Me Gun Goes Click, Me Gun Goes Bang (Contra III: The Alien Wars)
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.
August 10, 2015 @ 12:19 am
An interesting piece, but it makes me wonder of the extension towards the 'other' as enemy in video games. ie is it inherently wrong to play something like Doom and go around shooting demons, or even Dalek Attack! and go around shooting Daleks? Is there a line where it's acceptable to shoot made up enemy races which are all by definition 'Other'?
Far from xenophobic, could it not be seen as celebratory of the human condition, where finally men and women of all colours and creeds can unite as one, together with no differences in order to team up and shoot skull-faced alien monsters?
(I suppose the bigger question is that is any game where an evil race of evil monsters must be all killed inherently xenophobic, or is there some sort of special qualifier that games like Contra possesses?)
The Dapper Anarchist
August 10, 2015 @ 1:18 am
"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."
I'm going to have to object to this – the biggest selling games of all time include The Sims, which is literally nothing else but Middle-Class Aspiration the game (ok, you can play it as Working Class Aspiration, I suppose, but the aspiration remain to become Middle-Class) and Wii Sports (which with it's emphasis on golf and tennis is pretty middle class). Minecraft straddles the two – Survival does feature some xenophobia, in that night means monsters who must be resisted, but in both Survival and Creative mode the primary means of success is construction (especially of a house, with nice decor).
It is a common assumption that OF COURSE we need to have guns and enemies in our games to sell them, an assumption that is based on what? Sure, GTA and CoD sell well, but so do the Sims and other simulator games, various sports games, puzzle games, etc…
August 10, 2015 @ 2:37 am
"…it dissolves into a blur of forgettable spin-offs, none of them among the classics of their respective platforms."
Contra Hard Corps is one of the best Sega Genesis games, and it's arguably better than Contra 3 here. It's a solid bolt for the Genesis camp. But yeah, after that you get the awful PS1 Contras and the series sort of languishes; Mario and Zelda made the jump to 3D fine. Contra did not.
August 10, 2015 @ 7:24 am
It is fascinating to trace how these games that the GamerGaters played in their impressionable youth (or for the younger ones, had handed down to them as "prime examples of the genre" by the larger culture) both reflect and shaped their attitudes towards video games in particular and the broader society. So much of the GamerGate mentality is linked to the libertarian anarchism political point of view that "if you just put us in charge with a gun, everything would be great."
August 11, 2015 @ 11:48 am
Genuine question: once one has discounted Celtic, Norse, Asian, Mesoamerican and African influences as not being the One True, Or At Least If Not Actually True At Least Acceptable For Some Damn Reason, Paganism, what's left?
August 12, 2015 @ 12:52 am
Greco-Roman, presumably. If you're going to position yourself as standing up for traditional Western civilisation, you can hardly write off the Classical pagan inheritance which pervades it, even if you would like to.
August 12, 2015 @ 4:08 am
I guess that makes sense, although it wouldn't be my first pick as a pagan tradition that "compete[d] with early Christianity", particularly.
August 12, 2015 @ 5:21 am
I did wonder about that – the Olympians were hardly in rude health, though they had plenty of institutional inertia.
But cults which tend to get cast in the role of "competitors of early Christianity", like Mithraism or the worship of Sol Invictus, operated in that society, sprang from it to some extent (some scholars would see Sol Invictus as being derived from the Syrian cult of Elagabalus, famously associated with the emperor commonly known by that name, who would surely not be old Vox's cup of tea, but others would have it a purely Roman phenomenon, while the traditional assumption that Mithraism was closely derived from Zoroastrianism, and hence Asia, is regarded more doubtfully than it used to be) and could feasibly be classed as pagan. And I dare say the militaristic associations of Mithraism would give it a "virtuous" tinge in Vox's book.
Then there's Neoplatonism in its more religious manifestations, which may be the likeliest fit, being solidly Hellenic, intellectually sophisticated, and in complex dialogue with early Christianity.
At any rate, among the flourishing religious movements of the period, I think we can safely assume that he's definitely not thinking in those approving terms of the cult of Cybele…
August 12, 2015 @ 12:33 pm
How is it anarchism when you put someone in charge?
Anyways I mostly agree with that I just don't see what anarchism has to do with that. Or were they saying anarchism? Because it wouldn't surprise me.
October 26, 2015 @ 2:30 am
It’s an interesting article, but I feel like you’re badly misrepresenting a number of things which impact the significance you’re attaching to various points being made.
First we must keep in mind that these games where made in Japan by Japanese developers for a Japanese audience. Any significant reading on the history of that part of the gaming industry very quickly gives away how much of an afterthought the international market truly was to anyone outside Nintendo & Sega’s own internal teams. Contra was certainly influenced by Reagan-era schlocky action films, but it was a shallow aping of their superficial details without any real nuance or intention to it, let alone an awareness of the American sociopolitical climate into which it was being released. It was as much if not more-so a product of the ultra-violent seinen (males 16-30) anime films that were popular in Japan during the mid-80’s to early 90’s. The devastated urban environment of the early levels isn’t meant to represent urban decay or societal collapse, but the terror of being on the losing side of a total war (as Japan had been in WW2, and rightly continued to fear becoming once more during the Cold War). This is also presented by the vast number of sci-fi anime from that period which take place in settings defined by a nuclear holocaust or conventional third world war. And to be blunt I feel pretty confident that most of the audience they ended up with in North America would’ve been tone-deaf to any such unintentional messaging as you ascribe, even if we were to fully embrace the notion of death of the author. They were kids and teens playing a brutally hard, stupid action game. I mean, losing your power-ups on death (here your guns) was business as usual for games before even Super Mario Bros. It was simply a ‘punishment’ design element for poor play without thematic meaning, and it is unlikely gamers would’ve picked up on it as anything more because of the medium’s history of using such elements.
The other thing I object to is your characterization of Super Castlevania IV. It was a not-particularly noteworthy experimental middle-step in a franchise that regularly experimented with it’s core design precepts and went on to enjoy considerable success well into the late 2000’s. The fact that they moved away from traditional action-platformer level structures a few entries later (after Bloodlines and Dracula X) with Symphony of the Night (itself a revisiting of Castlevania II’s non-linear adventure based gameplay by way of copying Metroid) and its successors doesn’t really support portraying SCIV as the beginning of a decline of the series. Nor the fact that they shifted from home consoles to mainly being on handhelds (that market grew much larger in the 21st century, and the sales figures show it wasn’t having any trouble). They became less relevant to the mainstream audience because the market grew into new demographics (mostly dominated by western developers), which brought bigger sales numbers, through new genres such as fighting games, first person shooters, and annual sports titles. But Castlevania remained a stalwart series for gamers who liked the traditional Japanese-style.
I could go on about the historical role of platformer games in general (when you use the term side-scrolling shooter most people are liable to think of games like Gradius, R-Type, Defender and UN Squadron/Area-88, aka shoot-em-ups), but this is already probably more than anyone here cares to read. To be blunt, The genre continued to do well for quite a long time despite lack of interest from companies like Sony, largely by expanding the gameplay styles (as shooters have done ever since the late 90’s) but also through the growth of the handheld market where they continued to thrive. Sure they didn’t get the same attention they once did because new demographics playing new genres were bringing more money in and as the AAA projects got bigger and bigger they weren’t as newsworthy or as important to promote, but sales figures for series that continued to do well (Mega Man, Metroid, etc) show they weren’t struggling. Even today with the thriving indie scene we’ve seen a lot of major breakout hits in
2D platforming (Cave Story, I Wanna Be The Guy, Braid, Meatboy, Shovel Knight). Whoops, guess I did get into it a bit.
It’s also worth noting for the larger themes of your article that in addition to the colossal success of games like the Sims (as The Dapper Anarchist points out) and the annual sports titles (sort of middle class?), the genres that came to supplant platformers where if anything even more violent; fighting games and then first person shooters. And really, the natural evolution for Contra would’ve been to become a 3D run and gun shooter; but they were beaten to the punch by games like Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake, Unreal, etc. So I would dispute the notion that Contra III was an artifact of an aesthetic era which was coming to an end.
October 26, 2015 @ 2:36 am
Buh, should not post this late. I should’ve written that out and proofread it the next day, sorry. Didn’t mean to repeat myself, some parenthetical notes are misplaced, lord knows what else but it’s 2:30 AM here so I’m just going to apologize and throw in the towel.
October 26, 2015 @ 12:11 pm
Made by Japanese developers, yes, and this is a point I deal with in numerous other posts. But for Japanese audiences? Ah, no. The American market was long since where the money was.
As for Castlevania, yes, you’ve got Symphony of the Night. In Japan, you have Rondo. But let’s face it – we’ve exhausted the remaining classics of that series now. I mean, I liked the Metroidvania run on the Game Boy Advance, but at least 67%, if not 80% of the series’ classics have now come out. Compare with Zelda or Final Fantasy.
I love the genre, to be clear; Braid is probably my all-time favorite video game, and I’ve lost many happy hours to Super Meat Boy and Shovel Knight. But it’s an indiegames genre now, not a AAA genre, and I think that shift matters..