After reading Matt's analysis of Neo Contra, I think he nailed it when he said that it lacks the staying power of its predecessors. It's clearly a good game at its core, and technically, things are smooth and feel good in my hands. In fact, I'm always glad to see this kind of fast-action shooter come down the pike, especially with the name Contra attached to it. In my opinion, the original games on the NES, SNES and Genesis are some of the best action games of all time. Sadly, development of their next-generation sequels was handed to an outside company and schlepped onto the PlayStation, all but destroying what had been a legendary franchise. 2002's Shattered Soldier for the PS2 (now shaped by Konami's hands) was a good attempt towards undoing the damage, but it wasn't a home run. I'd say that Neo Contra is a better title, and actually goes further towards restoring the series' former glory, but there's still a way to go.
Matt's premise that the game is neither serious nor parody is completely correct, and I agree that the "is-it-or-isn't-it" feeling hurts the game overall. There were many times when the action on screen was so silly and absurd that I wanted to laugh, but it fell short of actually being comedy. On the other hand, the "serious" story is so weak that Konami would have been better off emulating the old-school Contras and leaving it out altogether. Running on top of spinning helicopter blades or being blasted out of a volcano are great ways to lighten a mood and create exciting moments, but any potential for being enjoyably comedic dies when the game flops out lame dialogue and meaningless events in complete contrast to the action. It's almost like there were two separate teams at work—one for the play, and one for the cutscenes. Apparently, neither one was coordinating with the other.
It's too bad that that game has so little coherence conceptually, because the actual gameplay is quite nice. I found myself slipping into a comfortable zone during some heated onscreen chaos, and the overhead perspective (highly reminiscent of the SNES's Contra III: The Alien Wars) works very well. Strafe and pivot maneuvers are mapped to the shoulder buttons for a tight and intuitive level of mastery, and the control scheme in general is pretty sublime (except for a split-second delay while switching between the lock-on weapons and the standard-fire guns). Still, a moment's forethought solves this situation, and things continue on swimmingly after an extremely brief learning period. Neo Contra is also quite a bit easier than Shattered Soldier, not requiring as much brute memorization and being more player-friendly overall.
Neo Contra isn't a bad game. Most of the elements for an afternoon or two of satisfying action are in place, and I'm glad to have it in my library. Unlocking some of the extras also gave me incentive to play through the game again, kicking ass along the way. (It's always nice to come back to a boss that whooped you and return the favor with amplified firepower.) In spite of this, I can't say that Neo Contra is the best Contra out there. I'd actually love to sit down with the Konami team and give them a few tips on how to fully reclaim the series' lost legacy. Bringing back the long-lost flying weapon capsules and the traditional end-of-level victory music would be a good start…