Super Cyborg – Bringing Disgust & Horror to the Contra Formula
Contra, with its intense action and the pressure of its ever-looming threat of death, always felt like it COULD work as a horror game. I mean, much of the final act of the game sees you going through locales that keep getting grosser and more unsettling. Mixing your fragile mortality with intense revulsion definitely gives the game a hint of a horror vibe. Super Cyborg goes all the way with that feeling, though, offering (very) similar action while really leaning into the disgust to make an experience that left me feeling unsettled throughout.
The game casts you as the flimsiest “elite battle cyborg” ever designed. Your job is to deal with an alien called the Xirxul Life Form. It’s…gross. And everything it births is equally gross. Plus, now it’s basically taken over an island with its seeping, goopy, disgusting spawn. You get to try to scour the island clear of these sickening beasts. Hopefully while keeping your metal body free of bullet holes as a single hit is all it takes to put you down.
Playing it for even a few minutes shows you that Super Cyborg is shamelessly drawn from NES classic Contra, from its mechanics to its weapons (and weapon drops). However, where Contra and its entries tend to pit you against armed enemies that look mostly humanoid, this title immediately tosses you into combat with strange, alien creatures, plants, and monstrosities.
This might seem like a small difference, but where Contra slowly shifts from feeling like a futuristic action game into something more horrifying, this one starts right off by throwing you against things that you don’t want anywhere near you. The most basic enemy looks like some soft of monstrous reptile, its arm-length tongue lunging out of its mouth in death. Monster plants burst open as you shoot them, spraying toxic green fluids from their wilted forms. Fluids that almost touch you as they fall to the ground. Nothing too wild, but definitely weirder than its inspiration.
Not even a minute later, you run into the thing that spawns the basic enemy. “Thing” is the best name I can come up for it. It looks like some mouth that’s grown absent a body. Teeth run around its gaping maw. Eyes stare blankly from its bulbous, misshapen flesh. Plant life creeps throughout its frame, like nature itself has been twisted into a part of this thing. This is where Super Cyborg starts to show its power to horrify (not that it’s the only unsettling take on Contra).
Put bluntly, I never, ever want to make contact with something like that. Don’t want to touch it. Don’t want to be anywhere near it. Certainly don’t want to know what would happen if it killed me. That mass of twisted skin, eyes, and teeth is absolutely disgusting to behold, and it created this instant revulsion in my guts. I NEEDED to exterminate it as fast as I could, if only to get its sickening form out of my sight. I’m just glad I wasn’t under the blast of red fluid that burst from it when it died.
Super Cyborg plays with this revulsion throughout its entire length, not just having you shoot things because you’re fighting a dangerous threat, but because they’re something that upsets the senses. The remake of Resident Evil 2 drew from something similar, having zombies that really churned your guts to look at. Then, you’d have to stare at them as they slowly approached, bringing their diseased, festering flesh closer. It would create this extra anxiety within me, as I absolutely didn’t want those awful things touching me. You not only fear death, but you fear making any contact at all.
The same goes for this game, and that feeling only grows worse from here. Once you reach the first boss, this pulsing mass bursts from a lab wall. A lone socket opens, a blank eye glaring at you. This socket alternates between being a mouth or an eye through some sickening biological switcheroo. Some bulging membrane ripples on the side of its head, crimson goo looking ready to spill out. A nose quivers on top of its head. If you shoot its eye enough to down the thing, it leaves a torn socket filled with shredded meat for a few moments before exploding in a gory shower.
Further creatures continue this twisted parade through Super Cyborg. Alien organs shudder in the background as you fight flame-spewing tentacles covered in eyes. Masses of flesh and bone tower over you as their orifices send damaging blasts your way. You shoot through the fleshy cords of some vicious organ. Dodge hurled eyeballs as you stand under towers of shredded skin. It’s a nonstop torrent of gore, broken bodies, and disturbing beings.
This stuff is all sickening to look at, and you have to deal with it always creeping and crawling its way closer to you. It’s always lashing out with some mangled limb or dangling eyeball, and it makes the stomach roil. You don’t just want to avoid it because it’s an enemy in a game that you need to dodge to survive, but because you just don’t want something so awful to touch you. It dredges up this primal aversion and fear to something so broken, so mangled, and yet still living.
This compounds the pressure you feel from being so close to dying in Super Cyborg. A single hit or touch is all it takes to kill you. You have a few lives, but it’s not much to get you through. So, these ruined forms are not only disgusting, but lethal on contact. It’s the sort of thing that makes the imagination wander to unsettling places. How does contact with that flesh or fluid kill you? Does it melt your own form? Consume your body on contact? What would those things feel like? Will we become part of these disturbing growths?
So, you naturally fear these unsettling things. They upset the stomach and create an aversion to their gory, mutated bodies. Make you want to avoid them to stay alive. They leave you wondering just how unpleasant your death will be if you make contact. The visuals of the monsters throughout this game draw the player into a more horrifying world than Contra ever touched on, showing that you can take that action game formula and, with the right mindset, turn it into a disturbing experience.
I never thought I could feel much fear or horror from a game where I mowed monsters down with machine guns nonstop, but Super Cyborg pulls this off in impressive ways. It seems easy to dismiss it as a Contra clone, but its visual style turns it into an experience that really uses horror and disgust to set itself up as a unique game. At the very least, you’ll play it to see what sort of awful thing you’ll fight next.