As the recipient of solid reviews and widespread coverage, it's hard to call Contact a sleeper hit. However, despite its combination of internet-culture reference charm and RPG gameplay finally delivered the way it ought to be on the Nintendo DS, little has been said about it. Games usually hit high visibility when they have either strong critical acclaim or a devoted fanbase—Contact seems to have both, and yet remains little discussed in mainstream game forums. And while this particular game is not out to push the boundaries of interactive media or expand the conveyance of philosophical realization through agency in gameplay, it is undoubtedly a must-play for anyone who enjoys RPGs. If you're down with the nostalgia, Grasshopper Manufacture is the studio for you.
I knew the game was going to be special when its loading screen was Commodore 64 blue and white, pixels as big as your fist, with the touchscreen a near photographic rendering of the function keys of that grand old machine. (Anything that references the C64 ought to get an automatic Metacritic +10 as far as I'm concerned.) The game opens with chiptune music sharply reminiscent of 16-bit system RPGs, and an animated figure in Habbo Hotel-style isometric sprite graphics typing away at a computer console. He types, and he types. And he types. He will continue doing this indefinitely until the watching player gives him a poke—a slight tap on his location in the touchscreen knocks him over. "Do that again!" he says—and, again, when obliged, falls over. Congratulations, player—you've made contact.
After asking a short series of questions, the little professor explains that he's been sending out a signal for many years, and that your DS has allowed you to make a connection with his world. And, of course, he needs your help. "We can even pretend it's just a game!" he says, setting the stage for the remainder of the game's strangely self-aware-but-not-self-aware tone.
The game's manual is full of pop references as well, being laid out in mimicry of a MySpace blog written by the Professor (complete with a 'fun survey' filled out and the Professor's sheepish explanation: "I know you all hate memes, but this one was kind of interesting so I filled it out."). References are sprinkled throughout the game as well—so many, in fact, that the game's trivia section on Wikipedia is so long the editors have asked users to trim it down. As it was originally a Japanese release, these additions were likely installed during the game's translation by its US publisher, Atlus, and this is yet another indication of the great care that was taken throughout the game's deployment.
This quirky interface, however, is wrapped around one of the most lovely and well-rendered RPGs to hit the Nintendo DS.
Fleeing from alien enemies, the professor's ship was struck, destroying it and scattering the cells that power it across the land below. And yes, in Toe Jam & Earl style, you've got to go around collecting them. In the course of the rather lengthy cut-scenes that introduce the game, the professor's ship is struck glancingly, knocking off only one power cell, and as the professor lands to retrieve it, he encounters a young boy attracted to the gem-like fallen cell. His alien enemies attack again, leaving him no choice but to take the boy with him. This is the main character, whom you (the player) get to name and guide—or babysit, in the professor's terms—on his quest to retrieve the rest of the cells. There is a duology of player control options: the character responds to movement via the control pad and ABXY, but can also be effectively guided with the stylus and touchscreen alone. I found that the optimal navigation involved both, tapping interface elements with the stylus while 'driving' the character with the control pad—a comfortable synthesis that few DS games have managed effectively prior to Contact.
With the introduction of the boy, the game segues into its comfortable RPG format, complete with battle modes, techs, items, and a bedroom where sleeping saves the game. Food returns HP (though they've added an interesting 'digestion' dynamic to limit how often you can eat), monsters traverse set paths, caves lead you around obstacles—you know the drill. But the game blends its sprite-style interface animation with some truly stunning gameworld graphics worthy of a large console Final Fantasy or Xenosaga. Quirky minigames add to the variety of the experience, while as a whole game progression is solidly balanced, neither requiring you to endlessly grind nor forcing you onto bosses you can't yet handle—though in later stages the game does become very difficult. At the core of Contact's quixotic construction is a finely tuned and enjoyable RPG.
The game's music is haunting for anyone who has spent hours (or days) playing Genesis games of old. The homey music in the Professor's converted ship (he merges his spaceship with a pirate galleon for camouflage) trips through Phantasy Star themes but veers away just before they would be complete—nostalgic, for sure, but maddening, in a delicious kind of way. Other areas of the game I would swear are paying musical homage to Shining Force and doubtless there are other themes that escaped me—they all verge just on the recognizable, then dart away.
Far from claiming to be a be-all and end-all to the RPG genre, Contact delivers solid gameplay with the lightweight and humorous hand that the genre, at this age, deserves. They lay it out on the box copy: "Things you WON'T find in Contact: A dull moment. Normalcy. A guy with spikey hair and/or amnesia. Dramatic monologues. The same battles you've been fighting since the 16-bit era. Things you WILL find in Contact: Monkeys. Cosmic terrorists. Powerful attack stickers. Fishing. Cooking. Humor. Fun with Nintendo Wi-Fi. Deeper meaning in life*. Costumes that increase your power and make you more fun to be around. *(Results may vary.)"
And it delivers. Contact is the kind of game I would like to see developed more often, providing a level of polish most games, particularly on handhelds, never see; it builds on its predecessors, rather than ignoring or competing with them; and it executes new gameplay while utilizing all of the DS's unique aspects—touchscreen, dual screens, and Wi-Fii capability (store your friends as NPCs on your own "WiFisland")—appropriately and innovatively. It has character and charm, beauty and challenge. Gamers often lament the field's loss of the humor and charm of old Sierra adventure games, the wit of Monkey Island or Neverhood—Contact returns it. While there were certainly a number of great games released for this system last year, for its sheer character Contact stands out in my mind as the best of 2006 in DS development.
Erin Hoffman is a writer and game designer living in Troy, NY. She works full time for 1st Playable Productions and herds cats on the weekends. Read more at Gamewatch.org and Gryphonflight.com. She has contributed to Fantasy Readers Wanted—Apply Within, Enchanted Realms II, and The Best Software Writing I: Selected and Introduced by Joel Spolsky.
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