[Many video games build upon the concepts and mechanics of their forerunners. Off-Brand Games examines those that draw just a little too much... inspiration.]
Pokémania has swept the nation once again with the recent release of HeartGold and SoulSilver. It's impossible to step two feet out your front door without bumping into some four-foot snot with a Pokéwalker clipped to his pants. With all this exposure, it wasn't long before I too became swept up by the tide. However, I swore that if I was going do this then it would be in my own special way.
While you kids were counting watts and trading Blarney Stones or whatever, I was getting acquainted with those mechanical munchkins known as Robopon. Why would I want to be a part of a greater movement, sharing exploits with my Piplup-loving peers? I'd much rather stew in a personal hell of my own volition, eroding my ego to the point that feeding my hand through a paper shredder sounds the smartest thing in the world.
'Cause that's how I roll.
Developed by: Hudson Soft
Published by: Atlus
Released on: GBC, 2000
Tastes like: Pokémon Red/Blue
"Build 'em, collect 'em, trash 'em!"
So reads the tagline on the box of Hudson Soft's Pokémon cash-in. Two years following the landmark release of Pokémon Red/Blue, the house of Bomberman teamed up with our ol' chums at Atlus to demonstrate the proper way to ride on the coattails of others' success. See, it's a very fine art and not just anyone can pull it off.
Though it arrived after Pokémon Gold/Silver in the States, Robopon was released a full year before 'em in Japan. That means Hudson got the jump on FULL COLOR GAMING before the lollygaggers at Nintendo, "full color" in this case meaning MS Paint amateur hour. At least the company can claim firsties, and that's really what matters.
So what have we got? A monster count around 150 perhaps? Natch! As with Pokémon, the creatures were split across multiple versions -- Sun, Moon, and Star. In my hand is the Sun Version. Okay. Let's have the other ones. Oh? What's that? You didn't release 'em in the US? For real? Shenanigans! How am I supposed to catch 'em all now? Nice big middle finger to all the obsessive collectors out there. What are we supposed to do with half a game?
Check this beast out:
That mother is huge! What's with all the damn real estate!?
And it dangles out the back! I seriously hope you don't play this guy on an Advance SP. Regular Game Boy titles hang out like fifty miles, so imagine this thing shoved in there! It'll be facing towards you, jabbing you in the sternum every five minutes. God Almighty, what a hog.
As for the setup, your senile grandfather has decided to make you president of his company, a seemingly generous gesture if it weren't for the fact that you also inherit the company's massive debt. Just the kind of responsibility a ten-year-old should be saddled with. So you travel the world, capturing Robopon to add to your team, battling trainers, and collecting cash to do with as you please. You don't even need to reinvest in the company if you don't want to. Screw the shareholders.
I can't get over how big that cart is.
HOW SHAMELESS IS IT?
I've jotted a list of characters and items along with their Pokémon counterparts. Let's run through these.
And so on and so forth. I think I made my point. It's as though the Hudson folks copied the Pokémon source code to Word and used the "replace" function to substitute key terms.
Navigating menus is a chore. For starters, it takes f*ckin' forever to open a submenu. I don't think I've ever played a Game Boy game that suffered from loading delay. Even just going up and down the screen, you get this weird pause. I'm trying to scroll down my inventory and the little cursor is just iiiiinching along, iiiiinching along, iiiiinching along ...
Speaking of inventory, here's a problem I have with both Robopon and Pokémon. Why is there no auto-arrange option? I like to keep my healing items at the top and all context-sensitive key items at the bottom. If I pick up something new, I gotta move it in place, but I can't just insert them into place, no! I've gotta use bubble sorting! Gotta swap that garbage one rung of the ladder at a time! Christ.
Then there is a limit to how much I can hold! This is curious, because in Pokémon, you have to visit a Pokémon Center and manually stow away crap. In Robopon, all overflow goes into a garage that you have access to at all times. If I need something from the garage, I have to open my menu, open my inventory, stow away excess materials, leave the inventory, open the garage, select what I need, drop it in my inventory, back out the garage, then leave the menu. If I don't need to visit any special center to do this, then why not just give me full access to everything!? I don't want to have to navigate umpteen menu layers just access sh*t that's miiiiine!
Let's talk about the Robopon themselves. We all remember picking up our Pokémon Red/Blue strategy guide that first time and admiring the wild and inventive monster names and designs. Robopon, as the name suggests, are robots. Stupid-looking robots. With stupid-sounding names.
Oooooh! Middle-school punk likes to play hooky from school! Sooooo threatening!
It's Robo-Pope! Everyone genuflect!
A toilet. Named "Johnny." Ha, ha. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.
God, just... no. You people. No.
I wish I could say that raising these turds is no different from raising Pokémon, but it's not. See, Pokémon is a simple game that adheres to the philosophy "easy to learn, hard to master." You fight and capture Pokémon then place them in your party for future battles. Each Pokémon has its own unique abilities and learns new abilities as it gains experience in battle. At a certain level, some Pokémon will evolve to more powerful forms. Aside from a few exceptions such as Pokémon who evolve once exposed to an elemental stone or forcing a Pokémon to learn a move by giving it a TM, this is how Pokémon develop. Simple.
Robopon spits on simplicity. You ready for this?
Each Robopon has an elemental attribute that informs us of what kind of attacks are effective or ineffective against it. Elemental attributes do not have any impact on what kinds of techniques a Robopon can perform. In fact, Robopon have no default moves of their own. All techniques are learned by applying software much like spells in Final Fantasy I. You can add or remove software as you wish, and mixing and matching software grants different abilities.
In keeping with the computer theme, each piece of software has a memory requirement. The more powerful the software, the higher the RAM cost. If you want to add more or stronger software, you have to buy and equip new parts. Each part has a different memory capacity as well as different stat boosts. Once you equip a part, you install software to it as if you were filling Materia slots in Final Fantasy VII.
So you go around battling other Robopon and gaining experience and levels. After a while, you would figure it's time to evolve, but no! Gaining experience doesn't trigger evolution! Now we add a third dimension to Robopon development -- ENERGY BALLS! Winning battles will yield a certain number of Energy Balls, and Robopon that aren't fully evolved require a certain amount of balls before they transform. So you battle and earn balls, and soon you meet your requirement and get capped off. Is it time for evolution yet? Nope!
See, the Robopon don't evolve automatically. Once they have enough balls, you have to visit a laboratory, walk up to a doctor, and request that he evolves your Robopon for you. Once he does, you can return to the world to battle more Robopon to earn more balls so you can go back to the lab and repeat the process. Should everyone in your party be maxed out, what happens to the balls you earn? Not a damn thing. You don't store excess balls, you just drop 'em and run.
Okay, so you capture new Robopon and they are good to go, right! Wrong again! Many Robopon in the wild are in an out-of-control state. If you try to use one in battle, it'll ignore your commands. Healing it won't fix the problem. You have to upgrade its CPU. To do that, you return to your friends at the lab and pay them an obscene amount of money just so you can operate the Robopon that you've already caught. You can also choose to upgrade their CPU further and for even more money, but I for the life of me can't figure out what stat benefit it provides.
So let's roll back and go through all the steps. You capture a Robopon. You find a lab. You upgrade the Robopon's CPU. Then you go to the parts store to buy a weapon with more memory than the old-'n-busted piece of crap that came standard with your new Robopon. You buy more software because the software in your possession is no longer effective against your current enemies. You equip the part to your Robopon and install the software. You take it out for battling. You shove balls down its throat. It starts to glow. Now you run back to the lab. You request that your Robopon get upgraded. You go out and capture a new Robopon. You return to the lab once again and...
When during this micromanagement nightmare do you get to have any fun? It's a zero-sum game! All the money that you might earn goes into upgrading the little bastards. Why does this have to be so needlessly complex?
And for the love of... WHAT IS THAT BEEPING SOUND!?!?!?
Where is this noise coming from? Not from the Game Boy speaker! It comes from the game pak itself! That's why the cartridge is so bulky! It's housing a speaker and a watch battery to power it. But why? What's the purpose?
Like later Pokémon titles, Robopon runs on a real-time clock. Certain events only occur at certain times of the day, so the cartridge will let you know an event is taking place even if the Game Boy is off. Even if the Game Boy is off. Even if the Game Boy is... are you sensing my frustration right about now? I've been startled by notifications at one in the morning and it freaks me right out.
One such notification occurs when Carpenter Ken finishes construction on new floors of your company. Yes, I said that renovating your building is optional, but I simply had to see what happens when I totally pimp out my pad. So you give this crook money and he builds a new floor after half an hour or something. At first you get useful rooms like an item shop, a parts shop, and lab. Then he dedicates an entire floor to a bathroom. Another floor becomes a pool. Another, a sauna. A sauna! A bathroom, a pool, and a sauna on separate floors!? They should all be on one floor! What kind of a contractor are you?
The only other thing he's good for is building the Dispatch Center, the ultimate cheat device. You send Robopon not currently in your party out on soul-searching solo missions for a length of time in order to gain experience. The longer you let 'em go, the more levels they gain. To make effective use of this feature, you exploit the Achilles' heel of any game with a built-in clock -- time travel. Send some Robopon out for twenty hours, save your game, turn the clock ahead, and return to find your squad a little more resilient.
If this didn't break the game enough, there is a trade sequence with these girls known as the Elite 8 -- no relation to the Elite 4 -- that yields the Golden Sunny. A single punch from this beast can tear the moon asunder, rendering every other creature in this game obsolete. All that time spent learning the intricacies of the Robopon experience and battle systems has been wasted. Having fun yet?
But there's more.
Other than the internal clock, the Robopon game pak comes equipped with Hudson's patented GB KISS system. Using the built-in IR port, you can communicate with other Game Boys or any device with an IR port. The astute among you may recall that the Game Boy Color already has an IR port of its own, but Robopon is compatible with the original Game Boy brick and Hudson wasn't about to deprive classic owners out of the joy that is Robopon.
What is this strange voodoo used for? You can open special treasure chests or give insignificant one-time stat boosts to your Robopon by pointing a TV remote at the game pak. Aaaaaand... that's it. I'm assuming you can trade Robopon with other players, but good luck finding anyone else who was suckered into buying this bucket of sick. What a waste of tech. A calendar and IR communication function relegated stupid little gimmicks.
I kept playing this game. I don't know what drove me. I was done with it after two hours, but I gaze upon my 30-hour playtime and wonder how I was able to push myself so hard. I kept thinking something would click the more and more I played. Instead, I run into mental-scarring imagery such as this:
WHAT THE HELL IS THAT!?!? It's middle-aged midget with a diaper and cherub wings! God, it makes Tingle look like Dolph Lundgren! Know where you find this abomination? Possessing teddy bears! You find the first in a little girl's bedroom! How did this one slip past Chris Hansen's scrutiny?
This game is sick! Sick! It's not only a broken mess of copy-pasted gibberish, it will also corrupt your moral compass. Keep it out of your home! Do not speak of it! Do not...
No. It can't be. I... I pulled the cartridge out of the Game Boy! Why is it still beeping?
No! Stop it! Why are you doing this to me!? Leave me alone!
Burn! BURN! BURN!!!
AAAAAAAH HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!
THE TEAM ROCKET SCALE OF "NO, IT'S A TRAP!":
PREVIOUSLY, ON OFF-BRAND GAMES:
01 Power Blazer
02 Commando: Steel Disaster
04 Midnight Resistance
05 8 Eyes
06 Onimusha Blade Warriors
07 The Krion Conquest
08 Scurge: Hive
09 3-D WorldRunner
11 Chex Quest
12 Giana Sisters DS
13 Run Saber
14 Crusader of Centy
15 DuLuDuBi Star
16 Fighter's History