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Super C (NES) artwork

Super C (NES) review

"The Nicaraguan Contras were among the most brutal terrorists the United States has ever funded, visiting heinous carnage on helpless civilians in their crusade against the leftist Sandinista government. But don’t make the mistake of associating “contra” with terrorism -- all the word refers to is opposition. So it’s unsurprising Konami chose the word for their Contra series -- games famed from the first moment for outrageous difficulty, for endless waves of powerful enemies, for tough bos..."

The Nicaraguan Contras were among the most brutal terrorists the United States has ever funded, visiting heinous carnage on helpless civilians in their crusade against the leftist Sandinista government. But don’t make the mistake of associating “contra” with terrorism -- all the word refers to is opposition. So it’s unsurprising Konami chose the word for their Contra series -- games famed from the first moment for outrageous difficulty, for endless waves of powerful enemies, for tough bosses: basically, for containing as much opposition as anything out there. The NES’s Super Contra, or Super C as it was strangely titled in the USA, is no exception. No game is more legendary for rigorous, hard-fought challenge -- but that alone doesn’t say anything about its quality. You’ll ask: is Super C as unchallenged in excellence as it is unexcelled in challenge? The short answer to that question is “yes.” The long answer, fortunately, is “Yeeeeeeeeeeesssss.”

Load up the game for the first time, and you will find yourself sliding down a rope straight into battle. No explanation, no backstory. That’s right, wusses, there’s no time for story in Super C -- this is shoot first, shoot later, ask questions pretty much never. But to shore up the connections with Contra let it suffice to say that Red Falcon, humanity’s alien nemesis, is back for another round, and it’s up to Mad Dog -- our Contra fighter -- to bite back like he forgot his rabies shot. He’s a military man, son of Uncle Sam and wedded to his rifle, and he’s serious about thrashing the enemy. Even, as it turns out, if that enemy bears the face of a brother -- Red Falcon has taken the step of infecting hundreds of U.S. soldiers and turning them to a dark use. But Mad Dog doesn’t care – that solider he just fried was probably his former boot camp bunkmate, but Mad Dog held firm and resisted admirably, putting a bullet square between his eyes. Such a remorseless hero is part of the Contra experience -- he might as well be a mechanical, unyielding terminator as a human being. See, while other shooters take a bit of joy in the hunt and push you exuberantly toward the final boss, Super C does the opposite -- it stymies you at every turn.

Yes, where other games might revel in plot or dawdle with cutscenes, reminding you of the world you are meant to save, Super C is gloom throughout -- a blackened, lightning-scarred sky reminiscent of The Matrix and a world of half-destroyed steel scaffolds against a twisted landscape. Even the ruined Statue of Liberty that was present in the background of the arcade game is gone in this port: the game abides literally nothing that will remind you of the green fields and pastures you once knew. You are a soldier, and your past is forgotten. Things grow yet uglier as you progress, as you face dank caves and fetid jungles and eventually ground that simply slips away under your feet, leaving you to leap to safety or perish. The upbeat tunes of other shooters are replaced by the martial, percussive strut of an army marching to victory or death. Super C is not friendly, it doesn’t offer you material rewards for your achievements -- don’t bother searching for secrets to unlock -- and in some ways, the game is not even fun, merely demanding.

So why play it? For the same reason you play Ninja Gaiden, for the same reason you played the first Contra -- for the thrill and the challenge, for your own refusal to admit that you have been beaten.

Sure, there’s nothing to unlock when you at last beat the game, but it’s still among the most satisfying moments you’ll have in a video game career -- how many have defeated Super C without cheating (a ten-life cheat is readily available)? Few have. The challenge in Super C is wholesome and worthwhile -- the game’s not random and it’s not unfair, and through the whole experience you know that practice and patience are all you need to get through it. If you fail, you have only yourself to blame: you can’t rationalize your way out with cries of rotten hit detection or shoddy controls. And anyone with a shred of competitive spirit or a grain of the samurai’s honor will need to redeem that failure by beginning again.

Contra is a uniquely difficult series, and Super C is sinisterly exacting. Yet it plays with old-hat familiarity. Assuming you’ve picked up an NES shooter before -- and God help you if you’re a beginner taking on a Contra game -- then from the first moment you touch the gamepad, you will settle into your two commands, the ever-present Fire and the trusty Jump, with an adept grace. Super C uses that same old control system, changing it only to add flexibility by allowing you to jump or shoot toward all eight main compass points. But be conscious the game will still demand a bit of acclimation -- Contra requires its own learning curve. Strategies you have used in the past -- jumping over firing turrets to reach safe ground, sliding through a thick group of foes to reach a better spot to fire -- are gone. In this game, if a bullet or other projectile touches you, you die. If you touch an enemy, you die. The soldiers and aliens you face are faster than you are and have most all the abilities you do; really, the only thing that’s going to keep you alive is a combination of quick wits and quicker reflexes.

Super C increases the difficulty -- but also incorporates a pleasant degree of variety -- by alternating between vertical and side-scrolling perspectives. And to conclude each of the eight stages, you’ll face a demanding boss battle. The very first boss is a transport helicopter that not only strafes you with fire, but drops fully-armed soldiers periodically to make things difficult for you -- and they only grow harder to tackle, with monstrous tanks Rumsfeld could only wish for, eight-headed alien hydras, and giant horned skulls all standing in your path. The bosses have the flavor and charm that the largely derivative levels don’t: it will be a long while before you forget the Krypto-Crustacean, a grotesque beast whose formidable defenses are only matched by the alarming potency of the skulls he tries to drop on your head.

Of course, you’ve also got some fancy weapons to level the playing field. Throughout the game you’ll have the chance to shoot down power-ups and new guns from little flying football things (I didn’t say it made sense). But these new weapons will have you quenching your bloodlust at unprecedented rates. The Flamethrower will have your enemies “hot under the collar” while the versatile and powerful Spread Gun -- the staple Super C weapon -- will tear apart oncoming masses of soldiers or aliens. Acquiring new guns his half the challenge and fun of the game: a challenge because the final stages are very tough without a Spread weapon, and fun because the decimation you’re going to achieve with the Spread is tons better than puttering along with your basic rifles.

Within the realm of games that ride mostly on their own stupendous challenge -- among these I’d include Ninja Gaiden and the other Contra games -- I don’t think Super C quite stacks up to the best. First of all, while it’s surely hard, it doesn’t possess the ludicrous difficulty that made some parts of Ninja such sweet torture -- although this probably makes it a good choice for the subpar player seeking some honest fun. But secondly, Super C lacks freshness in comparison with those games -- for sure, it’s no revolution. A lot of people who’ve beaten Contra won’t want to bother with this, nor is there much incentive to replay this uphill slog once it’s beaten. But -- the fact that you refuse to repeat an experience doesn’t mean you didn’t enjoy it the first time, and it doesn’t mean you regret it.

Did you ever see the movie Gladiator? I liken the player commencing a game of Super C to Maximus, standing at the ready on the sandy floor of the Coliseum, chanting out moritori te salutant, sword in hand and buckler on wrist. He knows he must fight, and he knows he must win; he knows it will be grueling, and he knows it will be demanding. Yet because he is Maximus he faces this with resolution, knowing in his heart that in victory itself he shall find solace, peace, and contentment. Super C is difficult and frustrating, but try it you should -- and defeat it you must.

denouement's avatar
Community review by denouement (May 14, 2004)

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