The Magic That's Hard to Recapture
It's not hyperbole to say that 1988's Contra was a massive game for Konami. That title, a run-n-gun shooter, didn't play like other titles in the genre, eschewing over-the-head combat of other shooting arcade titles for side-scrolling platforming action. It had Konami's house style, a killer soundtrack, and came out just as the NES was reaching massive success. It became one of the defining titles of the NES era and, even today, still inspires an entire sub-genre of shooting games: the "Contra-like".
That said, it's also fair to say that none of the games since the original Contra found anything near the success of the original. If Contra was a seminal title for its console, everything that came out after in the series was, at best, noteworthy not hardly a system seller. That trend started with the very next game in the series, Super Contra (or, simply, Super C on the NES), a title that took what worked in the original game and just did it again. It was more running and gunning, just like fans wanted, but that sparked seem to be missing this second time around.
Bear in mind that sequels on the NES very often tried to do something different from their predecessors. This trend was likely accidental, just a matter of various companies all doing their own experiments for different reasons. However it came about, though, it's hard to ignore the big new mechanics in Super Mario Bros. 2, or the change of perspective and game play in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, or the open world exploration of Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. There are any number of sequels that pushed what their series could be on the NES... and then there was Super C.
That isn't to say that the second Contra game was a bad title, not at all. It's more just that it wasn't a fresh new game that really challenged the expectations of players. Much of this stems from the roots of the Contra series, with both the first and second games being Arcade releases first before they were ported to the NES, and the second game was very much an iterative sequel to the first Arcade release. This meant that when the games came to the NES they either had to diverge greatly from the Arcade edition, being a port in name only, or they had to stick to their guns and do what the Arcade game did. Super C stuck to its guns fully.
Super Contra feels like nothing more than an expansion pack to the original game -- different level layouts, some new enemies scattered around, but very much built on the same engine. This is a game that saw what the original was shelling out and said, "yeah, I'd like exactly more of that, and not a penny extra." Thus you have the same heroes, using the same weapons, going through a new set of stages to once again fight alien bosses and save the day. It's very much Contra, but again.
There are some mild changes from the original game, both on Arcades and on the NES. The big difference is that the fortress stages were removed, replaced instead with overhead shooting levels that feel much more like every other shooter out at the time (think Icari Warriors or Guerrilla Warfare). While I'm not sure the fortress stages felt essential, they are least weren't a step back for the series in comparison to these overhead stages. If Contra wanted to stand out from the pack then doing what all of them were doing in this sequel was the wrong move.
There is also a larger emphasis on verticality. As the original arcade cabinet had a vertical orientation, most of the stages are set on the vertical axis, seeing our heroes scale up or down along a big tower section. Most of the stages have at least one lengthy vertical section, and there's even one auto-scroller thrown into the mix (which is an odd choice as it slows down the speedy shooting action). While I like the change of angles over the mostly straight-shooting original, these stages don't necessarily feel inspired and they have none of the complexity of the waterfall stage from the original game.
The challenge also seems to have been turned down on this title. That's likely due to the fact that, at least on the NES, the game was mirroring the first-run version of the title. In Japan, the arcade game would allow you to play through the game twice, ratcheting up the difficulty on the second loop. The NES game doesn't have that, so the easier first-loop difficulty is the standard setting and while it can still be hard it's not "Nintendo Hard" like the original title. That is likely why Konami turned down the number of lives you'd get in this game from the Konami Code, only granting 10 instead of the full compliment of 30; you just didn't need them.
Playing the game, though, you really wish that Konami would have done more with the game. Even limited by the hardware and porting to the NES it does feel like there were things Big K could have done to enhance this sequel over the original. More weapons, more varied stage layouts, or maybe even a more open exploration system would have gone a long way towards differentiating this game from the original. Instead it really does feel like a tired retread of the first game, a sad state for a series that was, at this point, only two games in. That's a bad look, indeed, for Konami.
Still, if you absolutely have to play either version of the game I do recommend the NES title. It features three extra vertical stages not in the original arcade game, which at least amounts to more content on your play through. Whether you will enjoy this game as much as the original really depends on what you're looking for. Anyone that simple wants "more Contra, now" will probably be satisfied. Anyone else looking for a more expansive package, though, would have to wait a while for the series to really try something new.