Growing up as a gay man, I latched onto all the hyper-masculine media I came across. My sexual awakening was to Bill Goldberg, an incredibly large, incredibly muscular professional wrestler who exuded masculinity in the movie Universal Soldier: The Return. Of course, action movies had established characterizations and canons. That’s why I can appreciate characterization-light video games, especially early ones that only gave you the barest of frameworks before setting you loose on the game proper. By doing this and borrowing the more homoerotic imagery of action movies, games like Contra and Altered Beast were ripe for the queering and perfect for exploring burgeoning sexuality.
It’s obvious where the homoeroticism of Contra came from. After all, it nakedly borrowed its imagery and concept from Rambo, which featured a muscle-bound titular character played by Sylvester Stallone brandishing guns to shoot down the bad guys – an oversimplified analysis of the Rambo movies, perhaps, but the point here is the liberal borrowing of the macho archetype. Contra replaces the opposing army with an alien-controlled force, but it’s mostly the same idea as Rambo and its ilk on the surface: It’s a power fantasy, a hyper-masculine concoction of shirtless machismo and guns blazing that lets you mow through wave after wave of soldiers, vehicles, and aliens alike.
But there’s more to it once you consider how lovingly the sprites are rendered. Each main character’s musculature is entirely intact when the action starts. The posture of the sprites remains upright for most of the animations, intimating a strong frame. And the behind-the-back segments where you storm the base in the initial wave of Contra games has you laying on your belly a lot, with your character gratuitously spread eagle, butt prominently featured. And then there’s the fact that the game establishes that there’s two main characters, both of which are featured back-to-back on the title screen of the first games. There’s an implied camaraderie there, a bond which is entirely queerable, letting the closeted emulate a homosexual relationship of a sort, if only one that exists in our own headspace. There’s a quiet power in doing so, as it opens doors we often thought closed to us. Yes, you’re just playing co-op in Contra and shooting everything in sight. But the implied male bond of main characters Bill Rizer and Lance Bean unconsciously hinted at something that could be fleshed out further in our imaginations.
There’s something more primal about Altered Beast’s homoeroticism. Yes, you’re playing as two buff dudes on a quest to rescue a damsel in distress, but there’s no real feeling of camaraderie. Instead, you start depowered at the beginning of each stage, with orbs that emerge from defeated enemies making you even more buff, powering you up until you’re huge by human standards. Get enough orbs and you transform into one of four different anthropomorphic creatures, the pinnacle of your power. Setting aside the final transformations, the bulging, ever-growing muscles are just raw homoerotism, inviting you to objectify these men. The conceit that they’re stone pillars brought to life by a god furthers the idea that these men are objects to be used as you see fit. Now objectification is problematic in its own way, but by giving us this gay gaze in video game form, it helps someone who’s still trying to make sense of a burgeoning, unfocused sexuality understand it and own it.
And then there’s the transformation sequences. I know when I was growing up in the closet, I had an ideal version of myself in my head, hoping that one day I’d get to be that person. Transformations like the ones in Altered Beast amplified that desire, representing that world beyond the closet door if we could just get past it. There’s also the kinship with animals, something that persists with the gay community at large with terms such as “bear” and “wolf” to represent different types of guys.
Obviously there’s a lot problematic with the narrow view of masculinity as seen through the lens of perfectly chiseled muscles, and such body image struggles continue in the gay community unabated. But by embracing the inherent homoeroticism of power fantasies like Contra and Altered Beast, gaymers are given a powerful tool towards understanding ourselves.