July 21, 2015 5:30 AM | Joel Couture
Contra 4 came out in 2007. It has been eight years since I've been able to blast aliens with my shirt off, one hit away from a lost life. This is where Artur Games comes in, gracing my life with Super Cyborg (cyborgs don't wear shirts, right?), giving me the chance to blast hostile monsters in high risk run and gun gameplay all over again. While Super Cyborg isn't shy about its inspirations, it tweaks a few elements to somehow dial the challenge up even higher while also giving you some new tools to deal with the gross creatures that are attacking the planet.
Scientists have awoken the Xirxul life form, a powerful alien that's created a series of gross creatures in its plan to take over the earth. There are some really screwed-up monsters in this game, leaving me to wonder if the aliens take over human bodies and twist them for their own ends. A handful of the game's monsters bear human-like qualities, but as if the body has been bent and misshapen by growths. Enemy spawning machines look a bit like mangled faces, the first boss is a head that's been overcome with tumors and bent all around, and later creatures just look like mangled bodies (the third level miniboss in particular). I thought it was neat that the game was, in a way, telling the story of what the aliens were doing on the planet through its enemy designs. It's a cool way to convey story in an action game that otherwise has no time for it.
Not that all of the monsters look humanoid. There are just as many other kinds of strange creatures for you to shoot. Artur Games developed a lot of different enemy types, animating creatures ranging from masses of green flesh covered in mouths to something as simple as a giant spider that shoots beams and toxic blobs. What was most interesting about the enemy design was that almost every creature created this instant revulsion in me, and I wanted to blast these quivering, shivering beasts as they charged at me. I just wanted all of these gross things, with their weird growths and twisted bodies, off of my screen. Artur Games created an instinctual disgust to keep me motivated and shooting, one that worked beyond my natural desire not to let my cyborg die.
Keeping your cyborg alive isn't easy, as one of the major changes Super Cyborg made to the Contra formula was in pacing. In Contra, most of the enemies moved slowly, walking only slightly faster than the player. In Super Cyborg, these things are in a hurry, and they spawn almost all the time from the sides of the screen. The area constantly fills up with basic enemies while you deal with major, tougher foes, so you're always juggling your shooting between the harder enemies and keeping the steady stream of basic creatures at bay. At any given time, you'll be dodging shots from heavy canons, backing away from some tough enemy that's approaching, but also gauging when to shoot behind you to take out the three or four guys rushing toward your back. Your reactions in Super Cyborg have to start around where they needed to be at the end of Contra 4.
The faster enemies also come with faster shots, which took some getting used to. I died a lot in the beginning, partially from shot speed but also from how easy it is to lose track of the bullets on-screen. A lot of work went into level and enemy design, and these colorful places and creatures can make it hard to see the single glowing circle that's floating through them. Bubbles and other kinds of shot are even worse, often blending in extremely well, making it hard to see what's coming for you in time to predict here it's going and how to avoid it. The game does work to make shooting enemies stand out with different color schemes (or the fact that you're at a boss), so you know to be paying very close attention, but it can be hard to see where many of these shots are going until they're about to hit you. As you memorize the game and its enemies, this gets easier, but expect to get hit by some barely-seen bullets for a while.
How can you fight back? Mowing down your enemies. Your basic gun starts with rapid fire, but you can grab a few more firearms that float by in the air above you. New weapons come in pods (a direct homage to Contra), dropping guns that are, for the most part, very familiar to Contra fans. The machine gun, laser, and spreader all work just like in Contra, but a few new additions like the electric gun give players some new toys to use. Still, Artur Games did work to make those old weapons new again with the addition of charged shots. Any gun in the game can be charged to create a more explosive effect that does huge damage, but you have to stop shooting for a few seconds to power it up. This is a risky move given how fast screens will populate with enemies, but the payoff is great if you can do it.
Charging is especially useful against the bosses, as these creatures take a ton of hits to put down and often hide their weak points for extended periods. The bosses are relentless in Super Cyborg, always having at least a second mode and often spraying several kinds of shots while filling the area with adds. They're multitasking nightmares with limited windows to hit, so you have to get really good at knowing the exact moment to try to hit them or when to dodge. With two or three modes each, you'll need to memorize a bunch of patterns and be prepared for the boss to do just about anything while you play. It's stressful, but when it all comes together, you feel pretty good about your win.
If this all sounds a little too hairy, you may want to bring in a pal to play with you. Having a second player does make things easier, but you need to be courteous to your friend. Don't let them lag behind or get too far ahead, as hanging out near the edge of the screen will get you killed by the quickly-spawning enemies. The game doesn't let you scroll your partner to death in vertical areas, thankfully, so there's no dumb deaths caused by someone getting too far ahead of themselves. It also lets you dictate jobs to each other during boss fights, making the busy battles a little easier.
Honestly, the only thing that's going to make your life easier is practice and memorization. Super Cyborg is one of those games that's just going to rip you apart until you've learned what its enemies can do. Most of the time you can hang back and watch enemy behavior for a few moments, but with the enemy spawn speed and the hard-to-see shots coming your way, I found the easiest way to learn what the enemy could do was to die to it. You have unlimited continues, but only four lives, which means a lot of runs at a given level, but you need to get really, really good at dodging things if you want to actually finish a stage. Even on the easiest difficulty level, this game is a vicious challenge. If you like hard games, this one will work for you. Just expect to put in a lot of practice runs before you get a stage down.
Super Cyborg is gruesome, brutal good time. Providing ruthless challenge against fast, relentless enemies and complex bosses, it soothed the Contra cravings that Konami has left me with for eight years. It's familiar enough that I could jump right in without a thought, but added enough new mechanics and enemy behaviors that this felt like its own unique game. It is a steal for five bucks, especially if you split it up with your co-op buddy. Run and gun fans, go buy Super Cyborg right now.
PS - On the title screen, press left, left, right, right, up, down, down, up, down, jump, jump, jump. You're welcome.