Reviewed: December 19, 2004
Released: October 19, 2004
In 2002 Konami made me their little bitch with Contra: Shattered Soldier. For a month after playing that game if anybody even showed me a Dual Shock I curled up in the corner in the fetal position and trembled. Needless to say that when Neo Contra arrived a sense of dread overwhelmed me as I inserted the disc into my PS2 and made sure my therapist was on the speed dial.
Neo Contra brings back Bill Rizer and a mysterious Samurai who are both introduced in a blazing opening movie that lasts nearly as long as the first of the four chapters. There is an arsenal of new weaponry, killer bosses, and a whole new visual style to the addictive gameplay that puts Neo Contra in a class all by itself.
Contra has always been known and feared for its relentless action and oppressive difficulty. Born and raised a shooter, the series has evolved over the years but has never lost sight of its roots, until now. Neo Contra explores new territory by moving into the world of quasi-3D. Instead of the traditional 2D side scrolling gameplay the series has always relied on, we now get a much higher vantage point and a dynamic camera that follows the dual-level action wherever it might go.
This new perspective forced the designers to abandon a few of the staples Contra fans may be used to. You canít jump or crouch and you are no longer restricted to just eight firing directions. You can now lock your firing position with L2 and strafe the levels. In fact, you will spend about 80% of the game strafing; itís just that useful. Just as useful as strafing is rotational fire. Holding R2 locks your character movement and allows you to rotate and fire in place like a turret, definitely useful when you find yourself surrounded by enemies.
Enemies are unique and varied and come at you from all sides, even spawning in from behind. At any given time you have access to three weapons that you can cycle with the L1/R1 buttons. These include forward fire and lock-on missile weapons that you can fire independently with the triangle and square buttons. Itís usually pretty easy to see which enemy requires which type of missile. Simply press and hold the triangle and if any lockable targets are in view a lock-on box will appear, perhaps several. Release the button to fire swarm missiles at all locked targets.
Otherwise, you will just move around laying down a steady stream of fire at the hundreds of enemies that populate the levels. Oddly enough, most enemies come at you with swords allowing you to mow them down long before they get in range to do any damage. Incoming fire moves slowly enough that you can easily dodge it. Larger objects like turrets and bosses will have specific sensitive areas that will flash when hit. Destroy all of these to kill the larger objective.
Neo Contra offers two skill modes, Easy and Normal. Easy gives you 30 lives while Normal gives you a generous five. My first trip through the game on Easy mode took me 23 continues with one boss taking nine tries. I had little hope of ever completing the game on Normal. You have no health in this game; itís one hit and you are dead. Try again please. That means on Normal mode you have to finish each chapter without getting hit more than five times. You can ďcontinueĒ and get a fresh five lives but it also restarts the current chapter.
Levels are fresh, challenging, and often quite remarkable. Youíll start off on a standard isometric playing field then you might switch to a vertical climbing segment where you are being chased by a giant lizard, or find yourself freefalling down a vertical shaft battling a gunship. You might be riding on a torpedo skimming the waves or perhaps my favorite level, running on top of the rotor blades of a helicopter as you engage a giant enemy airship.
There are plenty of boss battles and sub-boss levels. These arenít as difficult as I would have expected from a Contra game, either that or Iím just getting better at Contra combat. Basically, you just look for the part of the boss that flashes and hit it until it blows up then find the next part that flashes, all the while avoiding the incoming fire. The bosses, including the four Contra Elite are some of the wackiest creations in video game history. No spoilers here Ė just play and enjoy.
Visually, Neo Contra is stunning. The CG opening movie will rock your world while the mid-mission movies use the game engine and some excellent camera work that move through the 3D levels. These integrate seamlessly with the gameplay. You might end up walking down a hall and the camera will take over and zoom down or up for a new angle to cover the cutscene.
Even with the higher-than-usual camera perspective the characters and the mayhem remain larger than life. Enemies fall with a satisfying splash of blood, which is comical but apparently violent enough to earn the game a Mature rating. Explosions are bright and violent with plenty of fire and smoke, and there is cumulative damage on the larger targets as you beat them down with missile fire.
The bosses are some of the most hideous and imaginative creations I have ever seen. You never know what one boss is going to look like or how many times it will morph during your fight with it. There are plenty of visual indications to note where incoming fire will land giving you just enough time to find a place of safety. The HUD is minimal and shows just enough to keep you informed without distracting from the gameplay.
The music is your typical Japanese rock Ė that energetic techno that weíve been hearing with games like these since there were games like these. Itís rather derivative of the genre but so is the gameplay. I found it surprisingly fresh and helped keep my pulse in tune with the action for countless hours of attempting to perfect my kill score.
The sound effects are loud and overwhelming. You have the buzzing of your primary weapons as it unleashes an endless stream of bullets and your rocket launcher sends smoking projectiles to their targets with a satisfying BOOM when they hit. There are all sorts of electronic and other environmental sounds to bring the levels to life.
The dialogue is so bad itís good. This is pure camp and if you doubt it for a minute just imagine a boss named Animal Contra who is beagle, or perhaps a bulldog, and during the course of the conversation Bill utters the insult, ďYOU DOG!Ē If this game were anymore tongue-in-cheek Iíd be looking for some robot silhouettes in the lower corner of the screen. Youíll laugh, youíll groan, but mainly youíll laugh.
Two players can tackle the game in cooperative mode, but you share the pool of lives so if one of you sucks it could get troublesome for the other player. Whether you play alone or with a friend the game is undeniably short, clocking in at 30-45 minutes on easy. Youíre scored on thoroughness and speed, so youíll want to race through the levels but youíll also want to get that Hit Rate up to 100 if at all possible.
There is a nice score system in place that grades your performance for each chapter. I got Cís and one D on my first trip through, and was oddly compelled to keep playing until I got Bís and even managed an A. There are also plenty of unlockable levels, weapons, and other bonus goodies to keep you playing over an over and striving for that perfect 100% hit rate.
Neo Contra might not be long, but itís designed like the old coin-op games that keep you pumping quarters into the machine to keep playing, and even after you win you still want to try again and do better, only now you donít need quarters (other than the 120 to buy the game).
I really enjoyed Neo Contra, but then again, this game is so different from Shattered Soldier or any of the other Contra games that it barely qualifies as a legitimate installment in the Contra franchise. Sure, you have Bill and his bottomless bag of weapons, but with the new perspective and the sacrifices in traditional gameplay along with the new additions, Konami has taken the series in a totally new direction.
Itís likely to make a few hardcore Contra fans angry, but it might just attract a few of the more casual shooters (like me) and bring them back to Contra. I know that Neo Contra has built up my confidence enough that I am starting to toy with the idea of trying Shattered EgoÖerrÖSoldier again if I can remember where I buried it in the backyard.
Bottom line, the game is short, but that is good because it is highly addictive and best played in short doses. Itís great with one or two players assuming you are both at the same skill level and wonít be burning through the extra lives, but most of all itís mindless shooting fun and thatís what Contra has always been about.