Konami sure know how to make a video game. If I had to list my top ten developers due to their output in the nineties I would rate Konami right up there in the top three. Castlevania, Parodius, Sunset Riders and the incredible X-Men Arcade all spring to mind. Top of the pile here though is the astonishing, beguiling and gruelling Super Probotector: The Alien Rebels on the greatest gaming device of all time – the SNES.
Originally released in Japan as Contra Spirits and as Contra III: The Alien Wars in the US – Super Probotector was a sequel to both the domestic Probotector series and the international franchise of Contra. The difference here though is that every element of the game has been built upon, polished and perfected until the final product is greater than the sum of its parts. Super Probotector is the quintessential side-scrolling run-and-gun; look no further for relentless, primitive violence; a staggering range of marvellous weapons; gigantic, screen-filling bosses and a pace that never drops below frenzied – this game will make you sweat like a glass-blower’s arse.
As your usual run-and-gun fare, your mission here is for your awesome robot dude to save the planet from annihilation at the hands of the incongruously-named Alien Rebels. Doing so leads you (and your partner if you’re playing co-op) on a mission of frankly impossible odds – thousands of these alien scumbags must be annihilated to prevent Earth’s cosmic apocalypse. The good news if you are often air-dropped supplies in the form of a decent array of brilliant gun upgrades, bubble shields and screen-wiping smart bombs. Strangely enough I’ve played this game well over 200 times and I don’t actually know what these extra-terrestrial foes even have to gain by invading Earth. I can only assume it’s something to do with popcorn. Bacon flavoured popcorn.
You’ll find yourself blasting your way through hundreds upon hundreds of invader scumbags at such a high level of difficulty you’ll be twisting your SNES pad into splinters after ten minutes. The game plays more like a bullet-hell shmup at times and you will find yourself twitching around the screen like a coked-up gymnast trying to navigate a safe path through a net of enemy fire patterns. The bosses at the end of each level ramp that already-jacked difficulty to senseless levels. From screen-filling, robot turtles to gigantic humanoid, fire-breathing robots to a floating alien brain; every boss will strip you of the few lives you have remaining after slogging through the previous level just to reach the bugger. The impressive size of the bosses really hammers home that Super Probotector style. They will fill the screen and you will fill your pants.
In true Contra style, there are no health bars here – one shot kills all the way. One stray bullet, one lick of flame, one dog hitting you (what the hell, Konami?) and you’re dead. You don’t have that many lives and you have limited continues – once they’re all gone you’re starting again from level one. Imagine piling forty minutes into this game; both thumbs are aching, your back hurts from hunching over in the traditional SNES pose, sweat is pouring down your back and your sore, red eyes are dry because you can’t afford to blink. Then – BAM. One bullet ruins your day. That’s it, game over. Do you want to start again from the beginning? The best part of it though – we’re all gamers here, right? We’re all aware of the Konami Code right? Not in this game – Konami took it out. I don’t know why, but it’s like someone decided “this game isn’t nearly difficult enough, the gamer must be punished”.
It works both ways though – pretty much every grunt in the game only requires one hit to end their miserable existence. And with a superb selection of ordnance to utilise, the killing is good! Everything from the brilliant Spread Gun to heat-seeking missiles is represented here and each weapon is so well balanced, your favourite gun will be a personal preference and nothing more. Better yet, the game lets you have two guns, so you can switch between Laser and Flamethrower at the push of a button. Better yet, if you hold in both shoulder buttons and fire, your character starts to somersault whilst firing both guns simultaneously. I’m refraining from the obligatory seven exclamation marks at the end of the last sentence.
The features above are what puts Super Probotector at the top of the pile of the run-and-gun genre. Sure, the game is (at the time of writing) 19 years old – but nothing has happened along to contend to the throne of a fun, engaging but ultimately relentless shooter. Contra IV on the Nintendo DS nearly made it, but I ultimately found that to be more homage to Contra or Super C on the NES, albeit with a tip of the hat to Probotector. Gunstar Heroes comes close, but the cutesy graphics don’t cut it against Super Probotectors sleek robotics and Geiger-eque aliens.
The levels are nicely designed, with a nice variety of climbing, jumping and dangerous scenery to traverse. The best thing about the level design is that whilst it is challenging to steer yourself over monkey bars over a pit of flames whilst vertical gouts of fire spurt from below you, the routes are obvious and never otiose; you’re never left scratching your head, wondering why Konami would make an impossible game. You can see what you’re supposed to do – it’s just up to you to achieve it. It goes almost without saying (being a Konami game) that the levels are also gorgeous.
Everything in the game is drawn in big, eye-wateringly beautiful sprites. Your two Appleseed-styled characters are splendidly animated little chaps and the vast variety of chumps waiting to get murdered are also brilliant. The use of colour makes this game really stand out – there’s no grey hunchbacks hiding behind a burnt-out car here! The 2D effects in Super Probotector make it one of the best-looking games on the SNES, with the use of transparency effects and Mode7 processing. There are even two levels rendered in a top-down view, entirely in Mode7. These levels are actually a little slower-paced and offer a nice departure from the chaotic action of the rest of the game. Another nice variation to the gameplay is the inclusion of vehicular combat. In certain parts of the game you’ll find yourself in a tank, or riding a futuristic motorcycle. The best of these though is hanging below a helicopter, holding onto a nuclear missile – you even get to ride missiles later on, in what is possibly the hardest level in the game.
Now available on the Wii Virtual Console, I suggest you loosen the purse strings and go grab yourself a copy. Better yet, pick it up for the SNES and play it the way God intended. A word of warning first though; if video games make you angry, you will be smashing your controller against your face in a fit of rage within minutes. If you don’t like hard games, go play Plok, you weed.