Let's just get this out of the way now: if you like the NES games, you'll probably dig this entry. Operation C isn't an adaptation or a port (arguably); it is an old-school Contra game. It may lack in a few notable areas, but you'll largely enjoy it.
Operation C does a pretty good job of sticking to the series’ formula; a half-naked guy with big guns kills stupid bad alien things over stages that alternate between side-scrollers and top-downs (with three of the former and two of the latter). The stages are about as long as those found in the NES games, but they’re still tricky and you will lose some pixelated men. Some of the stages even feel yanked out of Super C, a trend so common for all the game’s assets you’ll sometimes think you were playing a monochrome, less detailed version of it that fits in your pants.
It also plays more like Super C than the original Contra. Levels are a bit easier to conquer (but that’s not to say they’re a walk in the park), the overhead stages are in and the arsenal is almost the same. Even the ending is virtually identical. A lack of originality brings the game down a bit, but this is subdued some by the feeling of “I can’t believe they made a full Contra for Game Boy.”
Classic Contra arms include the infamous spreader, which can be powered up from three to five bullets, and the fire gun from Super C. It's a slimmed arsenal, but each weapon is a winner. Besides, the laser from Super C was arguably a lame duck and it’s absence is not grieved. Operation C is not without series innovation; it's the first one to include a machine gun as your standard blaster and the homing weapon also got its start in this adventure. It makes this outing feel like an evolutionary step for the series, despite cannibalizing the second game.
While the Game Boy didn’t really have the raw power or a competent enough screen to handle the more complicated environments of the NES games, Operation C still manages to deliver visuals that are detailed enough to truly feel like its brethren. The bullets are big and distinguishable, character designs are lifted right out of the first two games and levels are large and in charge, if a bit barren. It may not have the same complex geometry that Super C gets into, but it certainly tries; things like elevators and slopes are abundant, the latter something the first game didn’t have. Of course, the occasional seemingly invisible bullet will still getcha, but that’s par for both the series and the Game Boy.
And yes, the infamous Konami code is in, but it won’t give you 30 lives in the non-Japanese versions. Instead, you’re given access to a stage select screen, something standard in the Japanese version. There’s a 10-life code for pansies, but the real challenge is replaying the game to the point of muscle memory; to me, running through multiple stages without dying feels like a true achievement.
A sound select screen is also unlockable via code, which allows you to listen to the exciting stage music and pump yourself up for shooting digital unarmed foes. Some of the tunes are remixed from earlier games in the series, but they’re still just as fun to go all Rambo to. The sound effects are the same as in the NES titles, so if you’ve played either of those you know what to expect: loud guns and meaty explosions.
Unfortunately, no multiplayer was incorporated, and that does detract from the game’s long-term appeal. If you’re more inclined to play single-player only you won’t miss it or even notice it, but another thing Contra is great for is playing with a friend. Score junkies can will want to replay to beat their best, but the rest of us are pretty much done after a few go’s.
All in all, this is without a doubt a Contra game more worthy of its title than, say, certain PlayStation entries. It hits on most of the aspects that make a good entry: challenging gameplay, tight controls, varied enemies, killer arsenal, macho tunes, big bosses. For a title two years into the mighty portable’s lifespan, it accomplishes an impressive amount in shrinking the essentials of the beloved console/arcade series. Sadly, players are forced to go gung-ho solo, which is disheartening for multiplayer fans and kills some of its longevity. It also borrows a bit too heavily from Super C for comfort, but doesn't really live up to it. Fans of the NES games are foolish to pass this up.