Sometimes it's like Microsoft is sat there mocking us with the dire quality of certain Xbox Live Arcade games. And if Microsoft's having a giggle at the public for buying them, Konami must be regularly hospitalised with the endless belly laughs it's having at our expense. The odd piece of retro crap like Yie Ar Kung-Fu, we can tolerate. We even learned to have a modicum of fun with Green Beret after re-learning how to play it. But throwing any old back catalogue rubbish onto Live and calling it a 'retro classic' is, at best, misleading. Clearly not everyone's got the concept of 'classic' gaming nailed down.
Some people might hail the early Contra games as some kind of late '80s arcade treasure, and that's fine. At the time they were certainly popular, and, if you were around at the time, these brutally tough side-scrolling shooters were generally warmly received. But gamers have the unerring tendency to confuse the issue of classic gaming with the plain old nostalgia value surrounding certain titles, or their influence at the time. Classic gaming in the truest sense of the term ought to transcend the era it was made in. It should resonate as a great game as much today as it did when it came out. Super Contra is simply not even close to fulfilling that criteria - and yet here it is, joining the ever-growing pile of undeserving titles to be squeezed out of Konami's festering retro-bowels onto Live Arcade.
So, here are the facts: It's a direct follow-up to the 1987 arcade shooter Contra and once again features the same grizzled war veterans, Bill Rizer and Lance Bean. And just like last time out, they're busy countering some sort of inexplicable invasion somewhere in deepest South America. In December 2634. Against their former (now mutated) comrades. It matters not, because all that's important is the fact that it's a regulation side-scrolling shooter with big weapons, masses of enemies and the kind of steep learning curve that will leave modern gamers in a crumpled, bloodied heap. You big load of softies.
If you thought the original Contra was a bit of a ball breaker, then this will have you seeking therapy before the first of the five levels is over with. The chief new addition is that the side-scrolling levels now feature slopes, making progress through even the first section of the first level potentially hazardous if you're not enormously careful. (It sounds ridiculous to include 'slopes' as a new feature, but this is 1988 we're talking about).
Elsewhere, the game switches into top-down isometric Commandos/Ikari Warriors-style levels where you face an even sterner test. It's still essentially the same game in many ways. You still face off against ludicrous numbers of enemies and giant pieces of military hardware, but rather than having to worry about what's above you, you have to think about enemies coming at you from all around - and that's as tough a test as you can get with the default weapon. Imagine Smash TV without any power-ups. That's Super Contra, right there.
As ever, the key to making progress is making sure you're armed to the teeth - without the best weapons you might as well give up because the odds stack up against you so ferociously. Snagging these essential power-ups involves blasting a floating icon before it whizzes off-screen - not the easiest task, either, because of the way each one bobs around, teasingly. Some, like the laser gun, are powerful, but not all that useful in high pressure scenarios, while others just beef up the standard gun you start off with. What's essential is to snag the 'spread' weapon, which spurts out a 45-degree arc of fire in three blobs, giving you a fighting chance to dispatch the hordes of enemies that relentlessly pour onto the screen from left and right - and often on platforms above, too.
Eight ways to die
With that in mind, you're able to plug the bad guys by moving the joystick in any given direction, and thus shower bullets all over the screen. At all times in Super Contra, you'll be fighting to stay alive in the most athletic fashion possible, dodging curiously slow moving enemy bullets, ducking, somersaulting, changing direction mid-jump, hammering the fire button, and generally wrestling with the controls at all times. It's exhausting.
But as is always the way with games of this nature, trial and error is the real key to success: knowing exactly when enemies are going to appear, when those evil floor traps spring up, recognising overhead sentry guns quickly and adjusting your own position to suit the occasion. With so much packed into every level, it's a real challenge to made progress. And being a Konami/Digital Eclipse port, they haven't bothered to implement a level-select, or allow many continues to just bulldoze your way through the game. If you fail, it's back to the start, sonny boy. It's brutal, but faithful to how people used to have to play it. However, that's not a particularly good thing if you just want to practise or get through the game and move on. You can, of course, modify the difficulty level down a notch and bump up the lives, but then you're disqualified from the online leaderboard and don't earn any achievement points, so anything you do earn is a genuine feat.
Just as unsurprising is the needless, half-hearted 'enhanced' graphical makeover, which does little to infuse any real charm into the visuals. Sure, the explosions look a bit better, but apart from that it's just the usual gloss applied to the sprites, smooth out (but still garish) backdrops, and it's not a process that particularly improves matters. Given that it's a vertically aligned arcade game, the entire screen takes up about 30 per cent of a widescreen's available space, making the whole process of shovelling these titles onto Xbox Live Arcade an even more thoughtless process. At the very least, Konami could have included a rotate-screen option for those players with the monitors that allow you to twist them around - how hard would that have been? Obviously this applies to all manner of other XBLA titles too, but does no-one listen to feedback?
Free Lance or Bill Lance?
Elsewhere Konami has included the usual Xbox Live online co-op options, and with so many of the 200 achievement points geared towards online co-op play, it's clearly a title they consider best played with a friend. It certainly makes matters a lot more straightforward, but don't assume it'll be much easier. It's still an awesomely tough game.
Super Contra might appeal to the extreme hardcore retro apologists out there with oceanic reserves of patience and superhuman skills. It's certainly a challenge, and if that sounds like you, go for it. But if you're a mere mortal and squeal when the going gets tough, then the chances are you'll agree that the sequel is just too damn bloody minded by design to warrant much attention 19 years on. If you don't believe us, give the free trial a whirl and decide for yourself if it's worth the 400 points - also, check out the slightly less evil Contra, or Green Beret - both similar but slightly more playable alternatives.