Release: February 9, 1988 | Developer: Konami | Publisher: Konami
Outside of Japan Nintendo had strict licensing agreements in place for third-party developers which, among other stipulations, gave Nintendo complete control over the manufacturing process. This meant that publishers would order their cartridges directly from Nintendo. This gave Nintendo strict control over the type and number of units released for their Nintendo Entertainment System console. In reality, this somewhat draconian process had a negligible effect on software quality but did (coupled with their 10NES lock-out chip) reduce piracy. It also created long-lead times for manufacturing and the expensive minimum orders kept some publishers away from the console altogether.
In Japan, publishers manufactured their own cartridges which is why there is no standardized case design for Famicom games. Famicom carts can vary in size, shape, and color in as many variations as there were publishers for the consoles 1100+ game library.
Japan’s freedom to self-manufacture not only lead to esthetic variations but also allowed developers to design and implement new onboard chips that could be used to enhance music and/0r graphics. Many games released by Konami (most notably Akumajou Densetsu and Contra) had these special add-on chips which allowed for a wide array of audio and visual perks. Most of these additions were lost when the games were ported over to North American.
Contra, a true action classic of the 8-bit era, is unsurprisingly much better in its native Japan. While the soundtrack is the same, save for some musical variation late in the game, it is the graphics that get stripped down in the more familiar North American release.
The Famicom version of Contra has several weather effects not present in international releases, such as swaying palm trees in stage 3 and blowing snow in stage 5. in the final level, the organic components of the aline lair pulsate and squirm. This animation speeds up the further you fight through the level and the more damage you inflict on the final boss. There are also cut scenes in between each stage and a Castlevania-esque map screen that shows your progress through the game world after each cutscene.
The infamous Konami code still works in this version granting you the standard 30 lives, but Contra has a few other hidden secrets exclusive to the Famicom version, such as a sound test, stage select, and a secret ending message.
For all of the reasons thus stated, the Famicom Contra cartridge can be rather pricey when compared to the standard NES release but is nonetheless a must-own for fans of the original 8-bit run-and-gun masterpiece.