I understand that Chi has a great fondness for Car Battler Joe and I've heard him speak of it many times. In fact, Chi is not alone in his adoration of this little cult cartridge. Over the last two years I have seen this game come up several times on the Internet categorized as a surprise hit or as the true definition of a sleeper. Since I'm always eager to investigate rumors that may lead me to my next obscure favorite, I decided to take all this enthusiasm to heart and buy a copy of Car Battler Joe to see what all the buzz was about. After playing through the entire game, I don't see it.
Up until very recently, I tended to associate most Game Boy games with low production values, shaky gameplay structures, and generally subpar experiences. Car Battler Joe did very little to rise above my stereotype. The graphics while walking Joe around in towns are extremely simplistic, and the driving sequences are little better. Everything looks very crude; it's hardly what I'd call "appealing." The storyline was a joke, barely being more than the roughest of sketches. Characterization was nowhere to be found, and a lot of things just didn't make sense. The developers have no sense of pacing or drama, either. For example, the main "love interest" disappears half an hour after her introduction, never to appear again. Even worse, the final battle against the evil Emperor had practically no build-up or tension surrounding it, making me wonder why I should even care. When the original Pokemon has a stronger narrative than yours, you know you're doing something wrong.
I do give the game credit for attempting a semi-nonlinear play experience, which I imagine to be no easy feat on the Game Boy Advance. However, rather than being intrigued and drawn into the "world" presented here, I found myself quite bored and very often frustrated in my attempts to move the story forward. The game completely stalls out at a few points with no direction on how to keep going, and if it wasn't for GameFAQs.com to get me unstuck, I seriously doubt I would have had the patience or drive to complete the game.
Primarily it was the lack of character putting me to sleep, but I also found no appeal in customizing the cars or searching for different weapons and upgrades. In the recent Sigma Star Saga, also on Game Boy Advance, the same type of weapons and component customization was done extremely well not only because there were a multitude of the items to pick from, but because the combat was highly engaging. Each component I tinkered with had an immediate and significant effect on gameplay. In Car Battler Joe, it didn't seem like it mattered what weapon I had since the majority of fights against the AI played out the exact same way every time. Frankly, I could barely tell any difference between most of the weapons, and once I had a set-up that worked for my vehicle, I only had to upgrade one time for the entire length of play. Riveting, this was not.
When all was said and done, I walked away very dissatisfied with Car Battler Joe thinking that it was exactly the kind of low-budget portable game that barely justified its cost in time or money. I freely admit that it had a few good ideas and its approach to implementing them was a fairly bold one, but it takes more than a few good ideas to make a good game. Contrary to Chi's opinion, I didn't think any particular part of this game was done well. It was an interesting oddity conceptually, but I thought Car Battler Joe was a collection of missed opportunities and half-hearted attempts rather than the "diamond in the rough" others might find it to be.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway