Fire is an incredibly powerful force. Humankind has made use of it for a wide variety of purposes, some peaceful, some violent – one of the most significant is as a weapon. From the use of Greek fire by the Byzantine Empire in naval battles, to the more modern flamethrower used in World War I and II, the destructive nature of fire is not something to be underestimated. Thus, it only stands to reason that in video games, fire-based weapons would be some of the most commonly implemented.
Now, in many other games ranging from Final Fantasy to Far Cry, flame-based attacks can be incredibly effective. However… this is not the case with the original Contra‘s flamethrower. It’s weak. It’s slow. It doesn’t shoot straight. It’s arguably less effective than the semi-auto rifle that you start the game with. The only thing Contra‘s flamethrower is really good for is to launch slow meandering spirals of flame across the screen, which run a high chance of completely bypassing your intended target. It’s just plain not a very reliable weapon.
So… for this third entry in the Beyond the Limits series, I decided it would be an interesting challenge to try and beat Contra without dying, while holding onto the flamethrower for the whole game. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Contra is a very short, yet very action-packed run-and-gun shooter from Konami. An average complete run through the game takes about 20 minutes, but that doesn’t take into account the numerous deaths and continues that most players will have to deal with in the process. When you take an already tough game, and force yourself to use said game’s least useful weapon, you’ve definitely got your work cut out for you.
Contra is one of my personal favorite games; prior to attempting this run, I had already beaten the game without dying on two separate occasions. Both of those times were while using the fan-favorite spread gun. The spread gun is the most popular weapon among Contra fans, and for good reason. While it was toned down in the later games in the series, in the NES versions of Contra and its immediate follow-up Super C, the spread gun is an absolute beast of a weapon.
The spread gun’s range and versatility is one part of it (it shoots out five bullets at once), but when you rapid-fire it with just the right timing and in just the right situation, you can manipulate the spread gun’s fire to be able to shoot an incredibly large amount of bullets straight forward per second, provided you keep rapidly pressing the fire button. This feature was likely not intended by the developers, since it throws the game’s weapon balance off by being so overpowered, yet it’s a key part of why the spread gun is so beloved. It’s quite the opposite of the flamethrower in terms of usability and reliability.
Since I was used to blowing past the game’s enemies with relative ease using the spread gun, I knew that forcing myself to use the flamethrower instead would require quite a different approach to maneuvering through each level. To try and compensate for the flamethrower’s slow fire rate, I made sure to pick up as many rapid upgrades as I could find. It didn’t seem to make that much difference, but I figured every little bit of speed that my firing rate gained would be helpful. Even moreso than during a regular playthrough, I found myself moving through stages slowly, inching forward to cause particularly fearsome enemies to spawn, and picking them off one by one so I didn’t become overwhelmed by rushing into the fray.
In cases where I couldn’t easily pick off specific enemies, or where doing so would require an inordinate amount of shots to be fired, I gradually learned to try and avoid enemies where possible. I tend to defeat every enemy I can on any given screen before moving on when I play sidescrolling games, but that’s easier said than done when you’re forcing yourself to hold onto a slow, weak weapon. After dying in the game’s stages over and over, and learning from my mistakes, I found that often, it was best to avoid conflict. Parts of my final successful playthrough almost resembled a pacifist run at times.
In the over-the-shoulder base levels, I found it was best to stand slightly to the left of where I wanted to aim, in order to actually make contact with the desired target. The flame spiral trajectory is really annoying to get used to. Perhaps one positive aspect to this, however, was that I could stand just to the left of an enemy’s attack pattern, and be able to hit them while standing completely still, with no concern over whether my target could hit me back. But… when you consider that there are other enemies on screen as well, you still usually can’t stand in place, and thus have to avoid enemy fire while also awkwardly aiming your flame spirals as best as you can manage.
Stages 5, 6, and 7 are easily the toughest in the game, thanks in large part to the stationary cannon soldiers, and the flame jets and spike walls that love to pop up at inopportune times in them. Even with a more capable weapon, these levels are a real pain to deal with. With the flamethrower, however, they become yet more infuriating. Since you lose your weapon when you die, I ended up having to restart my entire run more times than I’d like to admit, thanks to these obstacles.
The flame jets in stage 6 simply have to be avoided as one moves past them. On the other hand, the spike walls in stage 7 take a ton of hits to destroy, and they block your path, often popping up without warning. First-time players will likely get caught by them, but when you expect them ahead of time, they essentially become bullet sponges that don’t fight back, and simply exist to cause the player to take longer to progress. This isn’t such a big deal when you’ve got the spread gun, or even a machine gun, but it takes quite a few flamethrower rounds to destroy even a single spiked wall. I found that this could tire out my thumb, which isn’t good.
After these stages, I would consider the toughest boss in Contra to be the stage 4 boss, right after the second base section. This hologram boss phases in and out, and can only be hit when both halves of its orbs are connected together and solid. As it phases in between states, it lets loose a steady, yet hard to predict stream of homing bubbles that come straight toward the player.
This hologram boss is hard enough with the spread gun, but when you don’t have the luxury of a wide firing arc, you need to be quick on your feet to dodge each bubble that rains down. Usually I’d stand in place, then jump over each bubble when they got close enough, so that their attempts to home in on my position would cause them to shoot off-course and miss. Sometimes you’re dealing with three or four bubbles at a single time though, so in those cases, you might need to rely on a bit of luck here and there to survive.
After dying and restarting my run countless times in stages 5, 6, and 7, I actually finished the final stage, stage 8, on my first try. The relative lack of enemies in stage 8 is the main reason why the difficulty falls lower here.
Aside from a miniboss towards the beginning of stage 8, the only enemies one needs to deal with prior to reaching the heart endboss are H.R. Giger-esque wall mouths, that shoot out white spore-like projectiles that home in on the player. Their fire rate is very slow, so they can be destroyed by the common tactic of inching forward and picking them off one at a time. Then, the final boss fight is simply a matter of seeing how long you can keep pressing that fire button, while dodging the occasional facehugger-esque alien on the floor or ceiling. With that, the game is over.
This challenge certainly tried my patience at times. All things considered, however, I’m glad I went through with it. I got to re-experience one of my favorite games in an all-new way, as well as test my gaming skills in a totally different way from how I was used to. I might even feel somewhat fond of the Contra flamethrower now, thanks to having spent so much time with it… but I still consider it one of the worst weapons I’ve used in a game. Thankfully, I’ll never have to use it again!