Another trip to the PS2 beckons methinks and who am I to argue with the forces of fate and Konami? It seems that recently during my intended mission of focusing on the Snes era Konami games I have gotten sidetracked into trying out several of their lesser known franchise instalments on Sony’s world consuming console, here is one them so without further ado let’s do this!
Released in 2005 this little talked about and mostly missed Contra instalment is a strange beast and for many positive and negative reasons, like most games from Japanese developers it really wants to be your best friend yet somehow ultimately makes you want to smack it in the face with it’s own shoes but once again in typical fashion I’m getting ahead of myself so more on this later.
What I will say however is that this is clearly a return to form from the quite filthy PS1 3D affair which everyone agrees on may just be one of the worst self destruct moments of any franchise ever, Bubsy 3D being the other of note although one could argue that Bubsy was always crap to begin with, Contra games were at one point in time the very pinnacle of side scrolling shooters.
Upon booting this game up and after the standard Konami logo’s and other copyright items you are treated/witness to one of the most over the top and bizarre FMV sequences your eyes will ever see and your brain will ever try to work out. It kind of makes sense but at the same time is utterly devoid of a structured story however what is clear is that these are 2 very macho guy’s intent on showing off their muscles and prowess at killing stuff off to the world, there is also a nice nod to the famous Predator moment where Arnie and Carl Weathers do that whole arm clasping sequence, real 1980's men wear oil as they saying goes…..
After this it’s time for the options screen to come calling and some really nice music kicks in and some very cool screens showing the options move and slide all over the place smoothly with some fantastic presentation and sound effects, 2 thumbs up Konami. It’s also worth pointing out that here is where you see the magic words TUTORIAL at the bottom, for the love of god click on this or you will be very annoyed and confused. The tutorial mode is essentially the way the developer lets you know they just screwed with how contra plays however as they turn you round arch your back and remove those pink panties they will first whisper sweet nothings in your ears in the form of trying to convince you this is a good idea, it’s not of course but hey at least they romanced us first eh? It seems that they did learn from the PS1 game but not completely as this is still in 3D however it’s now primarily in the top down twin stick formula except they are missing one key thing….. You never use the right analogue stick, WTF
Yup first breaking point of the game is a biggie, I understand some PS1 games fall down because not everyone had a dual shock analogue controller but the thing is every single PS2 owner had as standard a pad with 2 thumbsticks, why oh why did Konami not use them? Instead you have to hold down either L2 or R2 in order to strafe whilst holding the same direction or stand totally still and move in 360 degrees in firing mode, NO! On top of this add in the cool ability to switch between weapons using one button, roll with another and fire lock on missiles with another and suddenly your wishing you were an octopus. If you start the game without playing the mentioned tutorial this will be such a shock you may not even bother to carry on because it’s a stupid idea and you will need the practice if you want to beat this game.
After this delight is out of the way the next thing to do is choose a weapon loadout and whilst I applaud this immensely I must wonder and ask why there’s no mixture of slow spread weapons and fast straight firing weapons, you either get one play style or the other and on Hard mode this means you will be hard pressed to be able to beat certain bosses when they change attack styles mid fight. So once again it’s a choice, but not really a choice at all.
The game begins with a space station firing what looks like and indeed is a missile down to the Earth from where you pop out after impact, slightly drastic as it wipes out half a damn city but hey who doesn’t like a grand entrance right? At this point you and your partner (2 player option, yes!) begin to simply mow down your enemies, wave upon wave of them who are fearless killing machines who are let’s be honest utterly dumb and just run into you and your gun of plenty. It’s all standard fare here however it moves very nicely and the controls for the most part once you get used to them work well enough to allow for fun even if in the back of your mind your simply thinking that this should be a twin stick shooter.
Throughout the first levels enemies of several types try to kill you and there’s a nice mixture to make sure it’s never boring with some attacking from the air meaning you have to use your lock-on weapon of choice, this stops you simply spamming one button and so again increases the chances of staying with it for longer. The first boss battle is actually not really a boss and is early on, it’s a fantastic first entry into some really quite well thought out large sprite distractions and it’s here that Neo Contra finally delivers something that’s worthy of praise without a down side. I wont spoil it completely but think massive plant and a weird head and you won’t go far wrong.
More carnage ensues after this until you reach the actual end of level boss fight who in traditional Japanese storytelling is little more than yet another Metal Gear Solid wanabee copy and paste character, oh look kids it’s a soldier, a general no less with no hair and he smokes zzzzzz. It’s at this point it hit me that I still have no idea what the story is because the intro didn’t tell me, the start-up sequence did nothing at all outside of the macho homo-erotic displays of arm oil and now I’m once again lost.
The return of crap storytelling never stops giving when your dealing with Konami and Capcom but hey the boss is a tank that then turns into a massive robot so ultimately that wins over the need for a story and as I said earlier the big battles are a great example of positives in this title. Once General Contra (yup, that’s his name…Sigh) is out of the way you get another cut sequence then a series of points rankings, a final grade score which guess what? Means nothing at all and it’s off to level 2.
The rest of this game very much plays exactly how I just described with death, death, death, boss battle then more death and to be honest I was ok with that because even though the bosses themselves are so cliché for the first 3 levels it’s fun to see what they turn into or attack you like. There are a few key points to make here though such as how level 3 pays some quite superb homage to that famous 2nd level from the best contra game of all time (contra 3 on the Snes) and how some of the same game music is recreated in subtle ways . The standout moments of real class however are when the gameplay camera shifts completely to allow for such awesome moments as riding on the blades of Helicopters (oh yeah you heard me) and surfing on a missile, both of these are so full of win you should play the game for that alone.
Ultimately though the thing you will talk about when you play this title is the 4th level boss who if your playing on easy (30 lives and 5 continues) will just make you stand up and clap at the sheer madness of Konami’s developers minds. Maybe this is why they don’t have a story because how on earth can they explain how this thing is created, no spoilers folks, it ruins the moment completely. 4 levels is all you will get in Easy mode, Normal mode however takes you down to 5 lives and only a few continues meaning don’t even try it unless your playing two-player because this is where the real Contra lives and in true tradition it’s rock hard. I used most of my lives just getting to the end of level 2 the difficulty spike is vertical at times. Seriously good players or those with friends once they get to the end of level 4 will be treated to another couple of levels for their hard work and an actual ending so it’s worth it for sure.
At the end of my time with this I was left with mixed feelings regarding scoring because from a story and design point of view it’s a bit of a mess for sure and both are so damn easy to fix in the grand scheme of things. The game engine is great which is usually the hardest thing to get right so to tick that box only to handicap the player with a stupid way of playing makes my head hurt and strips my patience away. The ridiculous lack of a real story outside the 2 paragraph effort in the manual offends me greatly and is something I cannot forgive, that’s just lazy. Konami you made FMV sequences so why did you make none of them make any real sense?
From a fun element I found myself smiling a lot when it came to the bigger boss battles for sure and a few other moments where they obviously tried to change up the pace and keep stuff fresh, to me that’s all good stuff for sure. I guess it comes down to this…. Play it on your own on Easy and it’s fun while it lasts but ultimately you notice the bad and silly more than enjoy your time, play it on hard and unless your fantastic at Contra you won’t ever get on with it at all. My advice is pick this up and play it on Hard with a second person in the room and go back to the traditional same room multi-player fun that made gaming so great all those years ago before xbox live and 12 year old kids ruined everything for everyone. This could easily be one of those marmite games that some will love and other will hate, for once I’m sitting on the fence with this until my brain works out which camp I truly feel a part of so I will score accordingly.
Verdict:- A strange one to not only play but actually rate, for absolutely sure it’s no great game or classic however I don’t personally feel it’s trash either. It has some lovely pro’s and some annoying con’s but in realising this you will absolutely play at least four levels through on easy mode just to see what the 4th level boss is all about.
It’s quite rare now and being released late on in the PS2 lifecycle before the market was taken over by HD gaming with the xbox360 in late 2005 is why the print run was smaller than you would expect although that’s not a reason to buy it, it’s just an observation.
I guess all I can really say is give it a bash, if only to see how NOT to tell a story.
Second Opinion:- It's always risky to take a much loved gaming franchise in new directions and this is what has happened here... and then some.
Neo Contra is that lovely mixture of something you know meeting the requirement on your behalf to be open to change. A bit of this is rewarded but overall it has to be said that this feels like a game made, then given a Contra name afterwards. You could easily call this 'Monster killer X-Alpha' and it would feel the exact same way. In fact everything here feels very average.
Transbot Scores:- 5 out of 10