IGN Review of Custom Robo Arena
The Custom Robo series has been a far bigger hit in Japan than it has been in the US. The series began on the Nintendo 64 over there and even leaked over onto the Game Boy Advance in a strange, side-scrolling Super Smash Bros. fighter. It wasn't until Nintendo decided to bring the GameCube version to these shores that US gamers finally got a taste of this robot battler developed by Japanese studio Noise. But whether it was due to the stagnant GameCube sales or whether the title just didn't have the right stuff, Custom Robo didn't get a good start in North America. Nintendo of America has enough faith in the product to give the property a second shot in the form of Custom Robo Arena for the Nintendo DS. This portable rendition retains pretty much everything that was both good and bad about the series on past systems, but at the very least you can expand your robot fighter's career by going online and duking it out with other Custom Robo players.
So the whole concept behind Custom Robo Arena are these little micro-sized action figures known as, naturally, Custom Robos. These tiny micro battlers have taken the game's world by storm, where everyone lives, eats, breathes, and talks about Custom Robos. In this game, some husbands even cheat on their wives with Custom Robos. You think I'm kidding?
The idea of Custom Robo is very Pokemon-esque, right to the point where, right before battle, you "throw" your robot into battle via these rotateable cannons. This element is actually a hidden, randomized balance of power, since your robot begins as a six-sided cube that unfolds after the bot's body comes to a rest. If he's on his head when he unfolds, it'll take him a lot longer to right himself than if he landed on his feet. The battler out of the cube first can pretty much get the first hit in if he's quick enough to reach the opponent with his weapons, but honestly victory is decided not just by skill on the playing field, but also in the choice of body parts you use before jumping into the fight.
The "Custom" in Custom Robo is the game's biggest hook. There are literally thousands, if not millions, of part combinations that players can use to build their in-game fighter. Body parts, guns, legs, rockets...if you've got it you can equip it. You start out with a pretty generic battler right from the start, but you'll see through the dozens of fights with computer and real-life players that there are an unreal amount of part combos that players can create. You can even pose the character like an action figure and shift around the camera in this diorama to spruce up the personal expression.
The battles are the core of Custom Robo, surrounded by a storyline that gives players the illusion that they're in a role-playing game. This overworld-style environment and presentation tells the story of your character working through the ranks to become the champion Custom Robo battler in the schoolyards and beyond, all the while still coming home every night for dinner with the family. The heavy-handedness of "family togetherness" is a little over-the-top and almost gets in the way since you pretty much have to sit at the table every time you wake up in the morning and head home at night, just to talk to your parents. And the whole RPG design is incredibly basic; heck, most of your required items are handed to your character right from the get-go without any user interaction. The RPG-style adventure is pretty much a requirement though, since players need to have some sort of driving force to earn experience points and collect money to buy additional parts like body types and weapons. This "adventure" is just so blandly done, though.
At least the battles are somewhat more interesting. Early in the game it's not surprising to find yourself mopping up the floor with the computer opponents. Even the ones that talk a good fight in the adventure are push-overs when you actually head into a battle. Custom Robo Arena doesn't get all that interesting until about a couple of hours in when the cooler arenas and more skilled AI opponents enter the fight. But honestly, the game's real challenge comes to the surface when you hit the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection service and check out the online competition. We were able to hit a few battles over the internet before the review, and the game held up extremely well simply because it only needed to keep track of two characters in this one-on-one exclusive game. Multiplayer is really Custom Robo Arena's main draw, since, like in most fighting games, the computer AI routines can get a little on the predictable side. It's when you go online that you see when your choice for Custom Robo combinations either work or don't work.
The game began as a Nintendo 64 title in Japan and moved to the GameCube a few years later, but obviously for technical reasons the game's visuals had to take a step back towards the N64 version in the move to the portable. The battles still look pretty good with a 3D engine that moves fast and smooth, even with a ton of firepower and explosions filling the screen. The adventure portion is a completely different story -- this overhead presentation is so bland and limited, and just looks rushed. I mean, they can't even lock down a style: the detailed portraits of characters look absolutely nothing like their superdeformed pixel-art representations.
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