Release Date: July 25, 2007
I have a lot of memories of the original Contra. I sank hours into that game, trying to perfect my skill to the point where I could beat it without the "Konami Code." In my opinion, it's one of the games that nails the perfect balance between difficulty and fun; while it was definitely challenging, you could overcome it if you knew what you were doing. Unfortunately, that's not quite the case with the Xbox Live Arcade port of its sequel, Super Contra. While it certainly maintains that great Contra flavor with scores of enemies and great power-ups, the game is so freaking hard that it will make you want to throw your controller through the TV.
Super Contra takes place a year after the original game, pitting Rambo-esque heroes, Bill and Lance, against an alien invading force that has taken over the bodies of soldiers in South America. The story seems a bit on the light side, but that's because this is an arcade game. Arcade games never have good stories, especially the ones that involve you running and gunning.
And that's one thing that Super Contra does well. All of the classic formula is present, including the fast-paced action as you move to the right of the screen, mowing down hundreds of enemies that stand in your way. Your basic gun is kind of weak, but that's okay because Super Contra, like its predecessor, has some of the coolest power-ups of any video game ever. On top of this, if you collect two of the same power-up, it makes the gun even better, increasing the damage and rate of fire.
Of the five levels, three of them maintain this classic Contra-esque gameplay. Super Contra, however, decides to shake things up by throwing in some top-down gameplay for the remaining two levels. This mirrors similar arcade games of the time, like Ikari Warriors, but even with the different perspective, the gameplay remains the same, with hordes of enemies, bullets, and pretty much everything else in the world that might want to kill you.
Unfortunately, this last line is where the game starts to break down. Super Contra is hard, and I only use the word "hard" because my mind is so boggled by the difficulty level that I simply cannot come up with a more fitting word. Whereas the original Contra took practice but was eventually surmountable, Super Contra just seems unforgiving. If it's not bullets coming straight at you, it's soldiers shooting at your six. There is stuff all over the screen that will kill you with one hit. Sure, it only takes one hit from your gun to kill most of them, but with only one of you and 25 of them, the odds certainly aren't in your favor.
Now, I'm all for a challenging game. I played through Ninja Gaiden on the original Xbox multiple times because I was too stubborn to let a game beat me. While Super Contra is certainly not impossible, it just seems to be difficult for difficulty's sake. Unlike most games where the completion is its own reward, Super Contra is so frustrating that when you finally beat it, you aren't happy but upset that you've wasted hours of your life.
Thankfully, the developers for the XBLA iteration try to take it easy on you. You can change the number of lives you start with, the number of continues you have, and the overall difficulty of the game, but there's a drawback. Changing these settings disables Achievements and leaderboard scores, so if you want everything in the game, you'd best get to work.
Now, not everything in Super Contra fills me with anger. For example, the game is gorgeous to look at. Each of the five levels is different and takes you from a destroyed military base to a lush jungle and into the hideout of the alien threat. This XBLA port also includes updated HD graphics that make the locales even more beautiful. Everything from the backgrounds to the sprites looks terrific.
Unfortunately, that is only true for the side-scrolling levels. On all of the top-down levels, you're looking at the floor, which is kind of bland. There are plenty of enemy sprites that look good, and the bosses here are some of the best-looking sprites in the game, but it feels a little disjointed to go from a colorful, green jungle to a gray cavern.
The updated graphics also cause some other problems. All of the explosions are big and vibrant, but they often cover up bullets that are flying toward you. A few of the enemies can blend into the background as well, making it difficult to see them before it's too late.
Fortunately, the sound is good enough to grab your attention and keep you playing. All of the music in the original Super Contra was great to begin with, but the XBLA port took those tracks and remixed them, with even better results. Every musical track in this game just pops. The sound effects, on the other hand, are not so hot. The gunfire is generic, and after hearing it for the millionth time, it starts to get on your nerves — mainly because it occasionally drowns out the terrific music.
The control is one area of the game where things start to go really bad. The developers did a couple of things right, such as the button mappings. You jump with the A button, shoot with the X button, and everything seems to work great. While the controls are certainly responsive, your analog stick seems to be more of a detriment than an asset. With a game like Super Contra, precision is key, and a lot of times, the thumbstick just doesn't seem tight enough. I would shoot up and to the right when I wanted to shoot forward, and I would shoot down and to the right when I wanted to duck. Sometimes, my character wouldn't even aim his gun, opting to blindly shoot straight ahead.
This gets even worse on the top-down levels because your aim and movement are mapped to the same analog stick, which means that if you want to aim at an enemy, you have to walk toward him, which is not something I'd want to do. The top-down concept works much better with games like Smash TV, where one analog stick controls movement and the other is used to aim.
Now, I spent a good portion of the review talking about the difficulty of Super Contra, and while that assessment won't change, there's something you can do to take the edge off: Play it with a friend. Super Contra provides two-player co-op in local play or over Xbox Live. Having another gun at your side evens the odds a bit, and you may even start to have fun. While the increased amount of gunfire on the screen can initially be confusing and takes some acclimation, playing the game with two players makes it more manageable. You don't die as often, and you can make it further in the game with much more ease. Mind you, the game is still incredibly difficult, but it doesn't seem as difficult as it does in single-player.
Super Contra is not a bad game. It's got all of the classic gameplay of its predecessor, and most of the graphics are terrific. Couple this with some excellent music, and you definitely have a winner. Unfortunately, the incredibly high level of difficulty is going to turn off almost everyone except the most hardcore of gamers. If you like a challenging title that will keep you busy for hours, then Super Contra is certainly for you. However, if you like a simple gameplay experience that's easy to pick up and play, you should look elsewhere.