Konami's massively popular Contra became synonymous with side-scrolling shoot-'em-up action when it was released for the NES in 1988 — so much so that when the sequel hit Nintendo's home console in 1990, Konami felt confident that a single, stylized 'C' would be enough to evoke the series' name in the hearts and minds of loyal fans. While it doesn't stray far from the first game's formula for success, Super C stays true to its impressive pedigree, offering up rock-solid run-and-gun gameplay, an excellent co-op experience and a serious challenge.
As members of an elite Earth defence force, players take on arch-villain (and alien) Red Falcon's enemy forces — now including brainwashed U.S. Army troops — over eight levels. All of the essential elements return from the first game: side-scrolling shooting, eight-way aiming, fun power-ups and weapon upgrades, big bad bosses, plenty of cannon fodder, and — of course — one-hit deaths. The series' trademark tight control is fully present here as well; movement is fast and responsive, and the ability to adjust your jump in mid-air makes avoiding the constant barrage of bullets a much more manageable, and satisfyingly stylish, task. There's no auto-fire, however, so get ready for some serious thumb-ache as you manually rat-a-tat-tat your way to the right.
You'll start your alien assault with a paltry single-shot gun, but as in all the best shoot-'em-ups a meatier model is just a power-up away. By shooting down flying capsules you'll be able to upgrade to the rapid-fire machine gun, the plodding but powerful laser, the flame-throwing fire gun and that perennial favourite, the spread gun. None of these upgrades stack, unfortunately, so you won't be brewing up any spread-shot lasers, but there's a bit of strategy in picking the best tool for the job and deciding when to pass up a power-up. The spread gun (which fires several shots in a forward-facing arc) will be the biggest help in getting through most stages, for instance, but the focused fire gun and otherwise-awkward laser are perfect for making quick work of bosses.
So far, Super C sounds almost like a carbon copy of Contra, but it does do a bit to shake things up. The biggest additions are the new vertically-scrolling stages, which take place from a top-down perspective. These are a fun change of pace from the regular rightward charge, but without the ability to jump or strafe — understandable, perhaps, given the NES' limited controller layout — these levels lose out on a lot of the finesse afforded by the classic Contra model, and as a result just don't seem to 'fit' the game as well as the others. The side-scrolling stages have seen a subtle shift in their geometric makeup as well, thanks to the inclusion of diagonal surfaces. It's a small change, to be sure, but it definitely adds to the level layouts, and feels right at home thanks to the eight-way aiming.
Super C isn't a long game by any stretch — you can beat it in well under half an hour if you really know what you're doing — but it's got two things going for it which should help extend its life by quite a bit. The first is the legendary difficulty. The original Contra is regarded as one of the most difficult games in a genre characterized by difficult games, and while general opinion seems to be that Super C tones down that challenge, know that it's a decidedly relative comparison; this is a very tough game. The slightest contact with enemies, projectiles, turrets — just about anything but the sweet, sweet ground, really — will kill you in one hit, and right from the start there's no shortage of any of these. And with just three lives and two continues to work with, making it to the end credits requires serious skill — or liberal use of the save states afforded by the Wii U Virtual Console — rather than simply dogged determination.
Luckily, having to start from scratch every nine lives isn't the only reason to keep replaying Super C. Like its predecessor, this is a consummate co-op experience, and taking on the alien invasion is so much more fun with a friend. With enemies frequently coming in from both sides — or from all directions in the top-down stages — Super C practically cries out for cover fire, and is an absolute blast with two players.
Super C's graphical presentation is eight-bit impressive from the get-go, with a stunning sunset start to set the tone, though the opening levels are a bit bland thematically. Happily, things pick up with the third stage — a jungle where you'll wade through water and find enemies waiting behind background foliage — and get more and more interesting as you move closer to Red Falcon's alien lair. Accompanying it all is an arcade-rock soundtrack that has some high-energy hits, but is largely covered up by the cacophony of combat for most of the game.
If at times Super C feels a bit "standard" from a modern perspective, it's only because it was instrumental in shaping the side-scrolling shoot-'em-up mold we now take for granted; it's a template that would later stamp out classics like Gunstar Heroes and Metal Slug. And though it may lack the charm and personality of those later variations on the theme, it's still well worth playing both as a classic of the genre and as a fun, rewarding game in its own right. It's an especially easy recommendation for two player teams, but any retro action fan will have a great time with this run-and-gun rite of passage.