One of the phrases that I often abuse, in my reviews, is "over the top." A game is rarely at the top, or just below it; if the issue comes up, it's almost always over it.
Neo Contra is in a geosynchronous orbit over the top. It exists in a place where the "top" is a particularly old and dull legend.
Like 2002's Contra: Shattered Soldier and 2004's Gradius V, Neo Contra is a nod to Konami's roots as a purveyor of punishingly difficult arcade games. Unlike Shattered Soldier, it's a 2.5D top-down shooter without any platforming to speak of; it reminds me a bit of the obscure Project: Overkill on PSOne, for those of you who've played that, or the arcade classic Smash TV.
It's set in 4444 A.D., at some point after the end of Shattered Soldier. Bill Rizer, the greatest soldier in human history, has once again been defrosted to deal with a threat against humanity. A terrorist organization that calls itself Neo Contra has attacked civilization. Rizer, accompanied by the samurai Jaguar Yagyu Genbei, sets out to shoot people, blow things up, and take Neo Contra apart one soldier at a time.
Like Shattered Soldier, Neo Contra does away with power-ups in favor of a weapon select system. At the start of the game, you can select one of three arms configurations, which you're then stuck with for the duration. Each one has a fast but weak assault weapon (i.e. a machine gun), a slow but powerful heavy shot (i.e. a flamethrower), and a charge-and-release anti-aircraft gun (i.e. homing missiles).
You're then unceremoniously dumped on the battlefield and left to it. Your goal is simply to stay alive and shoot everyone you see, despite the crazy action sequences that're unfolding all around you. Initially, the game can seem sort of sedate, as you run around the streets of a ruined city fighting attack droids and soldiers. Then the game remembers that it's a Contra title, and the biomechanical monstrosities and carnivore baby heads start crawling out of the woodwork. It's not as merciless as Shattered Soldier, and doesn't require quite as much pattern recognition, but Neo Contra still wants to make you cry for your mommy.
Part of what makes it easier is the new playing field. Instead of having to constantly jockey for the one place on a sidescrolling 2D plane that's nominally safe, you can run around in the top-down view to find your way through the assault. The added maneuverability, combined with a handy quick roll, really helps you stay alive.
Part of what makes it harder is the sheer insanity of the level design. A boss fight takes place in freefall, one stage has both characters running on top of a moving helicopter blade while they exchange gunfire with enemy jets, you'll surf on top of armed torpedoes, and, lest we forget, a giant plant-baby-death machine thing tried to eat me. (Seriously, what is it with Contra games and deadly alien babies?)
Neo Contra was directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama of "The Big O" fame, and he's brought the crazy in large amounts. The character design's a bit pedestrian (except for Jaguar, who should be played by Jim Kelly in the movie; he can't seem to figure out whether he's black or Japanese), since it's all about battle armor, large guns, and hideous monsters to shoot, but it makes up for it with pure action. The graphics basically do what they have to do and get the hell out of the way.
That challenge is the biggest stumbling block Neo Contra has. Like Gradius V, it's unapologetically difficult, and is aimed squarely at the kind of gamer who enjoys a serious challenge. You can't get past the fourth stage on easy mode, and even on Normal, you have to get an A ranking on all four of the initial stages before you can pass. This means destroying at least 90% of the enemies in each level, preferably without dying.
It's a tall order, but it's possible with practice. How much you enjoy Neo Contra will largely depend on how much you enjoy that practice, which is a long, arduous, and often thankless job. There are plenty of unlockables for anyone who sticks with it, such as a new character and several new sets of weapons, but not everyone's going to have that kind of patience.
Neo Contra would theoretically make a good rental, but you need to sit down and become very good at it in order to win it. You can blow through Easy Mode in about forty minutes, but winning Normal Mode will require weeks of effort, pattern memorization, and plain dumb luck.
It's hard to rate this kind of game. It'll either grab you by the throat and not let go for a couple of weeks, or you'll smash the disc within the first few minutes. Either way, Neo Contra remains a polished and relentless action game with some of the craziest levels in this console generation.