By Jonathan Higgins / December 1st, 2012
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Release Date: October 19th, 2006
Rating: ESRB E10+
Times are tough for Earthbound/MOTHER fans in North America. Sure, they were acknowledged at one point, and there does seem to be a handful of games inspired by Earthbound on the way, but… it’s been far too long since gamers embraced a truly postmodern concept like what Ness and company brought to consoles.
I’ve never played any games in the franchise, mind you. But I’ve heavily researched them in the past, and I made a point to watch several gameplay videos before beginning to write my review of Contact—the closest thing Earthbound fans will get to what that game tried to accomplish—fine-tuned and brought to a new generation of North American gamers, courtesy of Atlus.
Insert a Pun Like ‘Making Contact with Contact’ Here
Inspired by our Publisher Spotlight on Atlus, I made a point to try a game from their library that I’d never heard of. I figured if they could bring us gems like Devil Survivor and Radiant Historia (by the way, if I haven’t already sold you on that game without even writing a review—go now, buy, buy!), a game that’s been buried after a few years would be a real treasure. And what’s more, the game is available for dirt cheap on Amazon. Buying Contact was a no-brainer; it’s like hearing about an artist, then finding one of his or her paintings at a garage sale the next day.
I’m actually curious as to who’s heard about this game or not. I figure, even though I’m among fans of Atlus, this game has probably slipped under a lot of people’s radars.
Something Unique, Something Inspired
The game’s story is truly the best note to start this review on. After tapping the photograph of a computer keyboard’s F1 and/or F2 keys with your stylus to begin a new game, the title appears on the top screen and the player sort of…eavesdrops on a professor typing away on his keyboard while his pet, Mochi, is off in a corner somewhere. The game offers no instruction like “tap here to continue”. I was honestly confused for a second, waiting for some epic opening movie, but nothing happened until I tapped the professor.
He turned and asked me, the player, to do it again. After being flustered that “there really is someone out there”, he confirmed my name (which was presumably pulled from what I called myself on my actual 3DS’s system interface), where I lived on my planet, what my favorite food was, and some sort of secret or dream I had.
After I told the professor a little about myself, he surmised that I must have used my DS to “contact him”, and that I should help him with his problem. He figured maybe I could control the outcome; we could even “pretend it was a game”! “You see,” the professor tries to explain, “…They’re after me.”
It gets even more messed up when the player witnesses the professor crash-land on another planet, then watches as a boy named Terry becomes involved in the professor’s quest to elude/stop an evil force. After the events unfold that introduce Terry to the professor and have the poor boy tangled up in this whole mess, the game humorously cuts to Terry’s mother, who dials his cell-phone only to get an automated voice that proclaims, “The number you have dialed is currently in space!”
So, that’s the kind of game we’re dealing with, ladies and gentlemen. It’s not just about a random teenager selected by fate to save the world like a JRPG lottery drawing. The top screen remains constantly devoted to showing the professor; he’s watching and guiding Terry during his quest. But, at certain times, the professor asks me, the player, to intervene on Terry’s behalf. This is unlike many other stories told in gaming at the time, and truly allows for unprecedented development, interaction, and humor.
I don’t think I have to divulge anything more about the plot than noting the game’s unique introduction. Suffice to say, things get pretty dicey for Terry as he and the player both learn about the alien organization pursuing the professor, but—there’s no “Terry is a hero chosen by the gods”; he is ultimately a plain ole kid. And that’s what makes the gameplay so…delightfully odd.
Contact is an action-RPG. But the interface and battle system itself deviates from the conventional RPG formula in more ways than one. The professor and the player can both see Terry’s HP. There’s a skill bar underneath his HP for use with more complex battle moves. The player controls Terry on the bottom screen with either the stylus or the d-pad. Battle stance is initiated with the B button, and Terry will begin auto-attacking foes if he’s near one. The player can switch between foes with the R button. And that exposes one of the game’s flaws right away: If Terry is near one foe, but the pointer is near another, he will not attack. And…if battle stance is not initiated, he won’t attack then either, which leaves him open to be completely devastated if the player isn’t particularly paying attention. Gotta stay on your toes in a post-modern world, right? …Yeah.
This otherwise extremely simplistic battle system has layers of complexity. As previously stated, Terry utilizes skills learned when his stats are high enough. Press a button, perform an attack that lowers a meter. Kill enemies to restore said meter. Killing enemies doesn’t net you experience points like in most RPGs—it nets you stat boosts. So does eating (which, by the way, restores your HP. But be careful, because if you eat too much, you’ll be full. And alas, if you’re almost dead, but full, no food will save you!). The game goes so far as to have a somewhat intricate (yet luck-based) cooking system filled with recipe books and the like.
The game’s foes aren’t monsters like typical JRPG fodder. Terry is mostly pit against forest creatures in the beginning, then goes on to fight other humans (like corrupt army men), then deals with the occasional monster. And if you’re already having visions of tormenting a poor defenseless bunny—the game will punish you by lowering luck (read: “karma”) if you try and fight a creature/human that is obviously weaker than you (or that shouldn’t be fought, like an innocent towns-person).
The fickle nature of this game’s battle system is truly exposed during its more intricate boss fights. After all, Terry really does just walk up to a boss and start wailing on it if the right button is pressed. The boss battles in the game come down to trial and error (or stats), not skill. And that’s where this whole system is ultimately flawed. It’s my only true strike against this wonderful game, but it’s unfortunately a big enough strike to lead some people I know who love almost everything about the game to leave it unfinished.
Still gets even more messed up. A truly post-modern game wouldn’t be complete without decals (read: stickers), costume-changes, and a pet simulator thrown in, right?
Right, so—Terry isn’t healed fully by visiting an inn. He’s healed when he takes a hot bath. And yes, before you even ask, there are baths sitting in the middle of forests, or in dark caves, or in a pyramid or research facility. Same goes for beds, the game’s saving mechanism. And while Terry sleeps, the professor and Mochi take up the touch-screen. The player can pet Mochi with a tap, or tap his food bowl, the professor’s keyboard, or his scratching post for further interactivity. Being affectionate towards Mochi makes him more usable in battle, but too much affection can actually hurt the player (Mochi rages and devastates all enemies on the screen and Terry if at a certain “level” of affection).
The player can summon Mochi with one of many stickers the professor develops throughout Terry’s journey. These stickers can turn army men into cows, capture strange objects from space, and more.
And one last note about gameplay: costumes. Contact doesn’t function through use of armor and accessories. Terry changes clothes in order to utilize certain skills. He can’t cook without his chef’s outfit. He can’t dig without his monk outfit… etc, etc.
The Perfect Way to Present the Bizarre
Graphically, I can’t speak highly enough about Contact. The artistry is truly unique, the character, level and enemy designs have been given a life of their own despite the game taking you to plain, conventional settings like a forest, beach, cave, or pyramid for most of your journey. Everything is…adorable. And like it or not, that’s probably a selling point for a game brought to us by Atlus.
The game’s music is also unique. Its many tracks seem inspired by the SNES era, or chiptunes. Everything I heard as I made my way through the game was catchy/memorable, and this is coming from a chiptune and video game music aficionado. The sound effects also have their own unique SNES charm. It’s scary how much this game comes off as a different take on a formula Earthbound established.
Finding screenshots and audio from this game was near impossible. Contact is truly a niche game like no other.
The game also has some online components, which are the reason the professor asks the player so much about himself or herself in the beginning. Going online creates an NPC that makes fun of/parodies the player. Depending on the friends you meet online, you can net rare items or skills. But…seeing as the game is over six years old, the most you can hope to find online are the truly dedicated fans out there. I didn’t do much with the game as far as online goes (so I can say that it’s not required to enjoy the main game), but that’s not to say it isn’t there.
What a strange game. But hey, it definitely has its niche—and I imagine the majority of said niche is made up of our regular readers! Contact is a truly post-modern experience that’s kind of a chore to explain, but an absolute blast to play through (assuming you come to terms with its flaws, aforementioned). If you’re a longtime fan of Earthbound who’s never played this game—run, don’t walk. I picked up the game for less than $10 after it was all said and done.
If you want to play the closest thing to the MOTHER franchise that’s not actually a game from the franchise—look no further.