Neo Contra delivers a fun, violence-filled romp, but its virtues as a hardcore action game are tarnished by its hit-or-miss attempts at parody. Other developers have elevated the classic 2D shooter to a form of ballet, where memorizing bullet patterns and releasing your own perfect counter-attack is the grammar of an elegant dance. The best of these games—Ikaruga, Gradius V, Gunstar Heroes, etc.—are visual poetry when played by a master. Neo Contra shares much in common with the best of 2D shooters, notably its air-tight gameplay and wacky sense of destruction. However, most of Neo Contra's attempts to poke fun at itself fall flat, leaving a game that is basically fun but lacks the winning personality of its brothers.
Neo Contra's delirious opening cinema declares a desire to send-up both 2D shooters and Contra itself. Cigar chomping super soldier Bill Rizer, who looks like he's had testosterone pumped into his body until it came out his eyeballs, is shooting stuff again. He and his samurai sidekick Jaguar (Huh?) bounce, flip, swoop, and twirl around like figure skaters while unloading gaggles of bullets. Bad guys die by the bucketload. Are the bad guys aliens? Robots? Humans in weird outfits? Who knows. They want to kill you, and you want to kill them. The fun begins when you press Start.
Neo Contra is simple and easy to understand. Players choose between either Bill Rizer or Jaguar, each of whom has a series of weapons to choose from. They play more or less the same, although Jaguar has the option of using this katana in addition to his gun. Each weapon configuration theoretically provides a different strategic approach to weeding through the hoards of enemies you'll encounter in Neo Contra. Are you the sort of person who prefers a machine gun for most foes and a grenade launcher for vehicles? Or do you prefer a flame thrower to take on enemies from a closer range and a shotgun for taking on groups from a distance? In addition, each configuration has a long-range "lock-on" weapon that's separate from the other two. These are either missiles or lasers depending on the configuration, but they basically function the same. Players can lock-on to enemies and shoot homing projectiles at them. This is one of the key differences between Neo Contra and previous Contra games.
Neo Contra for the first time in the series re-thinks some of the basic gameplay conceits of Contra, opting for a universal "dodge" maneuver instead of a clunky "jump" command. This means players can finally dive out of the way of on-coming attacks rather than have to try and jump over them like a moron. This is possible because Neo Contra is less restrictive of movement than previous Contra games. The camera is now primarily a wide, top-down view that lets the player move around in all directions. If this sounds more like real 3D, it isn't. The designers have just replaced "up" and "down" with "left" and "right" so it's basically the same old 2D Contra flipped on its side. Depth only comes into play when the player must use the lock-on weapon to target enemies above since, apparently, Bill and Jaguar can't point their guns up.
Neo Contra has four stages to start, with three more unlockable if the player scores a sufficient "Hit Rate" in each stage. The first four stages can be attempted in any order, although from a story point-of-view they clearly were meant to be played consecutively. Like classic Contra the stages vary in setting and theme. There's your typical post apocalyptic urban wasteland, your jungle fortress, your high-tech lab, and your gigantic airship. Each of these stages is filled with impossible stunts the player has to perform in order to pass with a high Hit Rate. The Hit Rate is the element that gives Neo Contra a dance-like quality, normally only found in Treasure's 2D shooters. Anything that can be destroyed in a stage counts for a percentage of your Hit Rate. Percentage points are awarded for killing enemies, and dying subtracts percentage points from your Hit Rate. Therefore, a player that can get a perfect Hit Rate is a player than can kill every enemy, dodge every bullet, and destroy every vehicle without flaw. Trying to master the enemy patterns of each level in order attain a perfect Hit Rate is the primary pleasure of Neo Contra.
It's ironic that games like Neo Contra get criticized for making players master patterns through trial and error, as if this sort of pleasure was shallow. Critically acclaimed games like Dance Dance Revolution are about pattern mastery as well, but in those cases ruthless trial and error is seen as part of the genre. I guess it has something to do with the fact that games like Neo Contra have stories, and franchises with stories have historically moved towards trying to tell those stories better. The few that have insist on perfecting the balletic qualities of 2D action are seen as stragglers on the road to immersive, story-driven nirvana. They aren't seen for what they are: the videogame equivalent of movie musicals. The best 2D shooters exploit their slight narrative premises to enhance their own rhythmic pleasures. The striking visual beauty of Ikaruga is made even more beautiful by the tragic implications of its plot. The absurd destruction of Bangai-O is made even more absurd by the fact that it involves a conflict over fruit. The narrative tone of these games, weather somber or humorous, has an affect on gameplay. The gameplay exists to enhance the tone of the story and vice versa. When one of these two things is weak, it can have an affect on the over all game.
Neo Contra wants very badly to be wacky. This mostly comes in the form of impossible feats that parody normal action games. My favorites are Bill and Jaguar rocketing, on fire, out of an erupting volcano and running, literally, on the top of helicopter blades. These expressions of over-the-top humor are funny, as are most of the gags involving physically impossible situations throughout Neo Contra. The problem comes with the actual story and characters, which are clearly supposed to be funny but fall like lead. Neo Contra seemingly wants to make fun of the convoluted plots of Metal Gear Solid by introducing a goofy host of villains, the "Contras." There's Plant Contra, Animal Contra, and—god help us—Pheromone Contra, just to name a few. I imagine encounters with these villains could be humorous in some context, but they aren't here. It's one thing to parody "theme villains" by making them even more absurd. It's another thing to let them drone on in annoying dialogue scenes that have zero wit or intelligence. Most of the time Neo Contra's attempts that comedy are so dumb that they end up being exactly what they are trying to parody. The one exception is the final conversation with the last boss—the big plot-twist that ends the game—which I found to be a hilarious gag exploiting the shallowness of series protagonist, Bill Rizer. Aside from that one scene though, I felt embarrassed that anyone would bother to script, motion-capture, and provide voice-overs for this drek.
Coming down on a light-hearted action game for having a dumb story might seem a little harsh to some. After all, cinematics can be skipped, and the gameplay is fun regardless of plot. This is true, but to me this is the difference between a good 2D shooter and a great one. Neo Contra isn't a bad game at all. With multiple endings, several unlockables, and a nice difficulty curve it's an enjoyable play. What frustrates me about Neo Contra is that it could have been another Gunstar Heroes had it taken the quality of its humor more seriously. There was a real opportunity here for the genre to spread its wings and soar, but it just doesn't happen with Neo Contra. What we're left with is a soulless exercise in style that lacks the emotional staying power of its betters.