As one of the most impactful games of my childhood, Custom Robo was destined to be reviewed at some point or another. I half-considered doing an “Ode” to the game rather than a review, but I felt this game deserves more of a critic’s touch than a sentimental send-off. With that in mind, I picked up the game for the umpteenth time in however many years and played through the game to completion, all for the sake of refreshing my memory on how the game fares overall.
Custom Robo is a somewhat polarizing title. Critical consensus of the game writes it off as a bland, by-the-numbers action/adventure game that does little to differentiate itself from others from its genre. Contrarily, fan consensus has this as a memorable and exhilarating experience from start to finish. You wouldn’t believe the amount of support this game gets from the people who recognize it… that is to say this game isn’t exactly a household name. Custom Robo is not a game you’ll hear on messageboards as the greatest action/adventure title of all time. One would be lucky to have it brought up in general. It’s a candidate for being labeled “underrated,” but it’s also certainly “unknown.” A quick Youtube search of “Custom Robo” will reveal videos with viewcounts not even topping a hundred-thousand.
Had I not played a demo of the game at my local toy store back in late 2003, I may not have ever known about the game, either.
Regardless of its popularity, Custom Robo is a game similarly styled to JRPGs. While it doesn’t incorporate RPG elements, the game is very dialogue-heavy, with a story taken straight out of a “How-To” manual for Japanese storywriting. Amnesia, a looming otherworldly threat with bizarre origins, a character with a traumatic past, and more are front and center within the game’s story. Humorously enough, judging by the cover of the game and the intro sequence, one would not expect any of this to come to fruition. Custom Robo gives the impression that it is a game about fighting robots, and that’s it. I would completely understand if people felt deceived by a game promising non-stop action and robotic development that is actually about 70% humanoid dialogue and 30% robo-battles.
With knowing that the game is very wordy, are the words worth their weight in the game’s structure? Playing Custom Robo‘s single-player campaign takes the player through a story mode titled “A New Journey.” It details the life and backstory of the main protagonist (whose name is inputted by the player) and his transition into piloting and mastering custom robo. As the story goes on, more and more secrets about the area the inhabitants of the world live in are revealed when a mysterious threat begins to cause havoc within it. A very simplistic story on the surface, with only minimal depth overall. The story will not wow people into a state of nirvana, only serving as a safe-bet sort of story that anyone can have a basic amount of immersion with. The story on its own, especially due to a very long exposition scene near the end of the game, can also come across as illogical, even by JRPG standards. Chances are, if one isn’t taken by the story, they probably have experience with the genre.
The true strength of this game comes with the characters. Almost in an Undertale style of fashion, the characters and their quirks alleviate a lot of the fragile foundations of the plot and lack of total robo-battles. Many of the people prevalent within the story of Custom Robo are immensely likable characters, strengthened only by their quirky dialogue and use of self-awareness. This applies to almost every character within the game, even minor characters that don’t even have names. The game allows the player to sort of get to know these characters whenever they’re given the chance, with different brackets of dialogue every time a passage of time occurs. They help the game become more memorable in the long-run without overtaking the importance of the plot.
However, this manner of character likability can also be easily missed. Custom Robo is not a game where the player simply goes on a straightforward path from one objective to the next. It incorporates a hub world with a variety of locations (assuming the player has them opened) where the player can, on occasion, make stops and interact with the population of the town. It gives the sense that the world is open and alive, instead of using background characters simply to fill an arbitrary feeling of humanity. So long as the player chooses to get to know these characters, I feel the game becomes all the more memorable for the identities that are established by them throughout.
While this emphasis on background characters is nice, it could also be fleshed out quite a bit. While exploring gives the player further insight to the population of the town, it doesn’t necessarily reward the player with anything. Being an all-around social person is a nice reward, but what about any of it really benefits the player? There are no unlockable parts for robo-battles achieved by talking to people. There are no secrets areas unlocked or characters that serve any importance. The only real “benefits” are that every so often, the player can acquire knowledge as to what will be happening the day after (usually a tournament or some sort) and company references. This game is a little meta, indeed, as it references a few Mario quirks, along with the creator of the Custom Robo concept. But are those really worth going out and talking to everyone with a mouth outside of the current objective? Not really, but I enjoy exploring in general, so it’s more of a preference than anything.
Another issue comes with the main protagonist himself. He has his own set personality, as he’s not just a silent protagonist that the player can fit inside, but he doesn’t get any ample opportunity to establish himself outside of “main protagonist.” There are times when the player can input a response from him, but no matter what is chosen, the game goes along the same way, with the addition or subtraction of a few dialogue boxes. It would be nice to see the hero sort of mold himself into a more relatable (or completely opposite) personality as one so standard of his position. Wouldn’t it be fun to see the hero save the world, but be an asshole to everyone? To see how characters would envision themselves relating to the hero based on his input choices, instead of treading the same withered path? I might be asking too much from the game, but the lack of any differing pathways is discouraging.
What of the battles themselves, you may ask. The 30% of the game that is sprinkled (and sometimes poured) between the dialogue and the plot of the game. Custom Robo‘s battle system is the main attraction of the game, or so the game leads you to believe. It gives a very large selection of weapons to use and parts to upgrade each robo, complete with statistics and technological intricacies that make each part unique. From afar, Custom Robo has a battle system that builds upon the creativity of the player and sheer number of parts available to use. This aspect alone is what drew me into the game. The number of different guns and bombs and pods and bodies and legs; it was like video game lego. Creating my robos and trying out all sorts of different weapons proved a wonderful time… at first. Which brings the biggest and ultimately most disappointing flaw to the game itself: battles are not balanced.
Remember the “pod” and “bomb” words I used above? These are two weapons that are available to use aside from the standard gun and the charge attack. Legs are not weapons, but rather items used to enhance air or ground speeds or maneuverability. In order to win battles in Custom Robo, the player must do the following: run around and spam charge attacks and the gun. The player can completely disregard half of the arsenal on their robos and be just as good at the game, maybe even better. Not only does this completely remove a good portion of parts one is willingly able to use, but it makes battles all the more repetitive. Not to mention, some guns are clearly better (or more efficient in battle) than others. My personal favorite is the “Flame Gun,” which has decent range, decent attack, and incredible knockdown ratio. The moment I got this gun, I never switched it out. Throughout the entire story mode, I was capable of playing through without any problem with just one gun. I switched around parts occasionally within other categories, but the more the story went on, the less I started really using them. Bombs are basically slower guns and pods are incredibly inaccurate most of the time. They’re on a “Because why not?” basis of importance to battles, which is a damn shame.
Aside from the easy exploitation of the battles, a more subjective complaint with the game are the 2-on-2 battles. The arenas don’t seem big enough to hold four robos duking it out without having things feel chaotic. I wish the arenas would’ve sized up in relation to the number of robos battling, instead of throwing eight or nine combatants into a kitchen sink. It’s exaggerated, but I found myself struggling tremendously when being hit by my partner’s own bombs and pods trying to take down my opponent.
What perfectly exemplifies the lack of long-run fun with the game’s battle system comes from the mode unlocked after beating “A New Journey:” “The Grand Battle.” In this mode, the player continues where the story left off, only the entire world becomes a battle tournament. No more is the game 70-30 dialogue/battles. It is now about 30-70 dialogue/battles. Every location the player went through in the story mode is now a mini-battle tournament, one where the player is scored based on their proficiency in battle. So not only does the player need to battle five or six people at a time with few breaks, but they have to do it as efficiently as possible to ascertain the best score possible. What does that mean? Spam the charge attack and gun. Over and over and over and over and over. In the story mode, the player was able to at least experiment with a lot of different weapons and parts, but now the game gives little chance to play around. It’s essentially a “challenge mode,” where the player picks their most comfortable make-up to win as quickly and as flawlessly as possible. And when all is sewn together, one realizes that “The Grand Battle” is incredibly mind-numbing and boring.
No more can the player explore and socialize with the public over a span of time (but can find some secret parts this time around). No more does the player have any real reason to fight. No more does any character have anything really important to say. It’s battle tournament after battle tournament, location after location, same strategy after same strategy. It’s dull. It’s annoying. It’s a far cry from what “A New Journey” provides and I can’t be the only one who typically quits the game leaving “The Grand Battle” untouched.
One last quality to Custom Robo that is both hit and miss are the graphics. Models and character textures are incredibly dated, looking straight out of a Playstation game. The robos look slightly better, but aren’t exactly gripping. There are even points in the game where character models will clip through environmental objects… including other characters. It’s not a great-looking game, but it has one shining beacon in terms of character caricatures. Throughout the game, characters will talk via text boxes, with their portraits being portrayed next to it. Each (semi-important) character has a wide array of different expressions and styles drawn of them to correspond with their words. This makes the dialogue more expressive and the models easier to ignore. In particular, Harry, Walt, and Carmen typically have the most enjoyable expressions, with Ernest picking up some slack as well. As I am a giant weeb, I also find the designs of the characters to be appealing, but also incredibly off-the-wall. The main character has silver hair and bright red pants. Marcia is basically Hatsune Miku. Harry… well, Harry’s a mess. Ernest is Stone-Cold Steve Austin with a cape. Evil looks like a David Bowie ’80s phase. And Mira… a less-messy but still-messy Harry.
Despite its flaws, Custom Robo is still an immensely enjoyable game. However, that enjoyment is perhaps too pertained to the player’s interest in exploration and character involvement. Without the characters and the pseudo-nonlinear emphasis on traveling the world, Custom Robo would not be something I would be recommending. There is some nostalgic bias involved with my views of the game, but I feel they’ve melted tremendously since I last played the game. The battles are fun in short bursts, but feel stringed together based on limited tactics. No fan of pure action games will find much to go for with this game, but anyone willing to immerse themselves within an adventure has Custom Robo as a go-to option. It’s a game that’s mysteriously both good and not good, exhibiting qualities I would typically scoff at in any other game. However, the good is good enough to have me coming back every so often to bag on Harry for being so lovably unlikable.
Final Score: 6/10
(All gameplay screenshots courtesy of SilvaShadow1990.)