At its heart, Contra III is a game about guns. This does not particularly distinguish it within the world of video games, nor, for that matter, within the world of America. Nevertheless, it is firmly the sort of game Contra III is. Like Super Castlevania IV and Super Ghouls and Ghosts, its central mechanic involves offering players a variety of weapons, each with advantages and disadvantages suitable to particular moments in the game. Contra III’s twist on this mechanic is that Jimbo and Sully are insta-killed by any hit and lose their actively equipped weapon (you can have two weapons, one active at any given moment) upon death, which creates an inherent tension between the desire to have a strong weapon equipped for tricky bits and the desire not to lose a strong weapon to a tricky bit.
One way to put this, then, is that aliens are literally coming to take your guns. This is a crass and largely unhelpful reading, admittedly, although the fact that “losing your gun” means being reduced to a mere machine gun is, in this reading, terribly entertaining.
But equally, it’s impossible to quite separate the iconography of Contra III from the militarized paranoia implicit in it. The first two levels are indicative – bombed out cityscapes through which the player must run, eventually dodging fireballs that burst from the asphalt. This is the iconography of urban decay – the city as a collapsing, rotting space, often described in the fundamentally racially coded terms of the jungle, which was, notably, where the Contra series got its start. This, in turn, was a fundamental image of the Reagan era, where it served as an object of fear that justified the conservative project.
But it also served fundamentally as a fantasy. Like any jungle, the collapsed city is a place upon which fantasies of white militarism are projected. Its untamed wildness requires the puissant white man as a steady hand. Which, of course, Contra III is all too happy to provide via the sumptuously Aryan Jimbo, whose manly poses decorate the interstitial moments between levels.
Being a video game for a Nintendo system, however, some amount of this must be displaced. And so the bombed out city is destroyed by Gigeresque aliens, an all-purpose Other conveniently separate from any material entities, and defined entirely by its inhumanity. Enemies in Contra fall into two general categories – either they are overtly robotic, or they are creatures of grotesque flesh. In either case, the emphasis is on the fundamental antipathy towards the very idea of humanity, which makes the aliens a maximally nightmarish force for the manly heroes to assert themselves against.
This intensely xenophobic setup means that the unreconstructed macho fantasy at the heart of Contra III gets to carry on without undue complication. The resultant ethos is perhaps best captured in the game’s opening, where Jimbo and Sully, following the devastating alien attack, get their sole dialogue in the game, as Jimbo proclaims, “it’s time for revenge,” and Sully concludes, “let’s attack aggressively.” Or perhaps by the moment where you jump from a motorcycle to a helicopter, which then fires a missile with you hanging onto it, at which point you jump among missiles to destroy a spaceship and then, as the blinding flash of the spaceship’s explosion dies away, are revealed to be once again clinging gamely to the chopper as it flies away.
But 1992 was an odd year for this. On the one hand, it was the year of Bill Clinton’s election, which marked a distinct transition in the dominant rhetoric of American culture towards one of middle class aspiration, which would end up defining the 90s at large. Central to this rhetoric was the rise of the personal computer, of which the video game console was an early harbinger. And, it must be stressed, this is an important transition: the identity of the white male gamer is fundamentally one that grew out of Clinton’s America.
But the xenophobia that animates Contra III is a slightly odd fit for this. It’s unmistakably the product of the preceding Reagan era. Except, of course, it never vanishes from video games, and not just because the gravity of nostalgia means that Nintendo-based franchises like Contra continually recur whether or not there’s actually any demand for them or good ideas. Middle class economic aspirations are great for video games in terms of the process of selling consumer electronics to American families, but they don’t actually make very good games. Xenophobia, on the other hand, makes great games, as Contra III: The Alien Wars, in point of fact, demonstrates.
There is, of course, another dimension here. Twenty-three days after the North American release of Contra III a jury acquitted Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno of using excessive force during the 1991 arrest of Rodney King. This verdict was widely viewed as shockingly unjust, especially in light of the existent video footage of the beating delivered to King.
The resulting riots in Los Angeles were the largest since the mid-60s, resulting in fifty-three deaths. In one sense, this would seem to highlight the relevance of Contra III. The Rodney King beating was, after all, the last straw in a longstanding set of tensions focusing on LAPD chief Daryl Gates, who pioneered police militarization and who was unfortunately prone to doing things like contrasting black people and “normal people” and saying that even casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot,” referring to drug use as “treason.” (Gates’s post-LAPD career notably included a stint consulting with Sierra to create adventure games.) Contra III’s xenophobic urban militarism, in this light, seems chillingly relevant.
(It’s also worth quoting Ron Paul’s newsletter in the wake of the riots, which opened by proclaiming that “The Los Angeles and related riots mark a new era in American cultural, political, and economic life. We now know if we did not before, that we are under assault from thugs and revolutionaries who hate Euro-American civilization and everything it stands for: private property, material success for those who earn it, and Christian morality,” and went on to claim that the riots only stopped because it was “time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks.” Compare this rhetoric to Gamergate visionary Vox Day, who recently reflected on how contemporary atheists “possess the increasingly tattered remnants of Christian morality, that is all, and as it fades with each post-Christian generation, the Men of the West devolve into paganism, and not the high paganism that was so virtuous as to compete with early Christianity, but the low paganism of the Celt, the Viking, the Mongol, the Aztec, and the African cannibal,” segueing with this last point to a quotation from a 19th century account of African cannibalism written by Sidney Langford Hinde, one of the butchers employed by Leopold II to murder around ten million people in the course of Belgian colonization of the Congo.)
But, crucially, the LAPD riots were Gates’s undoing. And while they were a rhetorical boon for law and order conservatives, the idea that this was the dominant cultural response to the riots is ludicrous. By any reasonable measure the biggest cultural response to the riots was the December 1992 release of Dr. Dre’s landmark album The Chronic, which became the defining hip hop album of the L.A. rap scene, breaking the style out even wider than Dre’s 1988 work with N.W.A. on Straight Outta Compton (which, of course, featured the iconic anti-police brutality protest song “Fuck Tha Police”).
It is easy to overstate the connection between the album and the riots. Yes, two songs made use of samples from Matthew McDaniel’s documentary footage of the riots. But the album’s importance is broader than that; simply put, a crucial part of the album’s appeal (and the appeal of Dre’s earlier work with N.W.A.) was its unsparingly direct depiction of the lived experience of inner city black men. It wasn’t a landmark hit album about the LA riots, but rather a landmark hit album about the culture that furiously exploded in April 1992. In other words, it marked the point where the voice of the supposed urban jungle stopped being Jimbo and started being the actual people who lived there.
It’s notable, then, that Contra III was, again like Super Castlevania IV and Super Ghouls and Ghosts, part and parcel of the decline of the side-scrolling shooter as a genre. As a game, it’s an opulent crown jewel of its genre, revelling in whiz-bang Mode 7 effects and the sorts of giant-sized sprites that the Super Nintendo favored (its first-level giant alien turtle boss remains a classic). But it’s also a point of terminal decline; instead of going onwards to Contra IV it dissolves into a blur of forgettable spin-offs, none of them among the classics of their respective platforms.
It is, in other words, an artifact of a psychic terrain that was undergoing tectonic shifts, with all the dismembered geography implicit in that. The Chronic made most of its sales to the white middle class, who embraced its unsparingly angry swagger in ways that severed it from its cultural context, and exacerbated its most violently masculine tendencies. Even as the iconography of Contra III withered to nostalgia and festered into vampirism the video game continued its rise in culture, a rise that transcended race, gender, and even, to a real extent, class. Everything changed, but nothing ended, and nothing began. Sic transit bella alienorum.