Game companies know when their games suck. They have armies of play testers and hordes of focus groups that give them plenty of advance warning. And yet each year hundreds of uninspired and below average games unassumingly occupy store shelves; perhaps as a desperate attempt to recoup costs or get a fat tax write-off. Some consumers will take the bait and get suckered into buying them because of familiarity with the genre or the company that releases it. That's what happened with when I purchased Custom Robo for the GameCube.
I thought I was getting the addictive, collecting gameplay of Pokemon combined with the personalized giant robot action of Armored Core. What I got instead was the absurdity of Mystery Science Theater meets the shallowness of Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots.
It's not a good sign when the basic premise of the game doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Set in the distant future, the developers want players to buy into a world where the populace are enthralled with controlling imaginary robots called Custom Robos in one-on-one and two-on-two variation battles. The robots are imaginary because the fights take place in self-contained personal virtual arenas called Holosseums. On top of that, battling Robos isn't just a hobby for little boys. It is ingrained into the very fabric of society.
Got a beef with your neighbor? Don't sue them. Settle it with fighting robots. Want to rob a bank? Leave the guns at home, but don't forget to pack your Custom Robo to knockout security guards. Want to play with your kids? No need for swings and seesaws. Just beat the heck out of your child in the Holosseums. No matter what situation the player finds him or herself in, he can bet it will end up with battling Robos.
I partly admired the resourceful desperation of the developers for trying to make the concept work in near impossible situations, no matter how ridiculous the outcome. I mostly just laughed at the absurdity of the premise and how the game tries to reconcile the plot holes behind colorful anime characters and a post-Apocalyptic storyline with a surprise twist. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Sorry, but I'm not getting suckered twice. It feels more like the developers just couldn't come up with a logical and imaginative world to surround the archaic one-on-one style fighting gameplay.
The actual customizing and battling isn't half bad. There are many different guns, missiles, bombs and enhancements to allow a player to outfit the many available robot bodies to one's desire. However, the way the parts are unlocked simply by winning matches and freely distributed via mailbox-like stations littered through out the environments feels again like a lazy afterthought. There's little rhyme or reason to what gets unlocked and why. The random unlocking and easy distribution also provides poor motivation for the player to earn them.
The dueling portions of the game also fall short. Players simply lock onto an opponent and mostly fire away and jump around to dodge incoming attacks. While the firearms can be varied, the most powerful weapons in the game unbalance the gameplay by being too dominant, and the cramped, uninspired UPS box-sized stages make the unbalance even worse. It doesn't help that computer opponents rarely put up a fight, so the strategy and nuances of fighting is hardly necessary.
Custom Robo is exemplarily of a B-grade title. Everything from the graphics to the storyline feels half-baked. The general marketing and advertising silence from Nintendo on the title is most telling. I could almost sense that they just wanted this one would just go away—and so it does, with a whimper. The saddest part here is guys like me who mistook the lack of interest and hype surrounding Custom Robo as being a possible sleeper hit. That decision, like this game, was a big mistake.