Contra III -The Alien Wars-
Contra III -The Alien Wars-
August 21, 1992
Buy Used Copy
Contra III: The Alien Wars is without a doubt one of the most incredible, awe-inspiring, and just plain badass video games that the world has ever had the privilege of witnessing. Despite previous installments also being cool and over-the-top, the title blew away all possible limits with its out-of-this-world action and scenarios, while reaching levels of awesomeness and originality that are still hard to find even nowadays. While its core was the gameplay, having a great presentation didn’t hurt.
Accompanying the crazy and intense action was a score that was slightly less intense but still fitting and well-produced for its time. Composed by Miki Higashino (Gradius), Masanori Adachi (Super Castlevania IV), and Tappy Iwase (Metal Gear Solid), one would expect an unforgettable and amazing soundtrack that is going to be just as instant Konami classic. Instead, and unfortunately so, the soundtrack ends up being only contextually effective, with only a few highlights that still don’t top Contra’s standards. The composers tried to make the soundtrack very organic but the limited SNES synth clearly didn’t help in achieving their vision. Still, the end result is a musically complex, varied, and originally-sounding soundtrack that unfortunately ends up being difficult to enjoy outside (and sometimes even inside) of the game.
Being synthesized through the SNES hardware, the samples sound pretty good, despite still being limited. The classic SNES apparently had the best sound hardware for its time, allowing for rich sound effects, including some pretty good bass and more famously orchestral instruments with a great reverb. While they might have been impressive for their time, if used right, the limited technology could potentially make a soundtrack even more memorable and unique, much like Super Castlevania IV for example. The same is partly true for Contra III, also courtesy of Konami.
While Contra III has a very distinct feel and atmosphere, it kind of lacks memorable melodies and good compositions. Take for example “Go Forward Under Fire” and “The Showdown”. They both take a pseudo-orchestral approach, emulating film scores in a somewhat limited manner. The former is pretty straightforward and clichéd, but features very few good militaristic sections that fit with Contra’s motifs. The latter is actually pretty impressive, despite being slightly tiresome to listen. Starting very ominously, it then becomes a terrifying orchestral piece that might have very well being taken straight out of a classic horror movie, only to later become a decent militaristic theme that inspires urgency. Even more impressively, the theme shifts from the militaristic motifs to impressionistic eerie sections, truly managing to stand out in the SNES soundtrack library. Unfortunately for some listeners, it lacks melodic focus since its main priority is to accompany the games final brutal moments. In that regard it does very well though.
One thing that really has bothered me about the franchise’s musical legacy is the lack of a main theme throughout all the installments. Everyone can agree that the first Contra‘s introduction theme is one of the most memorable and recognizable pieces of video game music, regardless of its brevity and simplicity. Instead of rearranging or reprising it, or for that matter even any of the memorable themes from the first Contra, this instalment sticks to new compositions that just don’t match the catchiness and awesomeness of the originals. Both the album and the game open with “The Alien Wars Begins”, which is generic at best and annoying at worst. The same can be said about “Hell Messenger”, which is pretty irritating to listen, and I’m not sure if it is because of the synth, the music, or actually both. To its credit, it features certain cool and catchy parts that still are way to quirky and ridiculous for Contra, but it’s difficult to stand the rest of it anyway. What’s more, it manages to stick in your head for all these wrong reasons. The boss battle theme “Bloody Storm” almost suffers from the same fate, but despite some irritating instruments, it’s actually quite memorable due to it’s chaotic motifs and complex progression.
Fortunately, Contra III‘s soundtrack does feature some very memorable compositions, and despite being few, they stand out as highlights of the franchise. Without a doubt “It’s Time for Revenge” is one of the most badass stage openers, being entertaining and awe-inspiring in all its synthetic glory. It’s a great mix between urgent-inspiring percussion and sound effects with heroic and action-oriented motifs. It’s a great theme that really pumps the player up for the rest of the otherwise unforgiving game. “Battle Runner” is also very impressive. It follows the same organic structure and pseudo-orchestral style with futuristic elements of the rest of the score, but really stands out with its diverse and sparse arrangement and complex progression. My favorite part comes through the end, when the track becomes quiet and epic, fitting for the ascending section of the game where the grand futuristic cityscape is visible while the player struggles to survive. Truly memorable, especially in-game.
Among other highlights, “Daredevil” might be too much upbeat for being associated with Contra, but damn if it isn’t catchy. The theme features funky percussion and sound effects, along with some high-pitched instruments that play the main melodies. While it’s pretty cheesy, I must admit that’s a pretty cool and memorable track. No wonder it later made its way on to the Contra 4 soundtrack. On the other hand, “Megalopolis” is a pretty cool techno-ish track with a very futuristic feeling and manages to just as catchy.
Thankfully, the album features a number of bonus tracks to compensate for the deficiencies of the Contra III score. First of all, the track list includes a musical selection of past Contra games, including the arcade versions of Contra and Super Contra along with their NES incarnations and even the Game Boy version. This is the only time when these scores have been compiled into a single album and it’s therefore a very worthwhile bonus for fans of the series’ music.But the inclusions might be slightly problematic because the various themes are represented as a single track for each game version — pretty similar to what was done with Castlevania III‘s soundtrack in Castlevania Best. I never understood why this method exists and is implemented, and frankly speaking, it’s irritating when you wish to listen to a certain theme. Nevertheless, I found the chiptune versions of the music much more enjoyable and catchy, while the arcade counterparts sound a little messy and cheesy. Still, if you are not familiar with the music of the series, you are in for a treat, even disregarding the shoddy presentation.
Closing the album are the MIDI arrangements of selected themes from Contra III. While they would have been truly amazing additions if done right, seeing how the musicians where limited, they just end up sounding even much more boring than their SNES counterparts, which truly ends the album in disappointment. The arrangement of “It’s Time for Revenge” is not that bad, but mostly all of these MIDI versions suffer from poor synth and irritating artistic choices.
Unfortunately, the soundtrack of Contra III: The Alien Wars is pretty disappointing despite its promising nature. While the composers were definitely ambitious and versatile, the synth limited their artistic vision, and even worse, many compositions just ended up being generic. The score is relatively short, and only three major highlights don’t improve matters. Majorly disappointing bonus tracks don’t help either, seeing as they were very lazy with the MIDI arrangements, while the classic Contra and Super Contra tracks are poorly presented. Nevertheless, this is the only time the scores for the first three main Contra games have been packaged together and will hold a lot of value to hardcore fans of the series. Let’s hope that one day there will be a box set to supersede this somewhat inadequate treatment.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on August 1, 2012 by George Capi. Last modified on August 1, 2012.