Article by Nicola Nomali | October 19, 2010
When people talk about Super C, they typically identify its inclined surfaces as one of the main features distinguishing it from the original Contra; literally, horizontal terrain that sometimes rises to an angle -- and only one -- is considered a notable design evolution. Granted, diagonal scrolling allows for more complex level design as the game progresses, just as the slanted platforms themselves make for organic scenery -- but simply marching through Area 1, the idea that these ramps are supposed to be a game-changer feels like a joke.
That people would have to grasp at straws to name any but the most obvious distinctions between the two isn’t unfair, though. In fact, Konami appears to have engineered Super C -- ostensibly a port of Super Contra, the sequel to the original arcade version of Contra -- with this goal in mind. While Super Contra reprises key themes from the original like shooting up aliens and heavy machinery, its execution differs with such additions as upgradeable weapons and a consumable stock of screen-clearing bombs (both of which were eventually used in later entries in the series) -- as well as such flailing missteps as requiring the player to hold “Up” upon jumping in order to clear nearly any obstacle. On the other hand, its euphemistically-titled home conversion is far more unassuming. Super Contra made it to arcades in January of 1988, and the original Contra was ported to the NES a month later; Super C wasn’t released until roughly two years later, leaving Konami plenty of time to gauge public reaction in deciding how to handle the second port.
As anyone could tell you, the home port of Contra is revered in perpetuity as a touchstone of the NES era, whereas the arcade games never penetrated gaming culture even in their day -- and mostly for good reason. What Konami presented in Super C, then, is just as much a direct follow-up to NES Contra as it is an adaptation of the game that shares (most of) its name. Super C is certainly distinct enough from Super Contra to be considered a separate game entirely, but not for any failure to reproduce the arcade experience; its only notable omission is the aforementioned upgradeable weapons, but they’re acknowledged to some extent by the ability to charge the Fire Gun (another series first). Otherwise, the game’s departures and embellishments serve deliberately to bring the sequel more in line with its NES predecessor.
By 1990, Konami had become more than adept at exploiting Nintendo’s technology, but without looking too closely at the independently moving legs of Area 3’s quadrupedal mid-boss, the wall at the end of Area 8 chipping away piece by piece to usher in the final boss, or the subtly more detailed scenery all throughout the game, Super C appears like it would have fit back in ’88 -- right alongside the sparse aesthetic of NES Contra. This is no accident (and in cases like the jungle stage, which had so much obtrusive foreground scenery in Super Contra that cheap deaths were all but guaranteed, the restrained approach is outright preferable). They could even have given Bill a shirt, were they so inclined; he wore at least a vest in both of the arcade games, while it was Player 2, Lance, who went topless. But again, the general audience wasn’t interested in the arcade games. Through sheer popularity, even details that began as memory limitations became accepted -- and expected -- as beloved tradition.
More than aesthetics, NES Contra established a specific feel and structure to which Super C adhered. As a sequel to arcade Contra, Super Contra stripped out Rapid Bullets, which increased your maximum fire rate, and the invincible Barrier; as a sequel to the NES game, Super C put them right back in. NES Contra transposed the arcade game’s four opening stages and final giant marathon stage into eight discrete Areas; Super C actually did it one better and arrived at the same number by interspersing three completely new stages throughout Super Contra’s five. Just as NES Contra elevated platforming to the same significance as running and gunning, Super C’s new stages were held to uphold that balance; two of them are vertically-oriented affairs reminiscent of the first game’s waterfall sequence, and Area 7 actually scrolls downward -- which occasionally results in cheap deaths when enemies fall on you from offscreen as the floors they were meant to walk are scrolled away, but points are due for the effort. The existing stages were also fleshed out in kind: The level design in Stage 4 of Super Contra, for example, chiefly consisted of a straight line that occasionally dipped into identical depressions under pairs of equal-length horizontal platforms. Its equivalent in Super C, Area 8, is barely recognizable in contrast -- now a veritable playground of slopes, jumps, devious enemy placement, and a stretch with a falling and rising ceiling over bottomless pits just before the all-new final boss.
About the only design aberration that Super C sustained were Super Contra’s overhead Commando-like stages, which replaced the original game’s pseudo-3D behind-the-back sequences—but, fittingly, those are the only part of Contra that no one particularly likes -- NES or arcade. Contrary to the rest of the game, the overhead stages were converted more or less exactly, and in at least one case, they actually suffer in the transition: In Area 6, unlike in Stage 5 of Super Contra, the randomly placed ground-mouths can spawn beneath you in such a way as to make death completely unavoidable by the time they finish opening.
Combined with the fact that none of the three new stages bothered to extrapolate on this style, it’s clear that it received the least attention amidst the game’s reinvention; while taking the time to polish it equally would have been ideal, the result is still essentially in line with fans’ impression that Contra is best when it’s side-scrolling, anyway.
In practice, Super C isn’t perfect; there are the aforementioned deaths via glitches or oversights, and the first half is kind of a slow burn, taking until Area 4 before the level design truly breaks away from straight lines. Overall, though, the game shines as a cogent application of an unusually lateral philosophy. While its coin-operated cousin could later be scavenged for worthwhile ideas, it firmly -- and wisely -- entrusted its core design to that downscaled, compromised version of its forerunner.
It wouldn’t be the last time Contra would face an identity crisis (look only upon the stilted style of Contra: Hard Corps and its progeny), but back when it was only beginning, Super C decisively reconciled two disparate evolutionary options and projected a bright future for the rest of the series.