a review of Neo Contra
a videogame developed by konami TYO
and published by konami
for the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system
text by Ario Barzan
Ah – the lovers of masochism. Those who upload the fruit of their labor onto the Internet and kick bastard games into the ground with inhuman, button-pounding prowess. Our chain to their existence is their Pro Status garnered by guiding Ryu Hayabusa through primordial-stuff-fit inducing levels. Just how many tries did it take? Did they come home from work or school each day and practice ’till midnight? Have they put off Real Life for their goal? I wonder if these people aren’t just A.I., programmed to conquer pixilated hell.
Contra: Shattered Soldier, released in the early lifespan of the Playstation 2, was, as we say in the business, not hecking around: a heaven-sent for such masochists, and a destroyer of worlds for those who found Donkey Kong Country difficult. One came to either embrace the game as it gave them a heart-halting slap on the back, or despised its gleeful abrasiveness. A middle-ground did not exist, because the presentation was black and white, and hard as diamond.
That was the problem, I guess. “Hard-ass” is as far away from a title as you can give me (though I really don’t want a title). Yes, I can enjoy a challenge that, now and again, has me weeping as a denied child would, but limits do exist. For example: God Hand’s Challenge #15, where it’s you without roulette orbs or tension gauge, against three enemies on the highest difficulty – fifteen seconds to win – and enough life on your end so that a single hit kills. Thinking about it makes me want to tear a small animal in half. Shattered Soldier was not nearly so abusive. Still, you were given a constant visit by failure, and it was a bit of a downer.
So, if Shattered Soldier‘s militaristic perverseness in forcing us to dance to the beat of its death drum was the attraction, Neo Contra is more unfettered and consistently accessible – more fun. The odd thing is that no one made much of a shout, or whisper, even. A cold neglect hung around the game as the media waved a hand away at its shortness and lesser difficulty. Certainly, Shattered Soldier was nothing big, but it did have a viewable following. Neo Contra, then, is almost invisible. After going on a mission to track a copy down in its Bargain Bin home, finishing it three times with a friend in two days, and then four times by myself, my brain was . . . hot, and bothered. Hot from joy, and bothered by the bitter reality that the heaviest slice of Videogamedom’s inhabitants have turned into edacious gremlins, preferring a fat bag of chips over a delicious steak. They want seventy hours of gameplay that’s stretched like the deformed skin of plastic-surgery-addicted stars.
In such an age, Neo Contra‘s briefness is, yeah, startling. And because the challenge isn’t so damned, we can jog through most of it before the timer on the oven lets us know our deep dish pizza’s finished. Though, when it comes down to it, length is such a context sensitive thing. It’s distressing to see this mentality of believing XL is just the fit for every game under the sun. Super Mario Brothers 3‘s size is perfect for its design; and twenty years later, we can still play the thing and feel gratified. Neo Contra is itty, oh-so-bitty in the current world of “Epic” (which has all but lost its meaning), yet it is crammed with loving expertise, able to be played whenever, free of cumbersome devotional demands.
From the get-go, four stages can be completed in any order. You might want to start out on the fourth, since it’s kind of amazing. It begins by showing Bill Rizer’s upper body moving, shaking as the sky goes by – then, the camera pulls away, and you see that our friend is running on top of a helicopter’s spinning blades. A swarm of overgrown bees attack, followed by an aircraft dropping bombs all over. Trash these punks, and take on a flying battleship, which, in due time, is knocked out of commission by another that’s ten times bigger. You infiltrate this behemoth, a deliciously videogame-y war zone populated with cannons, missile launchers, sentry guns, and hordes of soldiers. And the boss, dear Lord, is a dog who hops into a water craft and shoots screen-filling laser patterns.
Yes, Neo Contra pushes Serious Business away, and it’s all the more glorious for it. Picking up the case and comparing Jim Lee’s bright art to Ashley Wood’s, you can already notice the change in tone to buttery ridiculousness. As Shattered Soldier opened with a grunge-rock-infested cinematic flashing apocalyptic Engrish across scenes of destruction, this detonated in my face with a woman wailing, “NEO CONTRAAA,” while Bill and secondary-character/black-samurai Jaguar used rocket launchers to destroy a giant robot, and – well. Get an S ranking, and witness Jaguar cut the hecking world in half, and then swim through the space debris in a loincloth to sourceless humming. As a friend put it when I sent him a link to the clip on Youtube, “There’s something very wrong, here. And, yet, at the same time, very right.”
In concept, the game is pretty tough. As logic dictates, however, 3D movement opens wider dynamics, spreads the yellow tape out. This is not to say the design isn’t tight – it is. It’s invigorating, respectable. You will die a healthy amount of times before nailing it. If Neo Contra’s stages are Gauntlet stages – you versus the swarm in platform-less, relatively linear mazes – the difference, then, is that Neo Contra doesn’t just chuck stuff and have you mash away, forming a nihilistic space in your gut, or mindlessly set up monster-spawning pods to feign a need for strategy. Instead, each level has set-pieces that fit together like gaudy, accurate clockwork. This propulsion promises to take care of your entertainment expectations, and does. While Mission 2 has you riding on dinosaurs and taking out hover-bike guys, you’re dodging boulders on hills on Mission 3 with men atop them, performing Russian jigs. Bosses are wonderfully executed – flipping, clicking, rolling, shifting monsters of mechanic brilliance. And the soundtrack is a fist-pumping explosion of Euro-Dance, House, and other thumping things provided by synth-junkie Sota Fujimori.
Anyone I know who has played this has had a blast. Remember you and a neighborhood friend co-oping and hurriedly yelling at each other because shoot the boss in the head oh my god? Neo Contra inspires a similar giddy adrenaline. There are minor points of contention, like how the 3D isn’t always perfect, mainly at the final boss where you have to dodge spiraling balls of fire on this tiny platform. And how the extra weapons are a bit too nice, a bit too easy to get, a bit too tempting of a junk food once obtained (look – you get the Hammer of Dawn – except it’s better). At a point where my life is running on intervals of time, and videogames’ bigness muddles playability, I’m glad to have something fresh, small, and savory.