Contra saw some dark days but Konami was able to right the ship with Contra: Shattered Soldier. Although it was incredibly difficult it had everything you could have wanted in a next generation action game: stylish production values, a great soundtrack and relentless action. That resurgence would continue with Neo Contra. What it lacks in graphical flourish it gains in accessibility, making it my pick for the better of the two games. It might be a bit goofy at times but Neo Contra is overall a great game.
The best way to describe Neo Contra is the direct opposite of Shattered Soldier. Where that game was deadly serious at all times Neo Contra is a bit silly at times. Bill Rizer is basically a superhuman as he runs atop moving helicopter blades and rockets into space without a space suit. The Elite Four are a goofy bunch; one of them is a talking dog that is the captain of an airship! Despite that and its nonsensical hidden endings the game never goes full on Looney Tunes. Shattered Soldier needed to establish a clear tone and signify that the series was back. With that done the team could let their hair down so to speak and have fun.
The weapon system has undergone a slight change. You choose from multiple prearranged sets like Parodius consisting of two primary weapons and a lock-on weapon for air targets. There are eventually six sets per character with a nice amount of variety among them. A few new moves are introduced: you can perform a quick dash and a defensive spin that grants a moment of invincibility.
This is primarily a top down shooter and as such lacks the constantly shifting viewpoints of its predecessor. Legacy of War tried this but failed miserably. Here the game seems thoughtfully designed to avoid all of that game’s issues. You have weapons designed specifically for airborne enemies and can lock on by facing them. Doing so does not interrupt your primary attack either which is great. You can also strafe or lock in place to focus fire. I found the strafing controls to be iffy; my character would frequently get stuck in one direction or ignore it altogether. This can be incredibly frustrating but isn’t game breaking.
Neo Contra eschews the boss rush format of its predecessors and goes for a balanced approach of exploration with boss battles sprinkled throughout. While this is viewed from top down the camera does shift during boss fights. In these cases it is usually to give the widest, cinematic view. The various scenarios are very creative and live up to the series best moments. While there are less boss battles overall each is incredibly memorable and comprises multiple phases. The grading system returns and gates the true finale although it isn’t as strict. In terms of accessibility this trumps its predecessor although it is still just as short.
Where Shattered Soldier took glee in punishing the player Neo Contra goes in the opposite direction. This is a far easier game and more accessible to the average player. Right off the bat you have five lives and seven credits. Extra lives can be earned relatively frequently which also eases the burden. The ranking system isn’t as harsh and only penalizes you for the number of lives lost in battle. It is far easier to earn a B ranking although you will need to be thorough clearing out each level to earn an A or S. The true meat of the game, its frequent boss battles, are challenging yet fair, to the point it is actually fun to go back to the training mode to figure out how to destroy them faster. To see the true ending still requires a high ranking but it is at least obtainable without cheating.
The moderate difficulty does lead to game being over right when it gets really good. Most will have this licked in an hour or less. Ranking high enough for the final two missions adds a little time to that but not too much. Luckily there are a bevy of unlockable materials to add replay value. In addition to new weapon sets, there is an art gallery, theater mode to watch all of the cutscenes, and a music box. You can also unlock Jaguar and Lucia as playable characters that are very different mechanically from Bill. The game was definitely designed to be played multiple times and while I don’t mind it as much I do wish there were one or two more missions.
I am really impressed with Neo Contra. I admit some initial disappointment that it was a strictly top down shooter. But it defied my expectations and delivered the same hard action the series is known for without constantly kicking you in the teeth. Whether its short length and copious extras are enough to warrant a purchase comes down to personal choice. For me personally it’s worth it. This is the game Legacy of War was supposed to be.