Review: Don't slip me the tongue!
Konami's Contra series has almost become synonymous with 2D platform shooters. It became more true than ever after Konami revived the series as the 2D shooter it is after two failed attempts at 3D. But in this day and age, 3D gameplay seems to sneak it's long tendrils into everything and Konami has once again attempted to turn Contra 3D. Thankfully, this latest attempt was done by the same team that brought you 2002's Contra: Shattered Soldier (the only 10 I've ever given out). While Neo Contra isn't that good, it proves that Contra can be 3D and still be great.
After the events of Shattered Soldier, Bill Rizer volunteered to go back into cold sleep in case he is needed to defend Earth once more. In the year 4444, Earth has become a prison planet that is ruled by Neo Contra, an organization that is attempting to spread as much destruction as possible. With Lance dead, Bill has a new number two named Jaguar, a futuristic samurai. Together they must stop Neo Contra and it's band of soldiers, aliens, robots and genetic mutations.
Neo Contra truly is new in every sense of the word. This time Konami has shifted the plane to an isometric overhead view of the action and it works spectacularly. All of the fast and furious action of the Contra series has been transplanted to this new look. Along with that new look are plenty of new weaponry and a refined weapon system. Like Shattered Soldier, your Contra soldier will have three weapons selectable at all times. But this time before each game you will have to select which set of weapons to use. Each set includes a continuous fire gun like a Machine Gun or a Flamethrower, a power weapon like a Grenade Launcher or a Rocket Launcher and a lock-on weapon for aerial enemies like Homing Missiles or the Thunder Gun (eight bolts of electricity like lightning). And Konami has heeded the call of fans everywhere and brought the Spread Gun back to Contra. With three standard weapon sets and three more unlockable, the weaponry of Neo Contra can certainly cause plenty of damage.
Since Neo Contra has switched perspectives, jumping is no longer as useful as it once was. To rectify that, Konami has created the Dash Move and the Spin Move. The Dash Move allows your Contra soldier to dash out of the way of enemy fire quickly, however he's still vulnerable to being hit. This is where the Spin Move comes into to play. By standing perfectly still and pressing X your Contra soldier will spin for a few seconds and be completely invulnerable to enemy attacks. Combining both will be the only way to survive the constant barrage of enemy fire, mucus and explosions.
Returning from Shattered Soldier are that game's angle lock and movement lock buttons to further control your character's movement. Personally I find these buttons distracting and it's possible to master the whole game without touching them once. On a personal level I thought Neo Contra was a perfect opportunity to deploy the two sticks method of control that is used in games like Smash TV. The left stick would control your movement and the right stick would control the direction you fire in. The fact that this isn't even an option in Neo Contra almost makes the game feel incomplete. However, due to the tilted overhead view the game uses most of the time, it may not have worked right. And besides all that the control is good enough as it is. It'll take a little getting used to, but it works surprisingly well and feels completely natural after an hour.
The levels of Neo Contra have taken this new perspective and run with it. The game throws you into four levels that are playable in any order from the start with three more after that. There's an assault on a military base and then the dive into the bowels of the base as you fight an alien falling with you. Another level features a chase on dinosaurback and then a climb up a skyscraper as a giant alien chases you. And then you begin a level by using the blades of a helicopter as a platform to stand on until you crash onto an airship. There are even more surprises in the later levels.
As with any Contra game, the constant action is what carries Neo Contra. There are swarms of enemy soldiers, gun turrets and plenty of alien uglies. The various bosses all have a lot personality and fighting a giant Quato (the one in all of the screenshots) in the first level as he spews vomit and acid at you is worth the price of admission. The four Contra Elites also have their moments as it's hard to find fault in a talking dog piloting a water tank and a cigar chomping Neo-Nazi in a mech. Although the perfect Contra moment appears in the game in the fifth stage (which is an underground base with alien flesh overgrown over everything). Alien pods erupting, giant poison spewing stalks burst out of the ground, giant spiders charging and the constant whir of a Machine Gun. My god, it's heavenly. I just wish that wasn't the moment where terrible slowdown grips the game. No other points in the game have as much happening as stage five and the slowdown happens nowhere else. The graphics of Neo Contra won't blow your mind, but a lot of detail is packed into each of the game's seven levels and the alien designs are just as gross as ever (including a giant booger shooting tongue!).
I think the most disappointing thing about Neo Contra is that compared to Shattered Soldier this game is a cakewalk. The gamer has been made considerably easier and a decent Contra player should be able to complete the game with an A ranking after a half a dozen hours, give or take. As always, the difficulty is dependant on pattern matching and in Neo Contra's case, the patterns become very clear after continuous playtime. Yes you'll still die a lot, but the game will throw copious amounts of extra lives and continues at you until you can power through to the end. There are also more continue points per level this time around instead of the single midpoint of Shattered Soldier. Some levels have up to four separate continue points.
Earning an S ranking is easier this time around as well because it no longer requires a 100% hit rate for an S, but a 98%. With it's scaled back difficulty, the game will require you to create your own goals. Just like the good old days actually. Try to refrain from using some of the more powerful sets of weaponry or extra lives and see what you think of the difficulty then. If you don't use all of the handholding Konami gives you then Neo Contra becomes really hard.
With Neo Contra Konami promised to flesh out the "story" aspect of Contra for the first time and really make a compelling narrative. Maybe someday, but there's no compelling story here. The cut scenes in Neo Contra are short and while they look a little nicer than the one's featured in Shattered Soldier (and now features passable voice work), there's still no story to them. Well there is a story, but it's just so stupid and pointless that I instinctively hit the skip movie button every time they come up. In fact, they fail to even mention why there are aliens running around on Earth this time. They're just there, with no connection to any current or previous invasion. None of it makes any sense, just ignore it.
The game features plenty of unlockables including those new weapon sets and the ability to send Jaguar into battle with his katana. Playing in close with the katana is definitely a new and unique way to play Contra and makes the game ultra-hard. Bravo Konami.
Finally, I have to comment that the word Contra is thrown around this game like a Smurf word. You know what a Smurf word is. Random words seem to be replaced with the word Contra. Everything is Contra this and Contra that. It's a little weird, it's lost any meaning it had. It's just Contra. But that's the way I love it.