For many dedicated gamers, the act of purchasing games is as much a part of the experience as playing them (perhaps this is the problem of trying to elevate the discourse of videogames beyond the consumer entertainment level). While a gamer can do obsessive amounts of research by reading all the latest magazine and Web site content, putting down fifty dollars when the times comes is still very much a gamble. A player can never know for sure if they will like the title until they're playing it. There's joy in knowing money was well spent on a good game and inversely, disappointment in having wasted time with a lemon. In sticking with the gambling metaphor, Car Battler Joe, a Game Boy Advance release from Natsume, is the casino equivalent of putting a quarter in the slot machine and winning a million dollars.
Prior to playing Car Battler Joe, I have never read any articles on the game in a magazine or Web site; never seen any advertisements or press releases; and never heard of it from any of my peers or friends. In one of life's mysterious moments, I was simply drawn to the packaging on the store shelf, was intrigued by the description on the back of the box and did not hesitate to purchase it due to its low twenty dollar price tag. In doing so, Car Battler Joe became one of the biggest videogame surprises in my history of gaming.
The quickest way to describe Car Battler Joe is to imagine Mad Max meets Pokémon meets Super Mario Kart. Initially, the aesthetics look, sound and feel like a traditional anime-style role-playing game (RPG) imported from Japan. The storyline has all the usual conventions of a coming-of-age hero trying to live up to the legend of his missing father set to back drop of a epic struggle between opposing factions in a post-apocalyptic environment where car combat has become the most popular sport.
Car Battler Joe is remarkable for two reasons. One, instead of using a traditional turn-based and menu-driven battle system, conflicts are resolved by high-speed warfare with lasers, missiles and other pyrotechnics strapped to four-wheels, a chassis and a driver. Gamers accustomed to next-generation visuals won't be overly impressed with the trademark Nintendo 16-bit Mode-7 flat landscape effect of the driving or the simplistic dueling combat, but there are boundless depths in acquiring new parts, upgrading and customizing one's vehicles.
The other outstanding quality of Car Battler Joe is that this game is the total package. It's not some pared-down version of game that appeared on a next-generation console. The storyline charts new territories that haven't been explored before by the genre. It's nothing major, but there's enough to keep things fresh. The dialogue is well written and the many characters have memorable personalities. There's tons of content and diversity in the addictive gameplay.
Players can earn cash and find valuable supplies by accepting mercenary jobs that range for usual courier duties to seek and destroy missions. Since car battling is a sport, prizes can also be earned by participating in competitions. All the earnings can be used to expand one's garage, sup up vehicles, and in strange sim-like twist, they can also be donated to newly formed towns so that the towns themselves can grow larger in estate and population. Amazingly, none of these options are forced on to the players in a linear manner. A player can choose to drive around from town to town and just freely battle the locals and explore the landscape for some hidden treasures without ever having to advance the story along.
However, playing the game in such a free fashion is unlikely because the one complaint that I have about Car Battler Joe that kept me from giving this game the highest rating possible was the actual car combat wasn't particularly challenging. Beyond the strategy of customizing the vehicles, the mechanics of the driving and fighting techniques were relatively shallow and the computer doesn't put up much of a fight. And yet depending on how one looks at it, this may be a non-complaint since the battle systems on most role-playing games are even more basic in design and the problem does not interfere with so many other parts of the game that are so well executed and enjoyable.
In the retail world, its common knowledge that any product that tries to do numerous things usually fails at doing any one of those functions well. The same principles usually hold true for just about anything in life, but Car Battler Joe is the rare exception. It is a true diamond in the rough that manages to fuse different videogame genres, style and sensibilities to become an amazingly unique experience and a major surprise for this critic's mind and wallet.