Flipping through the pages of a Nintendo Power as a youth, I stumbled upon a contest for a game called Custom Robo. The contest had contestants design their own bots, with detailed blurbs included on the strengths and playstyles of said bots. I wasn’t interested in entering, but seeing the different designs on the page got me interested in this game. This was the mid-2000s. Robots were rad.
Those of you who are familiar with its history should know that this is actually the fourth game in the franchise. The previous efforts on the N64 were never released outside of Japan. That’s no issue for the first-time folk though; this Gamecube entry is a stand-alone story. As someone who imported one of the N64 originals and gave the story mode a try, I can say that it has no ties to the GCN game. At least I think so. The N64 version and its Japanese Japan words may have stumped me but I’m pretty sure the wiki wouldn’t lie to me like that.
Bring on the Robo Fighting
Released in 2004, Custom Robo for the Nintendo Gamecube is very much a product of the times. The characters all look like the protagonists from a lost 4Kids anime. The music is an arcade-like electronic landscape that wouldn’t sound too out of place in one of the Sonic Adventure games. The collectible concept of the game evokes a touch of Pokemon. But somehow, this game ends up being so much more than the sum of its parts.
You play as “Hero” and start this game sound asleep in bed before this old, craggy woman comes by to wake you. Immediately, this may place you in the mindset of a child. Try and keep that mindset. It’ll help with the rest of the game. Thankfully, this turns out to not to be your mother but instead your landlord. But when you get down to it, landlords are really just like everyone’s mothers, innit? Anyway, she tells you that you’re late for your job and then off you go.
It turns out that you are applying for work as a bounty hunter of all things. You’re instructed to tag along with two other members of the team, Harry and Marcia, and you all go off to do bounty hunter work. You accompany your reluctant group to a nearby lab and oops, actually it’s being ransacked by bad robo dudes. Shit ends up getting flung full-force right into the fan and you end up having to do battle with some baddies on your first day.
The gameplay loop of Custom Robo consists of battling a robo, earning new robo parts, customizing your robo, then battling another robo. In this world, robo’s are not just thrown around all willy-nilly, these people were not raised in a robo barn alongside robo cows. In this world, criminal and
criminal bounty hunter alike agree to not directly harm one another. A cute little arena is materialized in between the combatants and that is where the combat between these bots happen. The human combatants are never harmed, just exhausted after losing a battle. Remember this, it’ll come back later.
It’s Time to Duel
Once the battle is initiated, you both get launched out of cannons in cube form and assemble in whatever direction you land. You could get lucky and start out standing upright just like a good robo should. Or you could end up with your head buried in the ground and have to mash the A button to escape. This can lead to either a sick awesome preemptive strike or a stupid unfair piece of shit RNG, depending on if you’re the one getting hit and how bitter you are during it. But once the opening ceremony is complete, you and your opponent robo are free to use whatever tools at your disposal to send the other to the scrap heap.
Custom Robo gives you a wide variety of weapons and tools for your bot. Your robo has a gun, pods, and bombs available for customization, alongside the robo body and legs. These range widely from things like the Bubble Gun and the Sky Freeze Pod to actually useful weapons. You even stumble across suped-up illegal parts that are extremely powerful but are banned from most regular use. There is such customization available to you that almost every playstyle you can think of has a direct counter. There can also be great synergy between your different weapons if you build your robo the correct way. You can even make the Bubble Gun good. It’s a shame then that you never actually have to do that.
Spoiled for Choice
It’s honestly a shame that this game was made before online was really established on consoles. The story mode offers very little challenge once you find a dominant strategy. The little beauty above is called the Dragon Gun and it fires homing shots that fill most of the screen with your opponent when it hits. Nothing is in place to stop you from jumping high up in the air and firing off a shot. There is no enemy in the story mode that has an answer for this. They all just die or sometimes die in a different place. There is couch multiplayer for up to four players but trying to get a friend quickly caught up on why the Knuckle Gun should only be used on Little Raider robos is not fucking worth it, to say the least.
So the gameplay is fun but has balancing issues. Maybe the story carries it? Well no, maybe not. The story in Custom Robo is sort of a bog-standard goose chase and you and your gang are pretty much Scooby-Doo and co. The main story thread is that there is a rogue robo that has actually been hurting people in real life and you have to chase after it all over the place. The people you think will betray you end up betraying you, most of the story will have you juuust missing your target, and the main trio triumph in the end through the power of friendship. They even go into space. Or “space,” for the nerds who have actually played this game. It’s one of the most clichéd stories you’re liable to bear witness to. And yet…
Tune in Next Time
As an admission, I am a huge sucker for character interactions. The biggest piece of shlock can turn into a masterpiece if I can tell the characters are bouncing off each other in a fun way. It turns out that these characters have a little bit to them. Harry and Marcia, even though they’re not the deepest, are fleshed out enough to get a good grasp on their character. Harry is a total bro and Marcia is the girl that you won’t admit to your friends at the lunch table you have a crush on. They’re given time to develop and open up instead of immediately being best friends with the main character.
All the characters in Custom Robo have their endearing quirks. Your hard-ass boss ends up being a closet sucker for poetry. Your landlord ends up being a veteran robo commander. There honestly was some effort of world-building, with random NPCs having little self-contained storylines they go through over the course of days. It’s small things, but it adds just a little spice to the characters and it makes them interesting. Except for that one guy. He never gets good. I forget his name, but he’s the rival guy. I know his name’s not Earnest because that’s your boss’s name.
The graphics strike that nice chord with me that just screams GameCube. They’re just pretty basic 3D polygonal models, but the art direction around them compliments them instead of clashing. The character designs are absurd in that perfect obtuse way. If you can think of Pokémon Colluseum, you’re on the right track. And even though I ragged on it before, the music is also pretty exceptional. It’s varied and each piece suits it’s use beautifully. Grab it, put it on an iPod, listen to it while you’re driving. If anyone gives you guff, fuck em, it’s my life, I’ll do what I want, you’re not the boss of me, get out of my room.
A Little More Content for your Buck
Custom Robo also gives you a second story-mode when you beat the game. It’s just a bunch of tournament battles but it continues the story. You can go back to space and fight against a recording of your dad in what I think is the only tie back to the original games (oh yeah and by the way your dad has been gone for like ever and you’ve been trying to follow in his footsteps since he was a great robo commander and other anime shit). It’s a little bit harder than the main story mode and you might be required to use your brain for a brief segment of the game. Special rules are even introduced in some fights that ban your equipment or force you to fight three-on-one. So there’s a fight or two that you have to use something other than the Dragon Gun.
All in all, Custom Robo is a good game. It’s not perfect and almost every complaint that I hear about the game I can’t disagree with. But there are just some games where all of that just doesn’t matter. The objective, logical brain says that this is a mediocre product, but that guy’s a dick anyway. If you can get into the mindset, this game can be exactly the kind of slightly cheesy, Toonami-flavored romp through a fun world with fun characters and fun gameplay. And if the game is fun, I’d say it’s worth your time.
If you want to give this game a try, Amazon has quite a few copies up for not too expensive. Give it a try: Custom Robo – Gamecube