An interplanetary scientist on the run. A teenage punk abducted from his home town. A group of renegade teen idol space pirates. A space dog named Mochi that thinks it’s a cat. Contact begins with a series of explosions as the Professor crash lands on Earth, moments after contacting you, the player, through your Nintendo DS.
It seems the Professor has lost his precious cargo of power cells, the very things that keep his space ship, now disguised as a pirate ship, running. And it is up to you to track them down, before they are used for nefarious purposes!
From the very beginning, Contact is nothing if not quirky. The Professor sits on the top Nintendo DS screen, monitoring Terry and his progress through the game while commenting idly on the events going on around him. There is a blend of retro 16-bit graphics and modern, air brushed backgrounds that contrast sharply while keeping the visuals fresh.
Players use stickers instead of basic summons, cook meals to create health items, change costumes to utilize new special abilities and spend time playing with the Professor’s space cat/dog Mochi while the game saves. It is light-hearted and fun, compared most favorably to Earthbound, and all of it is just enough distraction to keep you from realizing that Contact is nothing more than fluff.
[image="Contact - Screen 04 (JPG).jpg" game="86" nomark]The Professor and his boxy spaceship.[/image]
“Hit his weak spot for massive damage,” the Professor says as Terry jumps into combat against his first mini-boss, a line also quoted at length when talking about how gosh darned zany this title is. Contact wants to be irreverent and offbeat, fashionably Japanese and all the more marketable for it.
When you first start playing the game, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the presentation. Pop culture references zing past during many of the incessant lulls in the plot, which never evolves beyond a basic “Go here, fight through dungeon, claim power cell, repeat” formula that just begs to be something more.
There is no epic confrontation, no paramount evil looming on the horizon to destroy the Universe. Instead, you get the thrill of wandering through dungeon after dungeon after dungeon, always in search of the same damn item.
Now, I don’t have a problem with dungeon crawls. You could probably make a pretty convincing argument that all role playing games, in one way or another, are nothing more than glamorized dungeon crawls. But the least they could do is make the combat more interesting. At its core, Contact is the worst kind of gimmicky game: one that tries to be just innovative enough to cover up the inherent flaws in its formula without ever really surpassing them.
[image="Contact - Screen 07 (JPG).jpg" game="86" nomark]The Professor asks a rhetorical question.[/image]
It isn’t hard to see what Grasshopper Manufacture was trying to do here. Take a few parts Legend of Zelda real-time combat, mix it with the classic Final Fantasy turn based system and what do you get? A total mess, it turns out.
As you guide Terry around the map, occasionally you will see enemies milling around a la Chrono Trigger, just waiting for you to attack them. If you don’t feel like jumping into combat, you can merely run past them and continue on your way, or you can ready your weapon and launch head on into combat the world hasn’t seen since MMORPG’s implemented the “Auto Attack” command.
Combat takes place in real time, allowing you to maneuver around your opponent while waiting for a chance to strike. This, in theory, gives you a chance to duck and dodge around your enemies, who all tend to have ranged secondary weapons that’ll hit you regardless, only to rush up and wait for your next attack to play out.
See, your attacks occur randomly, corresponding to a ready attack meter that never appears on the screen, forcing you to measure in your head when Terry is going to blindly swing his weapon without your direct input. This means that most combat encounters involve endlessly circling your enemy, then approaching just long enough to hopefully strike a hit before the enemy does.
[image="Contact - Screen 10 (08-01-06).JPG" game="86" nomark]It’s whacking time![/image]
This wouldn’t be quite so bad if it wasn’t for the shoddy hit detection, which often leaves you damaged even after you’ve cleared a small distance between you and your foe. After a while, you’ll eventually realize that there isn’t much point in trying to be strategic. The most reliable tactic is to plant yourself down next to the enemy, much like a game of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, and hopelessly pummel each other back and forth until someone runs out of hit points first.
There are some elements of strategy, though. Terry accumulates Tech Points as he defeats enemies, allowing him to perform special techniques in the middle of combat. These moves vary depending on the weapon you are currently holding and the costume you are wearing, but typically they are nothing more than a Critical Hit you can execute at will.
If you time things correctly and have Tech Points to spare, you can keep combat to a minimum by bashing most of the health off an enemy within seconds of encountering them. Much like in Legend of Zelda, you can also activate your inventory at will during a battle, effectively pausing the match to restore your health quickly before the back-and-forth slap fest continues.
Health items are at least handled a little more creatively. As you play through the game, enemies often drop food items for you to collect. Some of these, like apples and melons, can be eaten at your leisure for a brief boost in Hit Points, but many of them are raw and require cooking, such as chicken and other rotten meat.
[image="Contact - Screen 13 (08-01-06).JPG" game="86" nomark]Cooking up some health.[/image]
Once you obtain the Mr. Cuisine costume, you can utilize the Professor’s kitchen to prepare different culinary treats, combining different supplies to make health items with vastly different properties.
Most of the recipes make a general sort of sense, but I was often annoyed that I couldn’t combine things like deer meat and potatoes together to create a worthwhile health item from whatever I had on hand. What happened to culinary improvisation?
Other costumes in the game include a stealth suit for stealing, a fishing outfit, several costumes related to natural elements and Terry’s basic street threads. Each of these will give Terry different properties and abilities, raising and lowering different stats based on how much experience he has gained while wearing that particular outfit. This also becomes something of a chore later on in the game, when different suits are required in specific situations where you may not be leveled-up enough to survive.
Finally, there is the much anticipated “sticker” system, which allows you to use certain decals to modify Terry and his surroundings on a whim. Really, for all of the hoopla about this system, it really boils down to a glossy version of nothing you haven’t seen done countless times before.
[image="Contact - Screen 01 (JPG).jpg" game="86" nomark]Terry looks just like I feel.[/image]
Adding decals to Terry will give him temporary stat boosts, as long as he continues to wear them, much like bangles and artifacts in most other RPG games. The other stickers are used to affect the environment, such as making a power cell safe to pick up or summoning Mochi into combat to damage your foes temporarily. Honestly, the only thing that makes these different from countless other games is that you peel and stick these items.
Contact wants so desperately to stand apart and have a unique identity that it forgot how to be a fun game somewhere along the way. It tries to innovate and change up the interface, while asking you to slog through long stretches of plotless, unexciting corridors in order to reach a conclusion so lackluster as to make the trip a complete waste of time.
For every humorous pop culture reference that springs up through the game, there is at least an hour spent hacking through dungeons and leveling up in unexciting locales. And when you consider that the game can be beaten in just under 10-15 hours, that isn’t a lot of humor to sustain much interest.
While Contact isn’t by any means an outwardly bad game, as often as it tries to be different, it never really builds up a solid foundation to sustain its audience.
Versions tested: Nintendo DS