Old-school shooters are experiencing a bit of a revival lately, at least if Konami has anything to say about it. The company had a lot to do with the shoot-'em-up genre's proliferation back in the '80s, thanks to hits like Gradius and Contra, and now is delivering nostalgia-inducing sequels to its old hits. Neo Contra for the PlayStation 2 is the latest of these. It's a pure arcade-style shoot-'em-up based on Konami's classic side-scrolling action game from 1987, and it can be played by one player or two players simultaneously, much like the original. 2002's Contra: Shattered Soldier took a similar approach, and while Neo Contra plays out a little differently (mostly from a top-down perspective), it's still a short-lived experience that tries to derive lasting value from compelling you to play through its handful of stages over and over, until you've memorized everything and ceased making mistakes. The stages themselves are filled with over-the-top shooting action and twitch gameplay, so they're good for some kicks, even if Neo Contra ultimately doesn't provide much depth or challenge.
Contra is back in a shoot-'em-up that's reminiscent of the classics, but not as good.
In Neo Contra, you'll blast your way through five core stages in an effort to take out the titular gang of high-tech terrorists. The game's main characters are Bill Rizer, the spiky-haired, cigar-chomping protagonist of all the Contra games, and his new partner, a futuristic samurai called Jaguar. The characters are identical in practice, and can unload a continual stream of heavy firepower while quickly dodging enemies and their rather slow-moving bullets. The game opens by inviting you to choose from four different stages, which can be played in any sequence (a fifth and seemingly final stage opens up afterward). Each one pits you against an onslaught of enemies and culminates in a battle against one the "Elite Four," which seems to be poking fun at Metal Gear Solid's FOXHOUND terrorist group, what with its team members like Plant Contra and Animal Contra--the latter of whom happens to be a nasty-tempered, militaristic talking dog.
Neo Contra doesn't take itself seriously, which is readily obvious even in the game's gleefully over-the-top introductory cutscene (which is so insane that it pays homage to both The Matrix and Seven Samurai in the space of a couple of minutes). If anything, the story is a little too central to the gameplay. The stages tend to culminate in surprisingly drawn-out cutscenes that just don't fit well with the bloody, no-nonsense action, aren't very interesting anyway, and can just as easily be skipped after you've seen them once. The fact that you'll invariably get a real downer of an ending the first time you finish the game is also kind of disappointing, though so is the fact that you'll probably reach this ending within two hours.
You'll take on the Elite Four and their droves of cronies.
The stages are short but exciting. They make no apologies for their ridiculous scope, and despite the game's attempts at a story, they provide no real explanation for what's happening. Probably the most absurd level takes place with Bill and/or Jaguar running like mad on top of a helicopter rotor, as though it were a perfectly solid platform, all while dodging a hail of rockets and giant bugs and things. There's also a boss fight that takes place as you plummet toward the ground, and a fast-paced sequence in which you're riding atop a dinosaurlike creature. No single sequence is particularly prolonged; the stages can actually be finished in about 10 minutes or less. They're packed with variety but don't try hard to draw out the action. For example, you'll find that some of the game's tougher-seeming foes seem to go down a lot easier than you'd expect. Part of the pleasure of shoot-'em-ups like this lies in painstakingly chipping away at near-unstoppable foes, but no single enemy in Neo Contra can withstand your attacks for very long. This is partly why Neo Contra just isn't as difficult as shoot-'em-ups traditionally are. Since Neo Contra lacks the masochistic difficulty levels of the genre's greats, it also lacks their grueling intensity.
Much like Shattered Soldier before it, Neo Contra abandons the Contra series' tradition of requiring you to pick up power-ups as you fight. Instead, you just pick from one of several different weapons loadouts when you first begin play, and you'll be stuck with it until the bitter end. Each configuration features two standard weapons and one lock-on targeting system that's strictly for use against flying foes. Until you unlock some highly overpowered variants, the first of the three standard-issue configurations is probably the best. With it, you get a rapid-fire machine gun for spraying down swarming foes, an extremely powerful but slow grenade launcher for concentrating damage, and a missile system for taking out aerial threats. The second configuration seems least effective, since its slow-shooting charge beam and close-range flamethrower just aren't counterbalanced well enough to capably deal with most of the game's threats, and its antiair laser system isn't that great, either. The third configuration features a shotgun-style version of the Contra series' classic spread shot (which makes its triumphant return here, after its disappointing omission in Shattered Soldier), Contra's signature fireball gun, and a deadly antiair electric charge. Things get slightly more complicated than just unloading with these various guns, though.
At any rate, whichever weapon setup you choose, you'll be able to rapidly switch between the two primary weapons with L1, continually fire them with the square button, and paint targets for your antiair weapons by holding down the triangle button (releasing the button launches the attack). Most of the action in Neo Contra takes place from an isometric perspective, and though you cannot jump, you may freely shoot in any direction along the horizontal axis just by running in that direction while pressing the fire button. Sometimes--oftentimes--it's desirable to lock your shooting trajectory so you can freely move about while firing in one direction. You do this by pressing and holding L2, whereas by pressing and holding R2, you may freely rotate in place. In practice, you'll have to frequently use the L2 button almost like a gas pedal, easing off it to fine-tune your aim while keeping on your toes and remaining mobile. It's a clunky system at first, but it grows fairly intuitive with a little practice.