Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Retro Crappy Review: Neca Video Game Series Contra Two-Pack

[merrily sings] For the very first time ever when they had a revolution in Nic-uraguera there was no interference from Ameri-ca, human rights in Ameri-ca, the people fought the leader and up he flew with no Washington Bullets what else could he dooo-oo-oo? SAANND -INISTA!  [/merry sings] and then Ronald Reagan came along and ballsed it up.

So when shitting out these Quick Crappy Reviews I usually like to stay fairly recent, today I’m ignoring that rule so this is the first Retro Crappy Review. Why bother? Well whole blogs and YouTube channels are based around reviewing toys way older than this set (which came in 2016, hardly ancient) so it’s not like it matters when the toy was made but the reason I’m breaking the rule now is as follows: I bought Neca’s Contra two-pack cheap at the summer LFCC convention this year, went to get it out of its box while taking photos for other stuff in the loft and decided that there was so much to it that it deserved a Quick Crappy Review (poor thing) and it would give me a forum to waffle on about it at the lengths I felt it & I needed.

So this is Neca’s Contra two-pack from their Video Game Series, The concept is making figures painted to replicate the sprites used in video games starring that character and is a result of the phenomenally positive reaction to (and subsequent sales of) a Jason Vorhees variant released as a San Diego Comic Con exclusive in 2013 based on his (completely erroneous) sprite in the ‘infamous’ NES game Friday the 13th, I own one - it is amazing. Mostly the figures are repaints or slightly altered versions of figures NECA have already put out, I did a QCR of the Gremlins 2: The New Batch release from the series a little while ago. The Contra two-pack however was the first Video Game Series release to be new characters, new figures and characters not from films, it was released in Quarter 3 2016. Got all that? This post is gonna be boringly succinct information heavy so acclimatise yourself and I can only apologize. 

What the fuck is Contra: Contra (also known as Gryzor and Probotector1) is a two-player run-n-gun (shoot shit) arcade game released by Konami (the Metal Gear Solid people) in ‘87 but more importantly for these figures it was ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System in ’88, this set is based on that home version because the NES was huge in America and is worshipped as a god by the sort of people who make and buy collector’s action figures1 there. The name is taken from the Nicaraguan Contras and the Iran-Contra Affair which was going on at the time of the game’s development but has nothing to do with these things; instead ‘Contra’ is the name of the squad the playable characters belong to. Fans had been disproportionately keen to get Neca to do a Contra two-pack, I assume this is because Neca also make Aliens and Rambo figures and a series of video game based toys and Contra can be neatly summed up as Rambo vs Aliens: The Video Game. The story involves the US sending two of its elite soldiers to an archipelago near New Zealand named Galuga to stop a terrorist organisation called the Red Falcon Organization but as they push deeper into the heart of the island they find that that terrorist cell is actually a front for monstrous aliens and their leader Red Falcon who’s ‘bio-mass’ (read: insides) make up the final level (of the NES and Arcade versions, the MSX version has more levels). The Red Falcon Organization aliens were based on the same H.R. Geiger artwork the Xenomorphs from the Alien films were (so they all look like massive dongs) and the playable characters could only be more Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone if they came with comedy accents. I can now get to the fucking review.

Meet Bill Rizer and Lance Bean3, the player characters from Contra. You ever notice how people who prefer Luigi tend to be people who had brothers, older brothers, and so never got to play as Mario? I think the same applies to Contra, I was an only child so Bill is my guy. As the two are the exact same figure just with different heads, I’m discussing them together. Nearly everything from the neck down is reused parts, most of it from Dutch from Predator I believe with the odd bit borrowed from the Aliens line, I don’t know Neca parts as well as I do, say, Masters of the Universe Classics parts (so there’ still some hope for me ever having sex again) but that vagueness should cover it. They’re all good parts and absolutely fine to build the characters out of so I have no complaints plus it’s delightfully fitting they share parts with Dutch and Rambo – y’know the two men who they’re ripped off from, that make me happy in a very nerdy way, this feeling will persist throughout the figures and accessories. An articulation rundown is: ball joints at the head, shoulders, elbows, crotch, ab-crunch, knees and wrists and ankles – I think, the ankles might be a different joint type (I can’t quite see) but they achieve the same range. Bill’s wrists are slightly blocked by his gloves and Lance’s head is blocked by his hair, so like dogs he can’t look up. The only new pieces on the figures (I’m certain the bandoliers and belts are reused too) are their heads and Neca are some clever gentlemen. The box for these has credits so I can name the lads responsible for sculpt: Jason Fralley and Kyle Windrix, and these two need a beer each from me, why? Well the situation is this: even though the paint looks like sprite artwork the figure sculpts are realistic - it’s my belief that this juxtaposition is one of the main appeals of the figures, making ‘real’ versions of the sprites in the most literal way – so the two needed heads that looked real, the sprites in both arcade and home ports are too small to have faces and so the only in-game art of the two is the very cartoony portrait on the title screen so instead Fralley and Windrix (who sound like old timey rag & bone men) gave them the likenesses of the otherwise inaccurate realistic painting on the NES cover art rather than just ‘realing’ up the sprites or title screen however they felt like – Bill has his pained expression and Lance even has that extended neck thing going on. This makes me delighted but I’m not sure I can articulate why, I think it’s mainly because ‘makes so much sense’ but that’s a pretty crap explanation using a very subjective term. Some of it is simply my liking for references, some of it my liking for accuracy, but most of it is stuff I can’t explain, sorry. On the accuracy side, these things really are accurate – the only inaccuracies overall are that the NES sprites don’t wear bandoliers (but they’re removal and no one should complain about free bandoliers) and Lance’s bandana is actually red in-game, that actually bothers me, I know that Lance is the ‘blue character’ but his headband is clearly red and these are supposed to be sprite-accurate4.   

Now let’s talk accessories because no joke these were the selling point for me. The lads are packaged holding pistol-like guns that’re supposed to be their main weapons, they’re reused from somewhere (Aliens?) and as such don’t look like the sprites in-game, which are supposed to be long-barrelled futuristic rifles – it’s a little oversight that like the red headband thing seems somewhat unnecessary and somewhat silly, I don’t believe for a moment NECA didn’t have some longer barrelled guns already tooled, in fact I know they do, because Thermal Vision Dutch came with one and I own him. the guns are attached by those little see-through rubber band things and I suggest leaving them on, the guns only barely fit in the figures hands and Lance’s likes to pop out, unless you’re gunna swap ‘em for accurate guns from another toy there’s no reason to remove the guns or the rubber bands so I suggest doing neither. Also includes are two different grenades and a futuristic gun, five quid says they’re also reused but I have no idea where from, I’m guessing the futuristic gun is supposed to represent the laser gun power-up? Or it just might have been on the same tool as the other accessories, who knows? I’d obviously’ve preferred they’d cut these and put the plastic and paint money towards newly tooled accurate rifles but again no one should really complain about free grenades.

The big new accessories are effects pieces (we’ll get to them in a minute) and the power-up capsule, this was what made this a must-buy for me, I’m all about video game figures coming with in-game items as accessories – being able to have physical versions of things like power-ups and weapons is a thrill that is never going to go away and probably wouldn’t exist if toy companies had actually made toys of all these top selling games way back when the bastards. The capsule is magnificent, wonderfully sculpted and painted to look ‘flat’ and fit in with aesthetics of the figures, it fits on a transparent stand but has to share the base of its stand with the Spread Gun effects piece so you can only use one of the two, but as it’s not permanently attached to the arm you can just leave the capsule at the figures feet or I dunno, just Blu-Tac the arm to your shelf. Also seeing it again reminded me of the following: all the power-ups you get in Contra are actually nicked from the villains (which makes total sense, you are two lone heroes parachuted in without shirts), check out the capsule, it has a red falcon on it.

The effects pieces are THE SHIT. Five are included in the set and they can be combined or used individually and I get all happy in a very nerdy way. you get three single shot effect pieces that are all the same - a transparent ‘bullet’ attached to a thin clear plastic rod – though a tad small each piece is accurate to the game’s sprites, where they get really fun is that you can stack them! There’s a hole in the centre of each ‘bullet’ that allows you slide the rod of another into it, allowing for a chain of up to three bullets in a row and intentionally or otherwise recreated both the standard rifle and machine gun from the game and they’re light enough so that the figures don’t topple over even if you have all three in play. Then there’s two pieces to recreate the fan-favourite Spread Gun which I personally would consider to the Contra franchise’s signature weapon. One is an attachable piece that plugs into the gun, the other is a spread of five bullets that uses the same stand as the power-up capsule. The attachable piece of baffling, it has two plugs side-by-side but the guns only have 1 hole, I think the other plug is supposed to be used for stabilizing the piece, if that’s true it sucks at its job a little – it stays in the gun but I wouldn’t cough near it. Two accessories sharing the same base is pretty annoying BUT here’s a Spread Gun fact: due to hardware limitations if you fired the spread gun to fast (like most people did as Contra is bloody hard and hammering the fire button is a technique I imagine most children learnt very fast when playing it) the Spread Gun only produces three shots instead of the desired five so technically just displaying the figure with just the three shot piece is correct, it just means the player controlling that character is at a boss and pressing the button to fast.  In fact technically you’d have to chain a single shot, then the three shot then the five shot to replicate the Spread Gun accurately (as one shot explodes into three then into five), luckily you can do that:

And it actually stays in the gun better AND still doesn’t topple the figure - because this set’s effects pieces are fucking awesome. Oh yeah and the belts come with a gun and knife in them, both are separate pieces and can be removed, they characters never use a gun or knife in Contra but moulded in weapons are an annoying cock tease and I’m glad that’s not happening here.

So finally (FINALLY!) we’re done, to wrap up – a great set with a  couple of baffling breaks in accuracy that keep it from being perfect but with such great accessories that it still ranks very high. Neca’s video game style paint jobs and sculpting remain exemplary and now I’m off to play shit loads of Contra, and if you think that’s just a cliché way to end the review you are totally wrong, I already have the first game booting up in an emulator as I’m typing these words5.

1 due to laws in Germany about the depiction of human-on-human violence being available to minors, the NES port of the game was localized as Probotector FOR ALL OF EUROPE AND AUSTRALASIA with all human characters (including the playable duo) replaced with robots. Because (I hope) the name is horribly exploitative of a real-life issue and a real life group of bastards it was named Gryzor for Ocean’s 8-bit PC ports. 
2 while the NES was popular in the UK it never attained that ‘definitive be-all and end-all of 80’s gaming’ status it has in the US because of the popularity of the already established 8-bit PCs – notably the ZX Spectrum, Commodore-64, BBC Micro and Amstrad CPC – and the Master System (the NES not being released in the UK until 1987), Contra however was ported to all of those aforementioned PCs without all the daft censorship the NES version got so we still played a shitload of Contra.
3 I suppose technically I should be calling them Mad Dog and Scorpion as those were the names given to them for the US Nintendo release upon which these figures are based HOWEVER Contra 4 retconned Mad Dog and Scorpion as being two separate characters (based on the playable characters from Contra sequel Super C) so to avoid confusion I’m using their original names which are also their current names, and the names the figures are given on the official Neca website.
4 fun fact boring fact: in the arcade game Bill is blue and Lance is red, Bill also wears a vest. This is why on the box art for the NES (which is also the box art for these figures) they have those colour headbands and why on the title screen for the NES game (also included in the box art for this set) Bill is wearing a vest. 
5 I generally prefer the Arcade version of Contra to the NES version, just fyi, but I’m totally booting up the NES version at the moment.

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