The second PS2 installment of the infamous [i[Contra series is deploying in both the U.S. and Japan. Every gamer who cared about Contra is aware of its impending failure (also known as going 3D) before its release, so the task presents itself as to how to convince anyone to play this game. I say play Neo Contra for two reasons. A series so important to the backbone of gaming is worth following, if only to suggest to Konami how to correct Contra for its sequels, or just treat it like any other game that allows you to blow stuff up and see where it takes you.
Contra introduces itself to gamers in next-generation style. The CG introduction is over a minute long. The main characters, as old as the series Bill and as new as Neo Contra Jaguar, reek of kick-ass as they demonstrate their military prowess. Jaguar stands atop a plane and, without being budged, slices a missile in half. Too bad in the game his sword is the most double-edged weapon in the game: while the most powerful, the katana requires Jaguar to be too close to enemies. With huge hit boxes (the area in which a character can get hit), close range attack does not work in most of Neo Contra.
What attacks do work? Neo Contra offers six weapon sets for each character. While mostly unoriginal, they offer at least three types of shots: a standard “p-shooter” (“p” for “pellet,” an 8-bit term), a flame/close up shot, and a lock-on shot. The strongest lock-on shot is an unlockable one called Heaven’s Gate. The lock-on shot, in general, has a big flaw. Given that it has a limited range, locking-on becomes even more difficult when enemies are elevated. This can be illustrated when fighting first stage’s boss. This flaw does not occur often, so I do not know if Konami just made it hard on purpose.
Each of the 3.5 characters (one unlockable female and Katana Jaguar equal the 1.5 extra) can do this lock-on technique. The L2/R2 buttons let a character lock in two fashions: direction and movement lock like the last [iContra. Neo Contra introduces evasion and dash; the former evades bullets and the latter is a vulnerable sprint/roll. Both of these, with the game’s sometimes trapping overhead camera, do not replace the jump feature and side scrolling goodness for me, which have been a Contra staple (and failure when without them on the PS1). The camera shifts when the heroes ride animals, surf on boards, scale buildings, and most obscurely, run atop the blades of a helicopter. Surely, there are other times the camera strays from above, but anything other than predominantly side-scrolling is just not Contra anymore. I will rant on that more in closing.
The characters range from new to retro. All characters are again rendered in 3D. The backgrounds look similar to the previous PS2 release; non-2D graphics in games like Contra have to work extra hard, in my opinion, not to look pasted. Contra offers nothing spectacular in game graphically. Most of the bosses have a Smash-TV illness, where faces take over the bulk of their bodies. The weapons destroy common enemies in different ways. An enemy can be decapitated, set ablaze, and exploded into many pieces. This may be the goriest Contra yet.
Is it the hardest Contra? Definitely not. In one aspect, it is not thankfully so. Achieving an “S” rank in the last Contra had required perfection. Now, one only needs to achieve a 98% or greater hit rate. The game is 7 stages long. The last stage, however, is simply a final boss. When trying to get an overall “S” rank, I stumble upon a flaw in the game options. It only allows me to cancel or to retry. I cannot return back to the title screen without losing all my lives.
While the game is not appearing to have Konami quality yet, I now introduce the sound. This category is split up in three areas: voice actors, background tracks, and sound effects. The game’s introduction worries any gamer, as I found a woman singing about Neo Contra in lackluster English. The title screen music has rock influences in it. If anyone loves the last Contra’s soundtrack, at this point, there would seem to be a cause for concern. However, the in-game music is superb. I wonder how other die-hard Contra fans perceive this series’ music should be. I personally like the intense techno and trance tracks and assume half of the gamers would agree. Then there are some rock tracks as well to appease to what I assume is the other half of Contra’s fan base and, hence, their gaming tastes. Contra’s signature stage finish jingle is remixed once again, which is something any Contra fan should be happy to hear.
However, the voice acting is stale. Bill is awfully stoic, especially with speech that should evoke some kind of pathos. Jaguar is a mixed breed. Physically, he is a dark samurai, but his voice sounds anything but authentic. The pinnacle, in terms of questionably unintentional comedic relief, comes from the Animal Contra. All characters are strangely named this or that Contra. Animal Contra is nothing more than a dog (the woof! woof! kind). According to Bill, he is a dog in the figurative sense as well, as is portrayed in the non-clever dialogue. Maybe Contra needs no dialogue, other than if Contra wishes to clone itself after mindless formulaic games released whenever a console system reaches a reasonable price. Neo Contra’s cast does tell the small story of Bill and the gang in the year 4444 A.D. The plot twist is not predictable and is very Hollywood. Playing the game, one may wish the optional subtitles would be substitutes for the poor voices.
The sound effects are nothing spectacular. However, they are fitting and done well. In playing the game, I find myself wanting to hear the background music almost exclusively, so the sound effects do not cause the game to receive any demerits.
Finally, before returning to another round of Neo Contra, a few options highlight the title screen. The extras found under the “Etc.” are worth spoiling. There is nothing too exciting, except for the soft porn of Bill or Jaguar in a thong swimsuit in the gallery mode. A war record, a music box, a stage select feature, and a theater of CG movies round out the extras.
All in all, Neo Contra plays like any 2D action game that goes vertical: less than it should. The game carries the name Contra, but the similarities in where it would count end there. I would not recommend this game for purchase. It is a fun rental; that is what I did with it. Obtaining the soundtrack to Neo Contra would be much more worth anyone’s time. In closing, I begin my plea to game makers everywhere. At least developers should keep the spirit of 2D gaming alive. Sometimes the third dimension changes or redefines genres in a positive way, as I am an open gamer in that respect. If they want totally to neglect the timeless art of hand-drawn graphics, they should at least create a game, whose roots are 2D, with 2D platform elements. I need this from Neo Contra, but I am let down. To Konami, take Metal Gear (a great character, but for the sake of this review) and shove it. Thanks for recently abandoning an equally important game (specifically, its formula) and showing gamers where Konami and, sadly, some big publishers are heading. Ironic how flat the path of 3D gaming can be.