Bring me sunshine.
Fowler and Collymore, Skinner and Baddiel, Robson and Jerome. Dubious double acts of the 1990s. Konami and the Super Nintendo - fucking dynamite. They jumped into bed together at the start of the decade and sired a beautiful family. Cybernator, Castlevania IV, Sunset Riders, Buster Busts Loose, Batman Returns, Axelay, Goeman, Sparkster and Turtles Tournament Fighters. Even their delinquent offspring like Dracula X and Batman and Robin Animated displayed sublime touches to put other softcos to shame.
But one among them was nigh on perfect; a breathtaking, jaw-dropping, juggernaut of a shoot-em-up, that grabbed my gonads in the summer of 1993 and never let go. Lads, ladies, and gentlemen please be upstanding for Contra 3 aka Super Probotector: Alien Rebels.
Super Probotector is the videogame equivalent of the greatest action movie ever, only without the limp one-liners, glaring continuity errors, and gratuitous sex scene three quarters of the way through. If it was a football match it would be Liverpool 4 Newcastle 3 (the first one with, erm, Fowler and Collymore).
Darwin decided no one had to know about the Giger Tortoise.
The game is at once utterly generic and dazzlingly inventive. Starting out, you can be forgiven for stifling a yawn as you jog from left to right, dispatching grunts, and tooling up the weapons. You do get a quick run out in a tank, but it is no Metal Slug, and very soon afterwards its progress is prematurely curtailed by what appears to be a small gas pipe emanating from the floor.
I distinctly remember at this point feeling rather underwhelmed, and wondering whether or not the accolades for the game had been justified. This was a big deal to me, because I had bought my Snes on the strength of a review of the game in C&VG, and had financed said purchase from the proceeds of shovelling grain in deathly hot silos.
And then this happens.
and as your jaw hits the floor, Probotector goes through the gears like an Enzo in the hands of God. Your senses have just been napalmed. The blisters on my spade-worn hands healed instantly.
Choosing a favourite moment in the game is a near impossible task. For some it will be levels two and five, which daringly switch the perspective to overhead and make fine usage of the old in Mode 7. Others will favour Level Four which begins on hover-Harleys before taking to the skies, hang gliding on a fusillade of missiles.
The UN inspectors were finally on to something.
For me however, it has to be the third level which I would go so far as to say is my favourite passage of play in any videogame. Set against an industrial backdrop, presumably Scunthorpe, you must shimmy along various platforms Strider-style, duking it out with guards and flying vermin, before dispatching a hovering drill laden nemesis with twirling arms.
Progress at Wembley Stadium needed speeding up.
As you then begin to scale a wall, he returns to the fray, straddling your avatar with his clawed feet, and spider walking up into the stratosphere, whereupon he tries to hammer you into the abyss with missiles and a couple of black n deckers. Blow him away for a second time, and you might expect a hiatus. What you get is three straight set pieces, upping the ante and playing with expectations. First comes a troop and bomb spewing flying craft. Next, you enter an arena, and as the door slams shut behind you, you are confronted by a pair of machine gun toting robots, who adhere to the horror staple of refusing to give up the ghost as their Terminator-esque torsos leap around in a frantic fashion. And finally comes a contender for one of the finest moments in ‘boss history’, the digital equal of John Hurt’s bout of indigestion, or the doctor losing his arms in The Thing. Two giant hands claw through the back wall, ripping it in two to reveal an even bigger robot. Evidently pissed off that you have just killed its two little mates, it proceeds to throw the kitchen sink at you and periodically take refuge behind the wall. When the end comes for the boney behemoth, it is decapitated in supremely satisfying fashion by the wall slamming shut.
Goatse revealed – 16-bit stylee.
Level Three perfectly illustrates the remarkable pacing of the game, a “fast, fast, slow, fucking insane” tempo, piling set piece and boss battle on top of one another in dizzying style. You just never know when that innocent wall is going to collapse and reveal a mortar firing tank.
The game is also a comedy. Well the instruction booklet is. A cursory glance at the cast list reveals a treasure trove of misguided translations from Birdman Garth and Floating Bird’s Nest Garth Base to ‘Brother Robots Kenny 1 and 2’. Would Level Three’s final showdown have been so scary had you known he was called Grand Prize Robot Big Fuzz. What about those imaginatively monikered ‘Other Soldiers’. And finally, the head honcho, Uranian Devil Gappa, is actually Frank the Rabbit from Donnie Darko. Take a look at him on the title screen and tell me it ain’t so
Anyway, I digress. It is a tribute to Super Probotector’s greatness that Konami have failed to get close to its standard with subsequent iterations. Even Shattered Soldier, a love letter full of references and sly winks, dropped the ball with its remorseless difficulty. Like a number of other SNES greats, its qualities have been preserved in amber thanks to the industry’s swift subscription to the third dimension. Only Metal Slug continues to plough a furrow for ‘traditional’ 2D run and gun shooters.
I love this game for its confidence, its swagger, and its technical genius. I love it because it features dogs eating out of bins. I love it because it is good with one player, and even better with two. Whenever I become disillusioned with gaming, I return to it, to remind myself how it can be done. And it refires my faith afresh. Every. Single. Time.