Custom Robo, originally, was a series of Japan-only games on the N64, with a release on the Game Boy Color. After the inclusion of some trophies in Super Smash Brothers Melee based on the titular robos from the games, Americans wondered just what they were missing. Well, just like Fire Emblem (its own beast altogether), Custom Robo found its way stateside in 2004 with Custom Robo: Battle Revolution (Except the US release was just called Custom Robo). There was a DS game too. But I don't care about it.
Every image here is from the intro cinematic.
Anyhow, it's time we understand just what this game was, so allow me to try, albeit unsuccessfully, to segue into something resembling a review. (A fairly long one, actually. Sorry.)
Let's start with the basics. Custom Robo is somewhere between an Action-RPG and a Fighter, and I can't for the life of me decide which one I think it resembles more. Having such an ill-defined genre makes the game unique, as nothing else really plays like this, but also makes it difficult to define an audience for. After all, nothing else really plays like this.
Every fight in the game is planned out ahead of time in the story; there are no random encounters. In keeping with that, experience points don't really exist, you just get new parts for your robo (discussed later) at certain points in the story. Having such an approach might bring some questioning looks. After all, how are we supposed to grind? It's an RPG, right? Well, that's where the fighter aspect of the game comes in. Winning a fight requires maneuvering, attacking, defending, etc., not just how beastly your character happens to be. (One of my biggest gripes with JRPGs, but that's a story for another day)
Which brings me to the battles themselves. The battles all follow a single basic format: each player has their robo inside a cannon in the center of the arena, allowing them to aim themselves to different starting areas. Depending on where the cannon fires, a small cube will sit for 1 to 6 seconds (depending on the roll of a die) and then the robos can run around the field, firing their bullets and explosives at each other until one is dead.
Every robo has 1000 HP, but different robos take different amounts of damage from the same weapon. How is this decided, you ask? That's where the Custom
part of Custom Robo comes into play.
I need guns. Lots of guns. -Neo
Each robo is made of 5 parts: a Body, a Gun, a Bomb, a Pod, and a set of Leg boosters.
-The Body is the basic framework of the robo, and decides movement speed, air options, defense, etc.
-The Gun is exactly that: the primary projectile weapon the robo has. Guns vary in firing rate, power, range, etc.
-The Bomb is a secondary weapon: an aim-able explosive, often used for traps or firing over walls.
-The Pod is another support explosive, deployed at will. They each have different behavior once deployed, offering several options for defense, traps, etc.
-The Legs, while offering no active options, give buffs, affecting jump height, run speed, air dashes, and the like.
The flow of battle is controlled by the "Downing" system. Each robo can take a certain amount of damage in short succession before it is overloaded and disabled. This is decided by the Body Part. Each weapon also has different affinity for downing an enemy, (it's a separate stat, not based on numerical damage). The caveat to this system is that each robo has a tackle. How exactly this tackle works, be it a lateral dash, a jump, or whatever else, is dependent on the body. This requires contact, so you have to put yourself in danger, but a successful tackle is an immediate Down, no matter what. Quite the boon.
A Downed robo will fall down, completely open to attack, for a few seconds, after which it will reboot, stand up, and be invulnerable for another few seconds. This helps ensure that the battles aren't always completely one-sided.
While all of that may sound a bit complex (details, details, details!), it works very smoothly, and soon becomes second nature to the player. The statistics of the weaponry usually stand secondary to the use/style. I, for instance, often used the Gatling Gun because I like the fact that it fires a stream of 8 shots and has solid range, not because of it's damage rating or knockdown stat. You kind of get a sense of how well you do certain things with your robo as you play.
The environments are of particular note. "Holosseums" as they're called, are virtual arenas, and are fairly expansive. If we were to scale the robos up to about 6 feet tall (from their in-universe size of ludicrously small), the arenas would usually be around 100 foot squares, but sometimes that's not the case. Fights can take place in virtual bowls (no, seriously, you fight in a Chinese restaurant, and the holosseum is a bowl), long rectangles, etc. This really helps mix up the fights, since you don't just have to maneuver towards, away, and around your opponent, you have to take into consideration the walls, conveyor belts, destructible obstacles, moving platforms, lava pits, and even just flat ground.
Seriously, guys, a BOWL.
Now that I've got all that battle stuff out of the way, let's take a look everything surrounding it. You know, the story, and presentation, and all that jazz.
The music isn't really anything special, and it won't stick with you, but it's by no means bad. It does what it needs to, and nothing more. I have no reason to mention anything else about it.
The characters aren't original (Reluctant Hero, Angry Boss, Silly Comic Relief Friend, etc) but they work well together, and DO advance the story. The style is not for everyone, but the animations during story sequences are wonderfully off-the-wall and out-of-place. I enjoyed them through some strange sense of camp.
Japanese text makes Harry no less ridiculous.
Oh, right, there's that there story thing. It's an RPG, it has to have a story, right?. Well, yeah, okay, but how is it? It's actually not totally terrible. Surprising given the fact that the biggest emphasis of the game is the fights. That said, even drawing inspiration from countless sci-fi stories and a little bit of The Matrix, the story still manages to be bland. Honestly, you'll be playing this game for the action, and... really, nothing else.
Navigation is between hotspots. Nothing special. Or all that good, for that matter.
The game knows it, too. After working your way through the main story, you unlock a second campaign, consisting of nothing but scored tournament fights. This is where you'll unlock all the parts you didn't get the first time around. Also, since you get a battle score from this, you'll push yourself to do better on the fights, which is kinda cool, but it almost feels like a lame excuse to make you play when you could just go into Versus mode against CPU opponents. This second campaign often introduces restrictions to keep the play varied. Appreciated, but kind of unnecessary. Also really annoying when your parts of choice don't make the cut.
This is a robo from the intro FMV. I think he's unlockable... Not important.
Versus mode is, in fact, one of the game's strongest pulls. Again, relating it to the fighting game characteristics it has, the fights are even more fun when it's your buddy who you just blasted. And, since everyone gets to pick from the same parts, they all get to have their varied robos without anyone having a distinct advantage just because they're a higher 'level'. (the best robo parts are marked as being 'illegal', but players can choose whether or not to include them) And, since the battles can be set up as 2-4 robos, free-for-all, teams, tag, and all that fun stuff, it stays interesting.
4 people? This is madness! No, it isn't. It's just multiplayer.
A perfect game this is not. The controls all work well (face buttons controlling jump/gun/tackle, triggers controlling bomb/pod), but your gun is always pointed towards your opponent, so you don't get to destroy walls unless they're between the two of you, or you spam bombs at it, which takes a while. The narrative is mostly uninteresting, included solely to give you an excuse to play through the battles. The battles themselves, thankfully, are excellent, though the difficulty curve is a bit wonky. You'll spend the first part fighting easy robos, learning the ropes, then settle into a plateau phase until the aforementioned 'illegal' parts come into play, at which point you face more difficult opponents until the last boss fight, then return to (most of the time) the plateau phase for the second campaign.
It's a good game, and its problems never really get in the way of having fun. That said, the short and shallow presentation of the main story may be a dealbreaker for some folk. The action is fun, and has significant depth for those willing to look for it, but that may not be enough for everyone.