No, no, not the Ollie North thing. C’mon. “Contra.” It was the bane of every nerdy 12-year-old boy’s existence in 1986. The video game? The one with all the running and gunning and jumping and stuff? Nintendo? The Konami Code?
No? Fine. Bear with me.
In my basement, I have what’s known as the PlayChoice 10, which to a 12-year-old in 1986 was the equivalent of a Vegas slot machine. I lost probably the equivalent of my entire freshman year tuition to the PlayChoice 10.
It’s a stand-up quarter-fed arcade game that’s basically a giant wood cabinet housing a couple of TVs and the guts of a Nintendo Entertainment System and 10 chips representing 10 separate games. It is an old-school gamer’s all-you-can-eat buffet. This one happens to have “Contra” installed in it. Huzzah!
The other day, my good pal Hauke (who is the actual owner of said PlayChoice 10) made a stop at the house for a bout of “40 oz. Contra.” The rules of the game are simple: if you die, you take a swig of malt liquor; if you pass a level in the game, you take a swig of malt liquor. If you beat the game… you guessed it. These are fine rules, considering “Contra” is a very hard game. This is exacerbated by the use of the infamous Konami code, where, if you enter “Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A” with the controls at the start of the game, you suddenly have a seemingly infinite number of Contra men to fight aliens with. So by the time you’re somewhere deep inside the Alien Lair, you’re likely drunk or cheating. We were both.
As we played through, dropping bad guys left and right and dodging the alien menace like pros, I realized that is what gaming was all about for our generation. I can’t imagine being 12 right now with all the power of their Xboxes and portable Playstations. To me, it’s a simple joy playing through a near-impossible game that’s stock in trade is imperfect flickering graphics, non-stop hand-cramping action and a soundtrack capable of unleashing its blessed bleeping bloops into your dreams.
So imagine my delight when I picked up the latest long player from The Advantage, who does a rip-snortin’ cover of the Alien Lair/ Boss Battle theme from Contra!
It rules. RULES. This isn’t some cheesy interpretation, either. This is aggressive instrumental prog-metal at its finest. Better than the finest. This is what I wished Contra sounded like. I wish “Contra” was prog-metal.
Led by drummer Spencer Seim, who doubles as the crazed guitar genius in his more notorious band Hella, this California quartet’s reported goal in life is “to record every Nintendo song by the time each member lie dead.” Judging by their latest batch of faithful full-on rock covers on their “Elf-Titled” release, they’re well on their way.
The Advantage isn’t fooling around. The themes they choose are played with gusto and reverence, note-for-note replicating the jagged, rolling arpeggios that made for perfect chunks of repeatable 8-bit video game segments.
These tunes are definitely more intricate than anyone would likely remember. But taken outside of a game context, the band transforms the material into complex, cinematic moments. Their interpretation of Contra theme as it’s played here rolls around between prickly progressions and muscular, escalating riffs that build tension like a rousing classical piece.
Every game represented here carries with it a distinct personality, so even if you’ve never played “Solar Jet man” on the NES you still get a flavor of its heroics thanks to Seim’s militaristic percussion and the lockstep guitars of Robby Moncrieff and Ben Milner.
The poppiest tune, unsurprisingly, is the theme from “Duck Tales” (Remember Duck Tales? Uncle Scrooge? Ducks? Anyone? Man I’m getting old). It’s a charming little ditty that could have easily doubled as background music for an episode of “Doogie Howser, M.D.” And on the very next track, The Advantage switches gears and delivers an ominous version of the Kraid’s Lair theme from the classic “Metroid” game.
With a fervor for video games that both game geeks and post-rock aficionados can appreciate, expect The Advantage to make quick work of the entire NES catalog sometime soon. Their last album made me go out and find a copy of “Marble Madness” for my Playstation 2 just so I could hear that awesome theme taken Advantage of.
Hopefully they’ll tackle one of your favorite games, too. And just maybe they’ll turn you into an old school game geek in the process. You’ll be drinking 40s in your basement with your friends in no time.
For more information on The Advantage, visit: http://www.theadvantageband.com/.