In the beginning, there was
, an 8-bit side-scrolling beauty from the 1980's that defined the platform shoot 'em up genre. We'd been running and jumping in Mario style games for a while, then along came this game that basically gave Mario a machine gun and tasked the player with shooting anything and everything… it had aliens, robots, and big explosions, and we loved it! Sequels followed and, with the exception of Contra III: The Alien Wars, they all pretty much sucked rocks. That was true of 2002's Contra: Shattered Soldier, which, in the process of jazzing up the old school Contra play mechanic for the 3D age, failed miserably for a variety of reasons. Now, Konami gives us another sequel in the form of Neo Contra, and guess what?–it's good!
Neo Contra is a run-and-gun shoot 'em up with a top-down viewpoint. In human-speak, that means you see the action from above and guide your soldier through the levels in a manner similar to such classics as Alien Syndrome, MERCS, One, Smash TV, and Zombies Ate My Neighbors. Actually, if you remember the top-view levels from Super C or Contra III, then you have a good idea of how Neo Contra works. Konami did a great job of making the controls user-friendly. You can move your hero with the left analog stick, fire a basic weapon with square, fire a lock-on weapon with triangle, perform a quick dash move with X, and toggle aiming lock controls with the left and right shoulder buttons.
Right off the bat, there are two playable characters to choose from. One is Bill Rizer, the hero from the previous Contra game (the story in Neo Contra is a follow-up to the story from Contra: Shattered Soldier). The other is a half-human, half-robot named Jaguar, who sacrifices some speed in exchange for stronger weapons. If you manage to beat the game ridiculously fast, you can unlock a third character.
As for weapons, this Contra game is unlike the rest in that you don't pick-up upgrades by shooting at crates or floating symbols. Instead, you pick your allotment before the game starts and stick with it for the duration. There are six weapon sets in all. Each provides a standard weapon, a power weapon, and a lock-on weapon. Standard weapons are good for long-range attacks or mowing down basic soldiers, whereas power weapons typically dole out large splash damage over a shorter distance. The lock-on weapons are for use against enemies that specifically have a green LED display floating above them. When you're within range and tap the triangle button, the LED will turn white and your shots will chase after the enemy. Fans of the Contra series will be happy to know that each weapon set contains at least one weapon from previous Contra games (machine gun, fire whip, spread shot, lock-on laser, etc.).
There are 7 levels in all–4 are open from the start, and you can tackle them in any order, while the other 3 unlock in sequence once you beat stage 4. For the most part, each level consists of a short but hectic firefight against troops and machines, followed by a mid-boss, followed by another firefight, followed by the stage boss. The levels are hard at first, but become rather easy once you memorize the layouts and enemy locations. The smaller soldiers, robots, and tanks are mainly there for cannon fodder. The true meat of the game rests mostly in the boss battles, which tend to involve multiple attack patterns and transformations.
The boss fights in this game are awesome. Each one is always preceded by some sort of story interlude or Hollywood style fly-in, which typically involves the camera rotating around the boss while it transforms into something big and nasty–often striking a badass pose in the process. Bosses have multiple attacks and often undergo two or three transformations before they die. In one level, your opponent is a tank equipped with machine guns, seeker missiles, and napalm grenades. Once you manage to destroy its weapons, it transforms into a biped robot and pulls a rifle out of nowhere. For that form, you have to use your lock-on weapon to take it down, while avoiding the robot's gunfire and its attempts to jump on top of you. When you defeat that form, the boss turns into a flying laser weapon and opens up the floor, revealing a bottomless shaft. The final portions of that boss fight take place in freefall. Other memorable bosses include a giant flying battleship, a massive blood-dripping alien, and something that can only be described as a combination of male and female sex organs.
It also helps that Konami has outdone themselves graphically with this game. The textures and polygons used to build the levels and characters are smooth and full of detail. Surfaces such as metal and flesh look appropriately aged and scuffed. Every enemy, from the smallest radio-controlled gun to the largest boss, has a number of moving parts and flashing accents. In most cases, when you strike an enemy with a barrage of gunfire, it'll lose some of its parts or explode in a shower of blood before disappearing. Bosses tend to lose their limbs in bits and pieces, or in large chunks. During the cannon fodder portions of each level, hardly a moment goes by when the screen isn't full of bullets and explosions, with new enemies coming out to replace the old ones you're so mercilessly killing. There are quite a few Hollywood style, Jerry Bruckheimer moments too. Each level opens with a cinematic fly-in that usually involves the hero smashing through a door or some guardian machine with a helicopter or hover-bike. When it's time for a mid-boss or a level boss battle, the viewpoint will shift so that the characters can speak close-up to one of the Contra guardians, and then undergo all sorts of music-video style zooms and fades to really highlight how menacing and huge the upcoming boss is.
Once in a while, a larger creature or machine will suddenly appear and smash or eat the boss that you thought you were going to fight, and then challenge you instead. That sort of "oh sh*t" moment is the kind of thing that makes this genre so timeless.
The audio isn't nearly as nice, but the included assortment of weapon sounds, explosions, and atmospheric noises does get the job done. The music has a pulse-pounding rock-and-roll beat to it, and fans of the series will recognize some of the theme songs and segues as remixes of the music from earlier Contra games.
Ultimately, the game's biggest flaw is its duration. Most players will only need two or three hours to complete the final level. The majority of unlockables become available once you manage that feat, so really the only incentive you have to continue playing is being able to play through all of the levels again.
Fans of classic shoot 'em up games will probably enjoy Neo Contra the most. However, since the levels are fairly short and the game is so repetitive, you'll probably want to give it a rent first–or wait until the price comes down ($20 or so would seem appropriate).