Pocket Power: Operation C

Handheld gaming is more than a compromise of power and portability. Whether it’s the ability to play anywhere, multitask or hold an entire console in your hands, it’s a special experience consoles have never replicated. In a world where high resolutions and teraflops reign supreme, we take a look at a portable relic every month and reflect on what makes it memorable. Be warned, spoilers may occasionally populate these articles.

Contra is one of the longest-running shooter franchises in gaming history and with good reason. The original arcade titles and NES ports set the standard for co-op run and gun action, and while Contra has gone through a few metamorphoses throughout the years it’s the general consensus that Contra is at its best when it’s 2D run and gun action. With two titles already popular on the NES, bringing the alien shooting action to the handheld market seemed like a logical next step. With the exception of making Operation C a single player only experience this title did little to deviate from the formula that made Contra popular.

Something seems amiss about Operation C when the box art is closely examined. Contra has long been a Konami property but Operation C is published by Ultra. Ultra was only a thing for a few years in the late ’80s into the early ’90s. Back then Nintendo of America was strict about many things. Their stance on graphic violence, religious imagery and other taboo subjects is pretty well known but they were also strict about licensing for third-party publishing. They only allowed five titles per year from third-party publishers, so to get around that Konami created Ultra. They weren’t exactly subtle either, since Ultra and Konami NES games typically came with ads for each other’s games and the art design and layout for both was basically identical.

Operation C is a mostly original Contra game with its only story, which in this era the instruction manual would go a lot more in depth than the game actually could. Contra games in the 8-bit era weren’t exactly big on story, mostly run around shooting everything and save the Earth from some alien threat called Black Viper. In other words, it has just enough of a story to provide some context for what is happening on screen, just like its arcade and NES predecessors. It worked for them so why screw things up for the handheld debut?

The reason we say mostly original is Operation C does borrow heavily from the two previous Contras. The five levels were created specifically for Operation C but certain segments of them will look familiar to anyone who played Super C. The first level begins as a reused first level of Super C but things switch up later on. The boss in Operation C is a submarine instead of a helicopter, so they didn’t reuse everything for the handheld title. The music will sound familiar to anyone who played the first Contra, as many of the tunes were featured in the original title.

Super C also appeared the template for Operation C’s level progression. Super C abandoned the 3D corridor levels from the original Contra and replaced them with more traditional overhead levels to mix up the gameplay. Contra is at its best when it’s a 2D side scrolling and not an overhead shooter but adding gameplay variety does help keep the game from getting too repetitive. Whether this approach was necessary with Operation C is debatable: it is only five levels long and once you master the game it can be completed in fifteen to twenty minutes. Like most games from this time period the games were short but had a high difficulty level to extend play time. Once you master it you can do a quick run through but it’s going to take some time before that happens.

The popularity and quality of handheld gaming today is largely due to the success of the monochrome Game Boy, though it was generally accepted that any Game Boy title was going to be a lesser version of its home console counterpart. Operation C is no exception to this, but taking that into consideration it delivers everything a fan would want from a handheld Contra (with the exception of co-op). The familiar weapons are included, with some upgrade capabilities like spread initially being three bullets but can be improved to five. The homing weapon which was featured in future Contra titles makes its debut here. Most importantly though is it was able to maintain the thrill of the run and gun action on the small. Levels have perilous platforming, angled shooting and imposing boss fights. The single player only nature of the title is a bit of a bummer, but back then two player games required a link cable, two Game Boys and two copies of the game so multiplayer was probably not a very popular feature.

Cheaters never win and winners never cheat, and that statement couldn’t be more untrue when it comes to old Contra games. The original Contra was brutally hard but became laughably easy thanks to the thirty life code. Operation C has a couple codes that can be entered on the title screen to make the game a little less challenging. There is a code for nine lives that up up up up down down down down left left left left start. To do a sound test to hear all the repurposed classic Contra music its Up Down Left Right Start. Lastly, the classic Konami code with an extra B A unlocks a stage select, and for those who forgot this code it’s up up down down left right left right B A B A start.

Operation C is not just a respectable first entry for Contra into handheld gaming but it’s a good game overall. The lack of color and two player are the biggest downsides, but everything else good about classic Contra is right here. The extra life code does help since even though Operation C is not at the throw the Game Boy across the room in frustration level of difficult, it is pretty challenging. Anyone who missed out on it or no longer has a Game Boy can get their Operation C fix on the Contra Anniversary Collection.

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