RetroGrade Review #9: Custom Robo (Gamecube — 2004)

I first heard of the Custom Robo franchise through trophies in Super Smash Bros. Melee. As a life-long Gundam fan, I loved everything that had to do with robots, and the art style of the trophies was just too cool. Each time I unlocked a new trophy, I was over-the-moon excited – I needed to learn more about the franchise. Imagine my heartbreak when I found out that, at the time of SSBM’s release, there were no Custom Robo games outside of Japan.

Then 2004 rolled around and I stumbled upon the opening cutscene of the new Custom Robo for the Nintendo Gamecube playing on an in-store demo disc. I could hardly contain my excitement! On my next visit to that same store, there was an actual playable demo! I instantly jumped in and was just-as-instantly … underwhelmed. The battle area was much smaller than the extravagant and fiery opening cutscene had led me to believe, and the gameplay was nowhere near as action-packed.  But I played  on, determined to love my first adventure into the series I had wanted to play for so long. It took a few different robots and several different weapons before I finally settled on a combination that I liked – the Milky Way model robot with the Gatling gun. I played that demo until it kicked me out three times. It was so much fun! And when the full title finally released, I picked it up as soon as I could.

Custom Robo‘s story starts a little on the slow side. A lot of walking (and almost none of it under your control) and a lot more talking happen before your first robo-battle, but the game makes up for it by including a hefty helping of humor, including the option to make your character plead for a job as a bounty hunter by fervently talking-up his cooking prowess. Such dialogue options are present throughout the story, allowing you to play your character generally one of three ways – positive, negative, or endearingly stupid. None of these choices effect the overall outcome of the game or the way relationships develop with supporting characters, though each choice does trigger unique responses which are often funny. The narrative itself, separated into “A New Journey” and “The Grand Battle,” is interesting, but it would not be the same without the characters.

In Custom Robo, you play as a young man (hereafter referred to as Spyke, because that’s what I named him in my game) whose father left him at an early age. He is looked after by his landlady, and the game starts with her (quite loudly) waking him up so that he can go to a job interview. From then you meet characters such as Harry, a woefully egotistical type; Ernest, the loud and brash leader of Steel Hearts Bounty Hunting; Evil, Harry’s aptly-named arch-nemesis; and Linda, the heartthrob lead scientist. There are unique characters aplenty in Custom Robo that each add their own slice of personality to the game, and oftentimes the dialogue makes even the repetitious-in-design “nameless” characters feel like individual people.

Story mode’s central problem, which even the amazing characters cannot help it overcome, is its linearity. Many in-game areas are unavailable for most of the story, with Spyke or someone in his entourage offering up excuses for why they cannot go to a particular area at a particular time. Sometimes, even the accessible areas are empty save for a lone NPC who, when queried, will explain why there is nothing for the player to do there. After a hard day’s work hunting bounties, I sometimes wanted to go to the park and see what was happening there, only for Spyke to muse about how tired he was. Other times I would want to go to Bogey’s Coffee and enter underground robo-battle tournaments, only to find it inexplicably closed. For as much as I love this game, how inaccessible the world is bothers me to this day. The game bills itself as a roleplaying game, but the only roleplaying is through the dialogue choices and the way you customize Spyke’s robot, which is horrendously limited at the start. Luckily, after completing “A New Journey,” you can replay that mode with all of your unlocked parts, but something is lost in being unable to unlock new gear, and the lack of exploration will be just as painful.

In addition to story mode, Custom Robo offers an “Arcade Mode” and a “Versus Mode.” Arcade Mode sees you battling robos on randomly-picked battle arenas, while Versus Mode lets you play competitively with a total of up to four players or against the computer. While these modes are handy if you want to just hop in and play battles without waiting for a conversation to happen in story mode, they are limited by what robo-parts you have unlocked. The same goes for battle stages, thus rendering Arcade and Versus practically unplayable until you have completed at least “A New Journey.”

The battles themselves are a blast, but can feel repetitive and uninspired until more parts and levels have unlocked. Once you have a hefty arsenal to choose from and can fully deck out your robo to suit a specific map or opponent, though, each battle has the potential to become a unique, frantic, and enjoyable experience.

Overall, Custom Robo is a ton of fun. While Story Mode’s overbearing linearity and lack of accessibility put a damper on the experience, the loveable characters, the fun art style, the robo-customization, and the robo-battles themselves more than make up for it. Both new and used copies can be found online, though new ones cost over $100. Used copies start around $25, so if you have a Wii or by-some-incredible-stroke-of-luck a GameCube that still works, I enthusiastically recommend this game, especially if you have friends who will play it with you. It will always be one of my all-time favorites.

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