The dynamic duo scramble violently across the blinking and bleeping screen. Their weapons spray sudden blasts of high-tech destruction across a miniature Nicaraguan jungle. Meet Lance. Meet Bill. They're struggling to complete a mission, guided by a kid diverting residual quarters into a hot new video game.
Its name: Contra.
For the two heavily armed protagonists, both flexing all-American muscles and wearing eat-lead-and-die expressions, the challenge is obvious: Stop the Red Falcon Organization. End its quest for world domination. Bury evil.
Introduced in May, Contra has become a favorite of arcade players across the country. According to Replay magazine, the national journal of the U.S. video industry, the game has rapidly climbed the charts in its monthly nationwide poll of distributors. And it may be the first to use a real-life, controversial political cause to sell its jungle-romping theme.
"It's earned very well from the start," said Frank Pellegrini, national director of sales marketing for Konami Inc., the Wood Dale, Ill., company that manufactures Contra. He said the game's title was chosen about five months ago. And he insists the game does not take sides in the Central American conflict.
"The contras are always in the news, and we were trying to do something topical," Pellegrini said. "But nowhere in the game does it say who the contra is supposed to be. The game is neutral."
In the July issue of Replay, Contra ranks sixth in popularity among arcade video games. In June, it ranked seventh. In May, it was named the best new video game in the country.
Marcus Webb, an editor at Replay, credited Contra's success to its theme, not its title. Video games usually follow entertainment trends, he said, and Contra imitates one of the most popular: the free-lance warrior fighting terror in a foreign forest filled with bazooka-toting twits on an Evil Empire payroll.
"There are a number of jungle, action, hostage -- what else? -- rescue, combat games on the market," he said, "but this is the first and only one that takes its name from front-page headlines. Usually, these games take their cues from sports, music or movies."
Contra strongly resembles the jungle warfare plot of some recent movies. Lance could be Rambo. Bill could be Chuck Norris.
Twenty-five cents and sharp hand-eye coordination will let them shoot and swoop through an eerie countryside, seeking to find and destroy the lair of the Red Falcon Organization, which, in a desperate ploy to keep its rule-the-world plans secure, unleashes an extremely hungry alien creature (its mascot?) on Lance and Bill at the end of the game.
"The theme of the game is not unique," said Steve Koenigsberg, senior vice president of State Sales and Service, a Baltimore corporation that distributes the game in Maryland, Virginia and Washington. Koenigsberg said Contra is a best seller in the area. "It just so happens that the game packages graphics, sound and player interaction very well.
"I'm certain the intent was never to tie the game to Central American politics. It's just an attractive title -- short and snappy, one that reflects a good-guy mentality. The game is exciting."
And a bit controversial. Koenigsberg said he has not received any complaints about Contra, but Pellegrini said the game has been shut down by students at a few colleges he declined to name. He said they claimed it unfairly made the contras heroes, and suggested that Konami manufacture a game called Sandinista, too.
Joe Fleischacker, general manager of The Game Room Inc., a video game distributor in Silver Spring, said he refuses to sell the game. "When I heard they had a game called Contra, I was amazed," he said. "We've been getting Rambo stuff and warrior stuff for a while, but I've never seen anything like this. And it bothers me. I don't like the message it sends, and there's no way we're going to put it on the street.
"But I guess the companies are learning that just like you can make something off a movie theme, you can make something off the news. They could put Fawn Hall on a pinball machine right now, and I bet it would be a hot seller."
Pellegrini contends that Konami had other motives in the title-selection process for Contra. The video game industry continues to lack a positive image, he said, and by calling the game Contra, Konami officials believed they could provide a service to its players, most of whom are in their early teens.
"Part of the thinking was we maybe could spark a curiosity in them to find out about the contras," he said. "I doubt many of our players even have any ideas who the contras are."
Webb agrees. "They probably don't even know what the word means," he said. "They just want to fantasize. After all, no 15-year-old has ever been out in the jungle, shooting up things."
And now a quarter puts their finger on the trigger.
"Contra means rebels," shouts 13-year-old James Johnson in the Time Out Family Amusement Center in L'Enfant Plaza. Johnson, a resident of Northwest Washington, says he plays the game often. "I hear about them a lot, but I don't see anything wrong with this game. Is there?"
Dexter Fields, a 16-year-old resident of Southeast Washington, has replaced Johnson at the game. For the past five minutes he has made Lance jump and shoot nonstop across the screen, and he is getting dangerously close to the moment when the Red Falcon Organization sets loose its brutal monster.
"I hear Ronald Reagan talkin' about contra this, contra that all the time," Fields says, "but I never listen. This is just a game. I don't think it has anything to do with Central America, except it looks like those guys are there. It's like Rambo. It's fun."