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Neo Contra is an interesting game. It retains the standard Contra structure of gameplay and yet deviates from the formula. Instead of being a side-scroller, Neo Contra is an isometric/top-down shooter and that alone may be a deal breaker for veterans of the series. Other than the camera angle, Neo Contra is still all about blowing away alien and robotic enemies while trying to survive the onslaught of enemy attacks. Developed and published by Konami, Neo Contra was released for the PlayStation 2 in October, 2004 to mixed reception. I’ve always defended the game because other than the questionable camera angle, it’s still a Contra game at heart, and even though it has its share of problems, it still packs in plenty of action and fun gameplay that I can appreciate. Neo Contra is a direct follow-up to Contra: Shattered Soldier and many of the same elements from that game have been carried over.
It looks like Konami really made an attempt to create an actual story, but unfortunately, it’s not very good. There’s actually voice acting now but most of it sounds phoned in. Neo Contra takes place during A.D. 4444 and some form of evil organization known as “Neo Contra” plans to destroy structured society, whatever that means. I don’t know, the whole thing is ridiculous. There’s four warriors known as Elite Contras that make up some of the bosses of the game, and they’re lead by the Supreme Commander known as Master Contra. Apparently Master Contra is a clone of Bill Rizer. And… I don’t know I lost interest. You play as Bill Rizer, who has been sent to combat Neo Contra. During cut scenes he’s always accompanied by a samurai named Jaguar who is also a playable character. There’s two difficulty modes, Easy and Normal, and if you manage to beat the game on Easy within a specific amount of time, you can unlock Lucia as playable character. Yes, Lucia, the cyborg from Shattered Soldier, and apparently she’s bad now. I appreciate that Konami tried to do something more with the story here but it just ends up falling flat and is laughably bad. At least you get to blow shit up.
Contra has always been known for its challenging gameplay and Neo Contra delivers. All of the same principles from previous games apply here. You can still lock yourself in one position and fire in any direction or strafe while shooting in one direction. And you really need to master the controls because now that you’re navigating three-dimensional environments, enemies can swarm you from every direction if you’re not careful. If standing still, you can press a button to spin, or what the game calls “evasion” for dodging attacks, and pressing the same button while moving makes your character dash, good for getting out of the way quickly. If you didn’t like the top-down levels from Contra III or even Super C, then you may not care for the new camera angle but once I got used to it, it really did feel like a typical Contra game for the most part. There’s a few sections where the camera angle shifts so you’re not looking down but there’s really no side-scrolling here. Just like in Shattered Soldier, you start by choosing from any of the first four missions and need to achieve a high enough ranking to unlock missions five, six, and seven. Your rankings in each mission are determined by your hit rate, meaning how many unique targets you destroyed, how many lives lost, and how many continues used. The same Contra standards you know and love are still present here. You have infinite ammo and there’s no health pickups. You get hit, you die, touch an enemy, you die, lose all of your lives and you can use a continue. Lose all of your continues and it’s game over. You must complete the game in one run and there’s no saving your progress and coming back to it later. If you manage to use up all of your continues, meaning game over, or if you manage to beat the game, you will be rewarded with extra starting lives or even more continues. Depending on how far you made it into a mission, if you need to use a continue, you can choose to start from the beginning of a mission or the other option, which the game calls “middle”. What the game doesn’t indicate is that “middle” means the most recent checkpoint and not necessarily the middle of the mission. Any missions you complete will be unlocked in the training mode where you can replay any unlocked missions to your heart’s content. Achieving specific rankings and completing missions will reward you with unlockables like different character skins, a theater to view in-game cut scenes, a gallery to view behind the scenes artwork, a music box to listen to the game’s music, and even weapon sets. The unlockable skins for each character has them in their underwear which is pretty humorous, making some of the hilariously bad cut scenes even more ridiculous.
Carried over from Shattered Soldier is a similar weapon system. There’s no weapon pickups, just like before, but this time you get to choose from different weapon sets before playing. Jaguar is the standout character because if you unlock his katana skin, his weapon sets will include a katana which is a melee weapon and is extremely overpowered. Each weapon set consists of three weapons, two of which can be switched out during gameplay and the third is your lock-on weapon, useful for targeting enemies that are normally above you. The game will also indicate when an enemy can be targeted. The machinegun, flamethrower, and grenade launcher from Shattered Soldier make a return and I’m happy to report the spread shot is back and it’s still satisfying to use. Then there’s the other weapons and I can honestly say that each weapon does serve a purpose. I never felt like any of them were useless. Lasers, missiles, fire balls, electrical attacks, and some form of drill attack are just some of the weapon you can use. The arsenal is actually quite large and some of the unlockable weapon sets will really make you feel overpowered. All missions, except the last one, have multiple bosses with the end bosses being the most challenging. You still need to memorize attack patterns to defeat the bosses and if you’re not careful, you will die easily.
There’s a lot of Contra fans out there that will tell you this game is complete shit and while I disagree with that sentiment, some of their arguments are justified. Most of the problems with Neo Contra are because of the perspective. For one thing it can be very hard to judge the depth of enemy attacks, making many deaths feel unfair. Sometimes large structures, or even bosses, can obstruct your view causing you to die from attacks you couldn’t even see. There’s many times where you will be required to act quickly and if using any weapon that fires straight, it’s not always easy to aim accurately. My shots would miss a lot and it just becomes frustrating. Another thing I noticed is that the gameplay in Neo Contra is noticeably slower-paced than that of previous games. Maybe it has to do with the new camera angle. I mean you still need to react quickly most of the time but it just doesn’t feel as intense as other Contra games. I think that’s one of the reasons I was able to even progress so far. I could never achieve the required rankings to unlock the final two missions but after a while I was able to get through the first four and even the fifth without a problem. Granted, I still died a lot, and even when playing co-op with Jeremy, we died quite often, but Neo Contra is definitely one of the easier games in the series. I’m not going to lie and say we didn’t use cheats to unlock everything but I think this is one Contra game that I could possibly complete before I reach fifty years old.
One of the more disappointing aspects of the game is the set pieces. The Contra series has always had some of the best side-scrolling set pieces you will ever experience in the genre. Yes, this is not a side-scroller, and yes there are some cool set-pieces, but they’re just not as cool as what we’ve seen in previous games. One of the most ridiculous set-pieces has you running on top of helicopter rotor blades as you fight off enemy aircraft. It’s by far one of the most memorable sequences in the game just because of how ridiculous it is. There’s some other cool stuff like riding a dinosaur thing while fending off enemies, riding a torpedo while fighting a boss, and climbing a wall while being chased by a giant alien. These were the highlight moments for me but they really weren’t that exciting. I’d also like to point out that missions six and seven are a bit of a let down. The first five missions have you navigating the environments, killing enemies, and defeating bosses, all good stuff. But mission six has you easily fending off these robotic enemies before fighting a boss and mission seven is just a final boss fight. Speaking of which, this boss fight is more challenging because of the camera angle than it is because of the boss. This is one of the many sequences where you’ll notice the camera working against you.
Visually, the game shows its age. Character models don’t look as detailed compared to their cut scene counterparts but the texture work is a bit better than what we saw in Shattered Soldier. It’s nothing amazing but it’s at least pleasant to look at. Animations are nothing exceptional but enemies will die in a satisfyingly gory fashion which is pretty cool. I should mention that there is some slowdown here and there. The frame rate will dip big time when there’s a lot of shit going on and it’s even worse when playing two player. As for the audio, the game sounds alright. The music is full of this electronic stuff but it’s really not that memorable. Just my opinion, of course. The sound effects get the job done. Explosions are loud, gunfire sounds decent, enemies scream, roar, and hiss when they die, and everything just sounds appropriate for what it is. I only experienced one technical issue. At one point the game decided to only play a portion of the background music and not play the cut scene when necessary. After rebooting my PS2, the problem never returned.
I wouldn’t say Neo Contra is a bad game and I really think Konami was just trying something new here. Neo Contra is definitely not as good as previous games but it does maintain the core gameplay Contra fans are used to and it plays well for the most part. In the end, the new camera angle is a failure because cheap deaths in a Contra game is just unacceptable. Most of the deaths in previous games were always because you suck but in Neo Contra, that’s not always the case. The camera angle can make depth perception a bitch and for a game that requires you to always be alert, that’s just not cool. However, everything else is still the same. It’s not as hard as previous games but is still more challenging than many other games you might play. To say Neo Contra is a terrible game is a bit harsh. It may be a sub-par Contra game, but it’s far from awful. So you may be wondering if I would recommend this. I would say yes. I think even fans of Contra can find enjoyment here and there is plenty of replay value in the form of unlockable content and even high scores if you’re into that kind of thing. Just beware that there are better, and even worse, Contra games out there.