the NES Punk. His videos include reviews, skits, podcast discussions, and other gaming related topics. He started his channel in 2007, and is widely credited as a major influence in the retro gaming boom, along with other early YouTubers such as The Angry Video Game Nerd, and Classic Game Room.

Pat has channeled his knowledge of the NES games into an exhaustive guide book, where every game is reviewed, reflected upon, and rated. The reviews are written by Pat himself, as are many of the reflections, with help from other contributors.

My first impression of the book was that it was very substantial, in every way. The weight, the paper quality, the sheer amount of content bursting off of the pages signifies a labor of love, and an obvious level of dedication. Some might even say that it has too much information, as pages may seem a bit cramped, with text riding up very close to the edge of every page. It could easily be mistaken for a college textbook from afar.

Each page reviews one or two games, depending on how influential the game is. Every review provides at least four screen shots, which is awesome. I have always felt that one screen shot does not convey enough information about a game, but having four provides a sense of continuity that may pervade through a game, giving better insight into how the visuals hold up throughout the game, how the gameplay may vary, instead just one moment.

Other information provided includes genre, developer, publisher, release date, number of players, rarity, and Pat's rating out of five stars. The main review take up the bulk of the text section, and reflections are about a third of the section. I like the idea of a reflection after the review, as it offers another persons slant on the game, and perhaps discusses the impact of a game or other interesting tidbits that would not be proper to include in the review itself.

Even the lowliest of games is given proper treatment, with primarily objective reporting. While I do disagree with some of the ratings here or there, that is to be expected, and nothing was wildly off.

Visually, as I mentioned earlier, there is so much information that the pages seem busy. Behind the white test section is a background pic from the game being reviewed, and this may be the little extra that was not needed. With four screen shots from each game, having the extra layer of color behind everything ends up distracting. This is a minor gripe, as I appreciate the amount of content what was included.

Beyond the reviews themselves, the book has extras that are excellent inclusions. Articles from other names in the field, scans of promotional materials, descriptions of peripherals, unlicensed games, and many more extras are included.

So, out of the other game library books out there, this one stands up above the rest. At $60, it is a bargain in my opinion, I can easily see this asking for up to $100 with no drop off in sales. Strongly recommended for any retro game enthusiast.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Blast Wind for the Sega Saturn

Blast Wind is a 2D, vertical scrolling shoot'em up for the Sega Saturn, developed by Tecnosoft (of Thunder Force fame). It was only released in Japan, as were nearly all of the good shooters (exceptions being Galactic Attack and Darius Gaiden). If you're reading this, you may be aware of the seemingly endless ascent of prices for games like this. Since the Saturn is one of the few retro systems left that have yet to be emulated with any degree of success, physical copies are in high demand. This game is no exception. Some Saturn shooters are worth the coin, let's see if this one is.

Right out of the gate the game has sharp, clean visuals. The sprite designs are not quite as inspired as other Tecnosoft offerings, but there is lots of color. The sound mixing is unbalanced, as the sound effects of enemies being destroyed drown out the music completely. From what I can hear of the music, it sounds like it would have been good, but I can't be sure. This was a missed opportunity, as Tecnosoft is renowned for is music composition.

The gameplay is pretty vanilla in that the enemy patterns are too straightforward/predictable. It seems like they were programed by their "B" team. At least your craft controls well, and your sense of speed is spot on.  You have a main shot which fires straight, and can hug walls when. Your secondary shot is a less powerful homing shot, which can also be powered up. After a few power ups you become equipped with missiles. These are not that helpful, as they seem to drop out of your ship first, before firing off towards enemies, and this delay is not helpful when in a pinch. Bombs are typical screen-clearing affairs. An interesting mechanic is that every time you pick up a power up icon, you shoot this electrical beam out laterally across the screen, for what seems to be some significant damage dealt. This can be used strategically, if timed right.

The game is known for its branching paths, determined by whether you hit switches as they appear. This adds some replay value, but I think you end up at the same boss either way, so what was the point? There are other switches thorughout levels, some which offer power ups and some which cause some sequence of events (?) - not too sure what the effects are.

Another thing to notice is that throughout the game there are "gorn" markings all over the place. I thought back to where that sounded familiar, and I realized the in the Thunder Force series, "Orn" was the enemy race. So perhaps this game was initially created as a Thunder Force game, but they changed concepts late, and slapped a "g" infront of the "orn" signage? It just seems like more than a coincidence.

The background graphical detail is cool, with little people walking around on cat walks in the base. They're not even ducking for cover, they're just out for a stroll. Later on they are called upon to enter the giant ship to combat you. There are also horses grazing in pastures. This reminded me of the cows in Raiden. The borders on the side are ridiculously obtrusive, it almost seems like the game started out as an arcade, so a vertical aspect ratio was needed, and then when produced for the Saturn, the borders were added to fill space instead of stretch the screen.

The game is pretty short, clocking in at six stages, with no 2nd loop. Personally, I don't mind short games, my life affords gaming is short stints anyway, but many hardcore shoot'em up fans want that 2nd, extra hard loop in their games.

So, in the end, its good, not great. Its definitely not worth the current asking price of $300+ dollars. The shooter market for the Saturn has gotten a lot of notoriety, and collectors are scouring the ranks, so nearly all Saturn shooters are expensive now, whether the game is worthy or not. I'm just glad that I'm not looking for these any more.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Contra and Super C for the NES

Contra is a game that needs no introduction. It was released for the NES in 1988. Even though the game was originally released to arcades, this legendary run'n gun franchise peaked on the NES.

The game seems to get everything right for an NES game. The graphics and sprites are detailed and very well designed. It boasts some of the finest 8-bit graphics every created, in my opinion. The characters look proportional and animations/movements are natural and impressive.  The jumping sprite is a bit ridiculous if you understand physics, but aside from that, it is everything an 8-bit game should aspire to achieve graphically. The control is tight and reliable, with jumps being controllable mid-air. The 8-way shooting is responsive. And perhaps best of all, it offered 2-player co-op.

The arcade version was similar in theme and design, but was not as engaging, and thus not a huge hit. A possible reason was that the vertical screen on the arcade meant that side-scrolling games had to be condensed, and the action had to be relatively slow, since environmental hazards and enemy spawns can cramp the play field quickly if moving too fast. The NES version had a 4:3 aspect ratio, which gave players a broader play field, allowing for more on-screen action, and a quicker pace.

The arcade game is displayed in a vertical screen.
The weapons pick ups are a big part of this game's appeal. Such options include:
"R" - rapid fire, which increases the rate of fire of any weapon you are currently holding
"M" - machine gun, which is automatic if you hold down the fire button
"L" - laser, a slow, concentrated beam that is powerful but diliberate, you can't just spam this
"F" - fireball, which shoots spiral patterned shots that actually span the vertical range of your player's height, useful for hard-to-reach enemies
"S" - spread gun, which is the most effective and coveted weapon in the game. It shoots five bullets simultaneously in a web pattern, which diverges the farther the shots travel. It can be fired pretty rapidly, allowing for a wave of destruction. One of the most painful moments in the game is when you die while holding the spread gun: the drop-off in firepower is staggering.
"B" - barrier, is temporary invincibility, which is denoted by your character flashing red and blue while in effect.
"Eagle" - a screen-clearing bomb, obviously more useful when a lot of enemies and bullets are on-screen.
Don't touch the electric fence in the hallway stages.
There are eight stages, with lots of variety. While most are are side-scrolling, stages 2 and 4 are pseudo 3D hallways, and stage 3 is a vertically ascending waterfall stage where you can kill your partner if you leave him behind.
The waterfall stage will test your friendships if playing co-op
The stage themes are inventive, especially stages 6, 7, and 8. Stage 6 has you running through a barrage of timed flames, and only the most patient can master the patterns.

Stage 7 is a gauntlet of spiked walls and drills descending from the ceiling. Stage 8 is the Alien's lair, with some fairly uninhibited homages to the aliens from the popular "Aliens" movie franchise.

The game is clearly a product of the '80's as the cover art is essentially re-painted action poses of Arnold Schwarzenegger from Predator, and Sylvester Stallone from Rambo.

The game is renowned for its difficulty, and hence the popularity of the 30-live code: Up, up, down, down, left, right, left right, B, A, start.  Even when you  continue the 30 lives are restocked for whatever stage you are on. This made the game more accessible to a wider audience, and hence boosted its popularity. The code actually appeared in an earlier Konami title, Gradius, and several others. The effect of the code varies from game to game, but in almost all circumstances it is a major benefit.
If only the driver knew to creep up a few more inches...
Of course one of the most memorable aspects of this game is the music. Each stage has a rock'n energetic tune that compliments the action on screen. The music is active, layered, and complex. From the opening title screen to the end credits, the game definitely benefits from the quality of the music score, and I'm sure the game would not be the same without it.

Famicom cart

The Japanese release on the Famicom (the NES equivalent) boasted between stage cut scenes and extra animations. These include leaves blowing in the wind on stage one, falling snow on stage five, and alien guts squirming in stage eight. These extras really enhance the already awesome presentation, and it is worth seeking out for die hard fans of the game. Keep in mind you will need a cartridge adapter, or some means of playing a Famicom cartridge.

inbetween cut scene
inbetween progress map
Snow falling in stage 5 is one of the addition effects the Famicom cart has to offer.

The game was altered for play in PAL regions, as Germany had strict laws regarding depictions of violence towards humans, so the protagonists were changed to robots, and the title was changed to Probotector.

Super C is the sequel to Contra, and also has an original release in the arcade, as well as an NES release. Like the first game, the arcade was fun, but was hampered by the vertical screen format. The NES version, while graphically limited in comparison, offered a more engaging experience, especially with two players. This might also be attributed to the fact that arcades were intended to eat your money, so the difficulty is by design.
Contra sprite
Super C sprite
Super C plays very much like Contra, and some changes were made, most for the better, in my opinion. The pseudo 3D stages were removed, and vertically scrolling overhead stages were added instead. These stages are much more enjoyable that the hallway scenes, and allow for more stage variety.  The game now incorporates sloped platforms, which is also a new concept for the series.
As far as weapons improvements, the spiral fireball from the first game was replaced by a straight shooting fireball that splinters in four directions when it contacts enemies, giving it a shrapnel effect. The default bullets are larger, and even though they cause the same amount of damage as in the first game, they are more satisfying. In the overhead levels, a super shell can be collected and used at your discretion, instead of going off immediately like in the first game.

They music in Super C carries more bass, and that is readily apparent every time you clear a stage. It may not be as melodic or memorable as the first game, but it is still good.

The classic Konami code has been removed, however, and replaced with a different code for ten lives: right, left, down, up, A, B. This helps mediate the challenge, but still holds the player to a standard if they want to finish the game.

All in all, these are are both in my short list of favorite NES games. There was a third game in the series, Contra Force, which is nothing like the first two. It is so different, that it is as if Konami started production on some completely different game, and tweaked it a little by adding similar sound effects, and slapped the Contra name on it in the hopes that it would sell. I choose not to discuss that travesty of game.
You can duck underwater and not be hit (or noticed)
The series continued on through the ensuing generations, unfortunately missing more than they hit. The series got caught with its pants down in between the 2D and 3D generations, and produced some real turds on the Playstation. Early 3D games did not suit previously existing franchises well, and Contra was part of that fallout. The formula was tweaked for the PS2 generation, adopting a 2.5D play mechanic, and gameplay was brought closer to its roots. By this time the franchise was mostly forgotten, a footnote in gaming history that perhaps can be revived again someday.