Reach Out and Touch Someone
Developed by the team within Grasshopper Manufacture Inc. responsible for Shining Soul I and II for the GBA, Contact is the first and, at this time, only original game headed by director Akira Ueda. It was intended to be a nostalgic homage to older games, employing one of a kind, but approachable, interaction gimmicks to serve as the basis for gameplay. This fine line is tread surprisingly well. The game feels both old and new at the same time, but the overall gameplay experience is so focused on being different that it does not consistently succeed at being fun.
The first interaction gimmick makes itself promptly known when a new file is created. An elderly man in a lab coat looks up through the DS screen and addresses the player. The player is you, the person holding the DS, not a spiky-haired, dim-witted, teenage avatar. With the fourth wall shattered, Contact establishes a plot with three main characters: the professor, who regularly converses with the player, Terry, a kid who helps the professor but is unaware that the player influences his every move, and the player himself. Playing through the game consists of guiding Terry around the world as he locates the lost energy cells needed to power-up the professor’s spaceship.
The game world is divided into numerous small islands. The initial islands are unremarkable; however, later islands become more interesting and begin developing video game-related themes and otaku jokes as Contact‘s strange sense of humor slowly takes over other gameplay elements. Terry’s actions in the world are not entirely controlled by the player. The stylus or D-pad maneuvers him around the map in a straightforward manner, but the battle system is where control becomes loose. Because the player merely guides Terry, he attacks enemies on his own. The press of a button switches him to battle mode, causing him to automatically engage whichever creature, friend or foe, the targeting cursor points at. From a practical standpoint, this is a nice change of pace from frantically tapping the same button over and over as most real time RPGs require. It keeps attacking overly simple, though, since the only battle input is merely a toggle between attack mode and don’t attack mode.
Continuing in the vein of being unique, Terry does not gain character levels or experience. Rather, his individual statistics increase as they are used. Cut a worm with a sword and his strength and slicing attack stats increase. Slaughter a zombie to increase karma. Get hit by a sentient refrigerator, and resistance to water attacks raises. Smack a helpless villager with a fishing rod to increase strength, striking attack, and fishing ability, and decrease karma. There are many statistics, all of which level up via use, and as the weapons and outfits eventually become more diverse, Terry can specialize in whichever abilities the player desires.
Outfits are discovered during play, often hidden in secret rooms or slightly off the beaten path. Equipping an outfit functions like a temporary job or class change. It alters Terry’s current statistics and empowers him with new skills such as elemental magic spells, physical attacks, and passive stat increases. While four of the clothing choices improve Terry’s ability to do battle, three of them are purely functional and actually decrease his abilities. For example, the chef outfit must be worn to cook food, but it lowers stamina and does not raise any of the other characteristics. Stronger skills are unlocked as Terry continues using the same outfit, thereby encouraging the player to mainly utilize only one or two costumes throughout the game. Realistically, the game is never challenging enough to overtly require one to level grind or specialize in one skill type. What little challenge exists in Contact comes from the designer’s employment of adventure genre mechanics. The player need not figure out insanely illogical puzzles, but there are times when progressing the plot or discovering a secret requires the player to make some opaque connections.
In a way, the less specifically said about the plot, the better. It is strange and quirky with a dry, almost subtle sense of humor. The target audience for the game’s wit is adults who played video games in the 80s and 90s, and while anyone could snicker at the constant self-referential and goofy jokes, the more esoteric ones will soar right over most people’s heads. Compliments should be paid to the enjoyable and wholly one of a kind premise of both the opening and ending cutscenes; rarely do games construct such well planned and unique bookends for their stories.
Large sections of the visual style emulate games from the past. The professor lives in a low texture setting reminiscent of Earthbound‘s visuals. Terry and most of the places he occupies are drawn to look like a modern 2D DS game. While not great, these graphics are detailed enough to stand in contrast to the professor’s world and some of the locales intentionally drawn to look like older games. The sound is a mixed bag. The background music ranges from notably good to forgettably mutable, or at least it would, except that sound effects are important enough to keep even the staunchest haters of the DS’s audio output from completely silencing it. Distinct sound effects and music changes note when an enemy spots Terry and whether or not Terry is in battle mode. Since the bottom screen can get cluttered and the player’s view of Terry obstructed, these sound cues are needed to play the game. For the most part, this is acceptable, and the haters can still mute the DS outside of battle. This is handy because for some reason the sound of children laughing when Terry speaks to them is ear piercingly painful.
Akira Ueda, himself a first time game director, has created an intentional throwback to a time when most game directors were new to the business. The creativity and newness of video games in that era are missing today, and Contact is one man’s attempt at bringing back that feeling while also mocking it. Aiming for an older audience, Contact‘s gameplay combines the slow pace of an old-school adventure game with the slow pace of a traditional JRPG, and this may turn off many people. Travelling between islands forces Terry to take a nap, thereby encouraging the player to save the file and take a break. The professor regularly warns the player not to game for long stretches. To be blunt, the act of playing the game by walking around towns and battling is not particularly fun, but the ideas in it are so weird, different, and funny that the journey becomes enjoyable, especially in short sessions. The ending cutscene alone is out of this world. Contact was crafted to be a quirky nostalgia-generator, and that goal was achieved. If Ueda wants to increase his fame in the industry, he will need to add “fun” to the list of goals in his next game.
Silly and bizarre humor
Atypical story premise
Mochi, the space dog who wants to be a cat
Touching and blowing gimmicks are unnecessary
Many invisible paths and non-intuitive secrets