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Old 07-14-2017, 05:07 AM
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Klatrymadon Klatrymadon is offline
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Default Contra Spirit: talking about Super Cyborg

I've been dying to idly chat about this game on Talking Time since I downloaded it a few weeks ago. It seems to have flown under most people's radars, at least in the Anglophone world - the developers, Artur Games, are Russian, and much of the writing I've found on it is in Russian - so I thought I'd wait until I'd cleared it and say a few words by way of evaluation. This is not to suggest that it has flown entirely under TT's radar, you understand - I know Madhair has it, and that Sarge has also taken a bold gamble with his sanity in finishing it.

It's a very good game, but one that's probably doomed to be forever regarded as fit only for fake, imaginary people who find every other run-'n'-gun game too easy. I'll try to be up-front about why that might be while generally encouraging you to give it a bash. (The game is available on Steam and features a free demo. It was originally released in DRM-free form via Desura, but the page for that seems to have disappeared. It costs around four quid, or two quid if there's a sale on.)



At first glance at the trailer, Super Cyborg can look like any number of jarringly inauthentic indie 'retro' games, with their slightly uncomfortable mixture of 8-bit backgrounds and sprites and incongruous modern effects laid over the top, giving an impression of inconsistency and wonkiness that doubtless extends to the gameplay. A few seconds into the first stage, though, you begin to realise that this isn't merely the dodgy pastiche it might first appear, but a very purposeful Contra clone executed with extreme attentiveness and precision.

Your cyborg controls exactly as Bill and Lance do in the NES games (or as the robots do in Probotector, the version clearly closest to the team's hearts) - at the same speed and with the same jumping arc, ensuring old hands won't have to alter their approach. The weapons have the same feel and impact, often the same sound effects. The explosions and the way enemies bounce away when hit are the same. Even the sense of progression through a place is the same, with each level culminating at the entrance to the next. Everything feels like home.

It doesn't just perfect the fundamentals, though. You also have at your disposal two key features from some of the later Contras. The first is the ability to lock yourself in position and fire in eight directions without moving (you don't have the option of locking the direction of fire whilst moving, as in Shattered Soldier, but you won't miss it here). The second is the ability to charge your shots with an additional fire button. Like in Shattered Soldier, each weapon's charged shot has a unique function - charging the spread shot, for example, gives a devastating focused attack that vastly improves its effectiveness against bosses.

The weapon selection itself is familiar and conservative, and you still acquire weapons by shooting down pods that pass overhead at intervals. Crucially, though, the weapons are now all automatic. A few seconds into the first stage you'll have upgraded from your starting peashooter to the classic red-gobstopper machine gun (now with subtle muzzle flare), and not long after you'll have discovered the laser (which now gives a more continuous, reliable beam) and of course the spread shot, which you'll still want to hang onto for as long as possible. There's also an 'E' weapon that's literally just the fireball from Super C rendered as a purple blast of electricity, and the 'R' power-up which increases your rate of fire and reduces charge times. There's the screen-clearing smart-bomb, dropped rarely, and a 'B' power-up that grants you a generous few seconds of invincibility - anything that touches you during this time is toast. It's like the rare potion in the original Castlevania, except useful - it appears in places you'd want it to, places with a lot going on.

Most of the game has a lot going on, of course. Super Cyborg is hard. Not just "Contra hard" or "NES hard", whatever those might mean. It's possibly harder than any Contra game to date, arcade or console, but without becoming the poorly-judged mess that fan-made tributes to difficult games often are. It manages to remain considered, doable and fair throughout. Most situations, setpieces, phases of bosses, etc, are fairly reasonable taken by themselves - it's their collective, unrelenting onslaught that's taxing.



There are some important mitigating factors, though: the game saves your progress after each level, so that after the 'Game Over' screen you can restart at the beginning of the current level with whatever power-ups and however many lives you had at the time of saving. This gives you limitless potential for really learning the stages, and making sure you start the next one in fighting shape. Extra lives are doled out pretty generously according to your score, too - I was earning around one per level. There's also an option to switch to 50hz and reduce the speed of the game, and I'm pretty sure this was included specifically to make it easier to play, rather than to indulge some strange PAL-gamer nostalgia. Lastly, there's an 'Easy' mode that can be selected from the beginning, though this merely seems to cause a very slight reduction in the number of spawning enemies and a delay in some shots being fired, and will probably disappoint players hoping for a significantly gentler experience overall.

Though on the face of it the game's styled after the NES Contras, it shares a lot of its design sensibilities with Hard Corps and Shattered Soldier. It certainly has a much heavier focus on bosses and minibosses that require rote memorisation, for example - you're frequently tasked with learning how best to position yourself for each of a new boss's phases, and where the safe spots might be, etc. Timings can be strict and movements swift, but they're generally well telegraphed.

Like in the NES games, it's not just individual formidable enemies that provide the challenge, but having to deal with assailment on several fronts - it's often the grunts charging in from the periphery or unnoticed bullets from wall-mounted turrets that get you, often while you're concentrating on something else. And now the grunts can essentially give chase, as their predetermined paths may lead them up several platforms after you. (Another thing to watch out for is that scrolling enemies off the screen doesn't always take them out of the game. Certain types that can change direction may catch up with you and surround you. This is only really a problem in stage 6, though, with enemies that are few in number and easy enough to deal with on the first pass.)

Even very experienced Contra players will start having trouble at stage 3, and be forced to slow down and approach the stages studiously. I spent more time practicing single stages of Super Cyborg than I ever did practicing the entirety of Super C, or even Contra III. This won't be to everybody's taste, of course, and if there's one gripe I have with the difficulty it's that at a few points you can feel forced to slow down and play very cautiously and methodically, terrified to scroll the screen an inch further in case you invite another critter into the battle. This sucks some of the joy of the breathless dash into chaos that characterises the Contra games out of the experience. Another grumble is that the difficulty progression isn't always gradual or linear - stage 4 comes as a welcome respite after the stage 3 boss, for example, and most of stages 5 and 6 are only marginally tougher, ill preparing you for the final stage and boss, which are pointedly gruelling.



Again, though, each situation is always surmountable. Deaths are frustrating largely because you know you almost had the bastard. Even the game's most seemingly hellish, spiteful moments are there to intimidate rather than to genuinely stymie you. You'll groan in exasperation as you struggle to time a jump between some intermittent waterfalls of toxic slime, only to realise you can simply shoot the little creatures vomiting them out and carry on at your own pace. It's never hard in a tedious way, either. Enemies aren't needlessly resilient bullet-sponges, like in Metal Slug 3 or nearly every Euroshmup - everything dies after the right amount of hits (one, for most things). This is an important detail to nail, and Artur Games have paid full attention to it.

You settle into each stage, after the initial shock, and start to appreciate its design. For the most part you're running and gunning as you always have - negotiating platforms whilst dodging fire from turrets or wall-crawling enemies and laying down a suppressing spread-shot fire on the respawning kamikaze cannon fodder. This is when Super Cyborg is at its most exhilarating. Then, and when you're finally clearing a stage after taking some time to practice. Any Contra fan will be familiar with the incredible sense of reward you get from having executed by the skin of your teeth a meticulously planned run, or having taken down a boss you had decided was beyond you. This game creates moments like these constantly. They are its most addictive draw and are felt all the more powerfully because they're so hard-won.

It's not just the level designs that hang together better than first impressions suggest, either. The game's visuals cohere perfectly well - it's actually quite good-looking. If you disable the incongruous transparency and smooth rotation effects at the beginning (which helps with readability, I find), you're suddenly playing a lost PC Engine game, with the high-contrast, gaudy colour palette of something like Last Armageddon. Aesthetically it's very similar to the NES Contras, but with even more emphasis on their biological horror theme - all of the enemies are warped abominations, and the stage settings include labs filled with experiments-in-tanks, huge nests full of parasitised fly-men, the guts of enormous serpentine creatures, and so on.

The bosses are the most striking exemplars of the bio-horror theme. Rather than being the Giger-esque apex predators or 'perfect weapons' you might expect, they are half-formed aberrations that appear tortured and miserable. The first encounter is a particularly nice twist on the original Contra's first fortress boss. You approach a grey, featureless wall, unadorned with turrets or sniper emplacements. A crack appears in its surface, and suddenly a mass of flesh bursts forth on a long stalk coiled with blue cables. Its only features are a pulsating sac of blood, a nose, and an enormous eye that, obviously, fires projectiles at you. The stage 3 miniboss is a similarly sorry sight - an invertebrate with a humanoid face which has merged its body with some rocks to haul around as legs. It spits bombs at you, and occasionally prolapses a long blue protuberance which shoots at you and is its only vulnerable point.

Some of the enemy sprites can look a bit amateurish and rough around the edges, actually, but the hideous, gnarled beasts are always interesting to look at, and some of them are pretty funny. The same is true for the stages themselves, which, if unoriginal in terms of ideas, are always striking and possessed of a grotesque charm.



Rounding out the audiovisual package is Darkman007's soundtrack, which generally tries to ape Hidenori Maezawa's style - its opening salvo is a clear attempt at one-upping Super C's "Lightning and Grenades", and the final stage has echoes of "Perilous Cliff" - but which also does its own thing at one or two points. The sombre stage 4 piece sounds like something Chris Huelsbeck might have written for the loading screen of a sketchy R-Type port. It's all very appropriate and effective - it's good music. There'd be a lot to sit back and enjoy in this game if you weren't so constantly harassed.

Where this clone perhaps makes a misstep is in its sudden late-game changes of form. There's a top-down level like in Super C. Like in Super C, it's the easiest and least engaging one. It's about four years long, fairly uneventful and absolutely the weakest part of the game. Unlike in Super C, it shows up as the sixth and penultimate stage, by which point it comes as an entirely unwelcome and unnecessary bait-'n'-switch, killing any feeling of mounting intensity as you approach the finale. Other formal surprises fare much better, however, like the branching paths in stage 5 - one leading to a miniboss and the other to a tricky gauntlet - which genuinely add to its replay value.

The length can be exhausting not just in stage 6 but also the final stage, and the developers knew this, because they gave both of them checkpoints, which aren't used anywhere else. And while they might reduce the amount of time you spend wrestling with these levels, they don't necessarily make things easier, since they can lock you beyond the point at which you could grab your preferred weapon (although, fair play, the spread shot is always available for the last boss).

For me, Contra games are at their best when they're short and sweet. Five stages, around twenty minutes from beginning to end. Even for an experienced player blowing through it on a single life, Super Cyborg clocks in at a whopping fifty minutes (at least). That's an incredibly long time for any arcade-style game, and even titans like Radiant Silvergun and Gradius V don't necessarily get away with being this protracted. Thankfully, Super Cyborg manages to remain engaging and exciting for most of its hefty duration – outside stage 6 there's no dead time, no wasted space.

I cleared the game over a week or so, on and off. It took that long because I very cleverly decided to make earning every inch of progress an arduous chore for myself, by refusing to move on from any stage until I could clear it on one life. I was several hours deep before I had finished the third stage this way. You really don't need to do this, and shouldn't - you've usually a good chance of recovering from deaths and continuing with your run, since your bare minimum equipment is usually adequate to the situation. Recovery can be problematic in certain places, though - the third boss, for example, is difficult to chip away at in its first phase if you only have the peashooter, and the final boss's tendrils can engulf you so much more quickly if you aren't packing enough heat.

I might next attempt a traditional single-sitting 1CC, but I think I'll be more on edge than I ever was in Shattered Soldier, because there are so many more contingencies at any given moment here, so many things that can go wrong. More so than in any other Contra game, you're expected to do lots of rote memorisation and be able to react to unfavourable situations you've caused – sudden changes in the flow of combat brought on by an extra popcorn enemy spawning, etc. Impressively, though, the 'Hard' mode unlocked after finishing the game ratchets up the difficulty not by increasing these contingencies but by actually making meaningful changes, such as introducing new attacks for familiar enemies and trickier platforming sections, so that should be richly rewarding to eventually tackle.



There are a couple of complaints and oddities that I should mention. When you're on a slope and trying to shoot at enemies running up or down it, your gun doesn't aim at the right angle. Your shots should be travelling parallel with the slope and heading right for their chests, as in Contra, but here they cut through the floor in front of your feet, or fly towards the ceiling, potentially allowing enemies to get too close for comfort. This might get you killed before you suss it out. Also, the menu at the title screen is fiddly to navigate because it has no 'back' button, and for some reason I had to invert the y-axis on the controller in order to control my character properly. Using a PS2 controller via a cheapo "3-in-1 PC Joybox", up was down and down was up. You probably won't have that problem, but it's in there.

In spite of this kind of nonsense, I really think you ought to play this game. It captures so much of what makes the Contra games exciting and addictive, and manages not only to emulate their unique flow but to escalate and build upon it, creating many moments of electrifying tension and payoff. It's exceedingly formidable, to be sure, but it's a game that gets more and more enjoyable the more you get to know it - you start off floundering spasmodically and swearing you could never make any headway through this mess, and before long you're effortlessly dispatching hordes of hapless nightmare-mutants with a cocksure swagger. Blowing through all of the early stages without breaking a sweat on subsequent runs through them is an immensely rewarding experience, and you'll be doing it sooner than you might think. Super Cyborg doesn't have an original bone in its body, but it doesn't wish for one. It just wants to be a barnstorming Contra game, and it is!

Last edited by Klatrymadon; 07-28-2017 at 10:41 AM.
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Old 07-14-2017, 05:56 AM
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I grabbed super cyborg as part as an indiegala bundle awhile back and I was like "holy shit, this is literally Contra".

I need to play it more because it really is as good as Klatrymadon says.
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Old 07-14-2017, 07:16 AM
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Probably not a game I'm going to play, but this is an extremely detailed and helpful review, and I appreciate your posting it.
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Old 07-14-2017, 07:31 AM
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My friend gifted it to me last sale. I haven't beaten it yet, but so far I can say that your review is spot-on (that PC-Engine comparison really resonated with me, especially). I wasn't expecting it to be much, but I was pleasantly surprised despite its flaws.
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Old 07-14-2017, 07:35 AM
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Thank you very much for the kind words, guys - thanks for reading!
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Old 07-14-2017, 08:33 AM
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Loved this writeup. I hadn't heard of this game. I'm not a huge fan of when developers mash up 8-bit and 16-bit graphical styles in that sort of hamfisted way, but this one looks like it might have struck a good balance.

I like difficult contra-like games and body horror, so I might have to give it a try!
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Old 07-14-2017, 08:47 AM
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Yes, someone else who played and enjoyed the game! Great writeup, and much more detailed than anything I've scribbled on the matter.

That difficulty is no joke, though. I was literally shaking from the adrenaline rush after beating the game. I didn't dive into Hard mode, but knowing now the changes that were made, it sounds like something I might want to do in the future.

Anyway, yes, if you're looking for a new Contra game, this fits the bill nicely!
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Old 07-14-2017, 09:56 AM
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Quote:
At first glance at the trailer, Super Cyborg looks like any number of jarringly inauthentic indie 'retro' games, with that slightly uncomfortable mixture of 8-bit backgrounds and sprites and incongruous modern effects laid over the top, giving an impression of inconsistency and wonkiness that doubtless extends to the gameplay. A few seconds into the first stage, though, you begin to realise that this isn't merely the dodgy pastiche it might first appear, but a very purposeful Contra clone executed with extreme attentiveness and precision.
I dunno if they've tweaked the effects at all between versions, but the footage I'm seeing looks less like 'questionable flash game' rather than 'early-90s DOS game'. Frankly, they fucking nail the style from everything I've seen.
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Old 07-14-2017, 10:14 AM
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Yeah, that's probably a little unfair, but I wanted to stress (later) that it's better without the few effects it has activated by default. The consistency of its style without that fluff is one of its big strengths, for sure.
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Old 07-14-2017, 11:06 AM
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This looks delightful, and I would never have heard about it were it not for this thread. Thanks for the writeup, Klatrymadon! I'll definitely grab this next time it's on sale.
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Old 07-15-2017, 01:03 AM
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I don't know if I'll get around to playing this, but I just wanted to say that was a really great review, Klatrymadon.
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Old 07-17-2017, 05:50 PM
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Thanks a lot, folks!

So, Hard mode is done and dusted. I think that's me finished with the game, unless I decide to improve my score a bit (as in Contra, scoring better is purely a matter of clearing more loops of the game, which I'm not sure I can be arsed with at the moment). There's an achievement for beating Hard mode without losing a single life, but that would require a very serious investment and I just have other stuff to do, innit. The mode is not quite as full of surprises as I'd hoped - sometimes it does just throw more stuff at you, but the enemy placements are still always manageable in the end. It's a lot harder to recover from deaths, though, as the grunts spawn a lot more rapidly and in greater numbers, and can quickly flood the screen in the few seconds that you aren't stemming the tide. It's certainly a worthwhile challenge if you've thoroughly rinsed all of the Contra games...

There's no special or lengthier ending, but there is something cool. I'm an extremely big fan of interesting/absurd boss names in videogames, and when you finish Hard mode you're treated to a lavish parade of the main baddies that's missing from the endings of the easier difficulties. I only remembered to take some screenshots at the last minute, but here are a few of them:

Zeonix Life System
Gidoagn Symbiont
Seamegnon Creature
Darvograhellix Reprocessing Organism
Niatoid Seeder
Xirxul Life Form (This is actually the cause of all of these other aberrations. The entire story of the game is that the "Xirxul Life Form" has been unleashed by "scientists" and is threatening humanity.)

And just because I like it, here's something that happens to the final boss. (He's actually nowhere close to throwing in the towel at this point.)
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Old 07-17-2017, 06:29 PM
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Hoo boy, congrats on getting through hard mode. Maybe I'll tackle that some day. No deaths, though? Don't blame you for leaving that alone, probably not something I'll try either. The original Contra is enough (and some day, Super C).
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Old 07-17-2017, 06:38 PM
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Yeah, even clearing Normal mode with no deaths will be an incredibly stiff challenge, because as I mentioned, there's just so much scope at every moment for small mistakes and things not panning out as you'd planned. Finally nailing a run in which everything came together for you on Hard mode would take ages - memorising all of the levels would only be the beginning...
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Old 07-29-2017, 06:41 AM
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I played this game!

It's alright. Might play some more later. From what I played, it wasn't a difficulty thing - the game seems pretty reasonable in what it expects you to do on Normal, and the thing that killed me the most was poor decision-making, like retreating to the left side of the screen. Shmups should have taught me to never hug walls, but I clearly have not learned that.

Maybe Contra's just not for me? Full disclosure: I've played the first stage of Contra to completion maybe once. I'm much more experienced with its design-cousin, Metal Slug.

Really dug the custom color palette options for your dude. Game would have been fine without them, but it was a nice inclusion. I really liked E and L. I didn't like that your default gun and M were different things, especially when L is already "machine gun but better."

Was it worth the money I paid for it? Absolutely.

EDIT: Also, here's some actual, straight-up praise on this one: movement feels really solid and good. There are a couple of retraux games on Steam I would have a lot of love for if they didn't feel so weird and squishy, like Oniken and Odallus, but this game nails it.

Last edited by LancerECNM; 07-29-2017 at 06:52 AM.
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Old 07-29-2017, 03:21 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by LancerECNM View Post
Was it worth the money I paid for it? Absolutely.
That's a relief to hear! Glad you checked it out, and glad I haven't wasted anyone's money.

Quote:
Originally Posted by LancerECNM View Post
EDIT: Also, here's some actual, straight-up praise on this one: movement feels really solid and good. There are a couple of retraux games on Steam I would have a lot of love for if they didn't feel so weird and squishy, like Oniken and Odallus, but this game nails it.
Yeah, this is one of the most impressive and uncanny things about it. Absolutely nothing feels 'off', and there are few reminders that you aren't actually playing a B-tier potboiler that you'd missed out on as a child. The two games you mention typify the problem with a lot of these pastiches: the visuals and music are often achingly spot-on while the gameplay fundamentals and haptic elements are all askew, seemingly forgotten about.
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Old 01-03-2018, 05:46 PM
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I nearly forgot about this game but still picked it up while it's on sale ($2). Highly recommended.
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Old 01-03-2018, 07:07 PM
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I just played the first two stages in the demo, and while it feels amazing, the stages are really flat? The only platforming seems to be in brief transitions from one running section to the next, without the spacial navigation during gunplay that I liked in Contra. Does this improve later in the game?
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Old 01-04-2018, 02:41 AM
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Klatrymadon Klatrymadon is offline
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Yeah, the first few stages are definitely the flattest. It could do with mixing things up a bit on the whole, but it does improve vastly in this regard. The straight left-to-right sections incorporate more environmental obstacles, and it features an entirely vertical stage and one with branching paths to choose from, etc. The last couple of stages (excluding the top-down one) are nail-biting gauntlets in which negotiating the terrain is half the battle.
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Old 01-04-2018, 04:17 AM
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Yeah got this on sale recently. This is the real deal. Too many faux retro games really don't capture that aesthetic properly, and a lot of them are just flat out ugly. But this? This is a straight up Super C sequel. Pure arcade goodness.

Last edited by JOJ; 01-04-2018 at 10:00 AM.
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Old 01-04-2018, 08:58 AM
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I was actually slightly disappointed to learn that this doesn't run in DOSbox
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