Society’s in such grand decline because no-one’s doing action films anymore


Probotector/Contra (1990)

Most males get made to feel inadequate a lot of times in our lives. We all clamber to try and be alpha, of course, but there are those occasions where you’re comprehensively made to look absolutely feeble. Puny. It can happen to us from a young age too – while all the other young boys my age marvelled at how Arnold Schwarzenegger resembled a condom stuffed with conkers, I looked at this Austrian adonis and thought, “Christ, I’m gonna have a job looking like that when puberty hits”.

I never did manage Arnie’s body, or Sly Stallone’s or even Dolph Lundgren’s, but it’s OK because I’m not far from present day Chuck Norris. Chuck at age 75, I mean. A prime Chuck Norris? Well, you’ll have read the memes I’m sure. But I’m actually modest enough not to care as much, because I can now appreciate action films in their glory.

Alright, the plots were catalogue awful, calling the acting on display ‘wooden’ would be charitable and the effects and continuity were offensive, but I’ll tell you what – when Arnie or one of his pretenders are gunning down reams after reams of evil foreign mooks, you just can’t beat it.

It’s for this reason that I profess 1985’s Commando to be the finest film of all time. I’m not saying it’s my favourite, and I’m not saying it’s a more cinematically accomplished oeuvre than The Godfather, but I would defy you to come up with a film that offers as much as Commando does. Dastardly villains? A sexy female helper? Ridiculously cheesy one-liners? Stunts that could absolutely never work? Arnie upending everyone he sees? It’s all there, and set against the finest steel drum soundtrack this side of the West Indies.

If you’re completely devoid of all mental faculties and Commando doesn’t take your fancy, you could always be a Rambo man or woman instead. Indeed, John Rambo’s reputation for bloodthirsty combat and incredible body counts really does precede him – so much so that when First Blood came on the telly one night, I was so disappointed to find it was a hard-hitting commentary on the marginalisation of Vietnam veterans. “What? Why are you showing me this?” I cried. “Why aren’t Commie Nazis being torn through by the dozen? Where’s the famous shots of a shirtless, muscle-bound Stallone firing an automatic weapon about six sizes too big to be military standard issue?”

Rambo’s particularly bloodthirsty days were yet to come, of course, and that set off a wonderfully 1980s trend for action films that Van Damme, Willis, Lundgren, Gibson and even Seagal tried to emulate. I may not have been alive for the era, but when they were all brought together in one testosterone-fuelled idea gone wrong which later became The Expendables, I could hardly wait to see it.

A mix of the old and the new, with hair-raising action scenes and an absurd premise, it could hardly fail. Yes, some pages of the script seemingly got mixed up with some romcom and as a result one or two emotional parts found their way into the finished film, but we were still left with a wonderful throwback to a time when action heroes were the men for all of us no-hoper little boys to aspire to.

Where have all the action movie heroes gone? Where indeed? None to be found in Probotector, the European version of Contra for the NES. Probotector? What? Well, due to some typically by-the-book Germans kicking up some fuss over violent video games, we couldn’t have (not) Arnie and (not) Sly as the game’s protagonists, so they were changed to character-less robots instead.

OK, there is absolutely no dialogue in the game, hence the protagonists have no characters to speak of, and anyway they’re based on overexaggerated masculine caricatures that weren’t bursting with charisma anyway. But did they really have to change the name of the game just to get a robotic pun in there?

It’s not the first time Europe have been strangely shafted with some strange game monikers. Instead of Star Fox 64, us Eurotrash had to scramble to fight the Lylat Wars. Ninja Gaiden? I don’t think so, it’s Shadow Warriors down the Latin quarter. And you wouldn’t believe me if I told you what Eric and the Floaters was really supposed to be.

What’s beautiful about a game like Contra (for that’s what we’ll now be calling it. Probotector, cripes, I ask you) is that, similar to action movies, you can get the premise almost immediately. In this sidescroller, you blow through infinite enemy soldiers (again, robot soldiers for the EU) and destroy a fearsome boss at the end. Successfully manage this across eight levels, and you can consider yourself a hero.

Here’s the kicker though – it’ll only take one hit to down your character. Even that’s not so bad, until you consider the fact that enemy bullets come at you from all kinds of oblique and obtuse angles, including some that I certainly never saw in any geometry textbooks. You’ll only start with three lives as well, although this is where the Konami code most famously comes to the rescue.

30 lives? You’re gonna need em, at least the first few times you tackle the game. Contra’s a game that’s got a well-deserved reputation as one of the NES’s hardest, but it’s almost never unfair. Deaths are usually fully avoidable, and it really is a game that you can learn and master.

Even so, whether you play with the code or not, the action is so fast-paced and arcadey (indeed, it was an arcade game) that you scarcely care about copping an unfortunate. You will lose your current weapon powerup, being one of the games several weapon types that you can pick up, and you’ll be left feeling pretty naked with your pea-shooter. But that’s just the nature of the beast. The lesson? Get good and don’t die.

And that’s really all there is to it. You’ll almost certainly have played this game anyway, but if you ain’t, go and give it a whirl right now, because you can be finished it in a half-hour. Input the Konami code (essential knowledge for any hardcore gamer, but if you don’t know it, then this game will make sure you never forget it) and get to pumping enemies full of lead, or lasers or fireballs or Spreadgun ammo or whatever you’re having yourself.

Or better yet, bring a buddy with you for the ride. You’ll probably end up getting in each other’s way, and even if there is (mercifully) no friendly fire to worry about, poor tactical decisions out there on the frontlines could potentially be devastating to a friendship. All I would say is, if you’re gonna bring a war buddy out there with you, make sure they’re the Jesse Ventura to your Arnie in Predator – basically, don’t end up as an eviscerated pile of organs while the real hero goes home and desecrates the prom queen. Figuratively speaking of course.

Contra is, quite simply, an embodiment of the 80s action film genre and of the 80s sidescrolling golden age combined into one. Even with its 8-bit boopy sounds and simple but still appealing graphics, a game like this just doesn’t age. Whatever about the unforgettable action heroes and cheesy action films, where have the rough and ready games like Contra gone?

09 November 2015

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