Released in 1988, just a year after the original Contra, Super Contra upped the ante on its predecessor in a number of appreciable ways. Graphically, everything was bigger and more detailed, including character sprites, weapon effects, and bosses. The levels were longer and more involved, making liberal use of scrolling background and foreground layers to give the world an improved sense of depth. Most significantly, though, Super Contra was more difficult than the original, which itself was no slouch. Now appearing on Xbox Live Arcade, Super Contra is every bit as unforgiving as it was nearly 20 years ago.
For the most part, Super Contra sticks to a familiar formula that has you running to the right, leaping around to avoid enemies and their gigantic, slow-moving bullets, and hammering on the fire button just as fast as you can. You'll shoot pods containing weapon power-ups out of the sky, and the spread fire weapon, in addition to using comically oversized ammo, is just as overpowered as it was in the original. There are some subtle differences to the side-scrolling action, such as inclined surfaces and an enemy propensity for shooting at odd angles that makes dodging more difficult. Mostly, though, Super Contra just throws lots of dudes and lots of bullets at you, all the time, and contact with any of them means instant death. Success depends on a gung-ho attitude, but there are also plenty of traps that you have no way of knowing about until you've already encountered them, putting a premium on level memorization. It can be frustrating, but it's also quite satisfying when you're able to make it through a particularly harrowing section unscathed.
While Contra mixed up the gameplay with pseudo-3D corridor crawls, Super Contra introduces top-down shooter sequences where your ability to jump is replaced with the ability to pick up and deploy massive, destructive artillery shells. These levels are hectic like twin-stick shooters such as Robotron and Smash TV, though in Super Contra you've got only one joystick, which means that your movement and your aiming are bound together. Though a high level of difficulty persists throughout Super Contra, it's in these top-down sequences that you can really feel as though you're struggling against the controls.
Playing Super Contra with a second player, which can be done either locally or over Xbox Live, takes a certain amount of the edge off the difficulty, and it's really the ideal way to play. Unlike in the arcade, you can adjust the game's difficulty level here, as well as the number of lives you get per credit, though the rub here is that you can't earn achievements, and your score won't count on the Xbox Live leaderboards. The XBLA version also adds an enhanced visual mode, which sands down the hard, pixelated corners and adds some blur and glow effects to the weapon fire, as well as a remixed soundtrack.
While it's hard to argue against the technological improvements that Super Contra makes over its predecessor, the increased level of difficulty makes it a much less accessible experience. But, if you're looking for a tough fight, Super Contra is more than capable of providing one.