It may not be the best role-playing game, the best strategy game, or the best action game, but as a mixture of these various styles, it works.
Once in a while, a refreshing and innovative game slips by unnoticed. In October 2002, when major publishers were rolling out massive holiday advertising campaigns, Natsume quietly released a game titled Car Battler Joe. The easiest way to describe it is to call it a role-playing game with cars--a cross between Final Fantasy, Pokémon, and Twisted Metal.
You play as Joe, a 16-year-old boy who is just starting a career as a professional car battler. Some of Joe's many responsibilities include competing against other car battlers, taking jobs offered by the various townspeople, collecting and building custom vehicles, donating items to expand other villages, and investigating the rumors of an evil crime syndicate purportedly run by none other than Joe's own father.
Each of the aspects mentioned above is a fully developed and integrated portion of the game. There are chatty role-playing situations, where you have to interact with villagers and run errands. There are resource-management aspects, where you have to gather a variety of materials in order to upgrade your garage or expand neighboring villages. There are Pokémon-style collecting and strategy aspects, where you assemble custom cars using parts and items purchased from shops or found scattered along the 40-or-so roads you'll travel during the course of the game. And there's a great deal of action as well, since most of the hands-on work is accomplished by driving into the woods and fighting against other car battlers using the various weapons installed on your car.
What makes Car Battler Joe so unique is that you can undertake all of those things at the appropriate points in the story or focus on only those portions of the game that you actually enjoy. If you want to see the story unfold, you can visit the different towns, talk to people, and participate in just the battles necessary to advance the plot. If you'd prefer to fill your garage with a variety of vehicles, you can revisit the same roads over and over again in order to search for parts that are hidden under rocks and trees. If you want to battle other drivers, you can participate in tournaments or visit job counters that offer a wide variety of combat, transport, and survival missions. Some of the missions are downright funny. In one, you're retrieving a lost cheese delivery. In another, you're supposed to run a stranger out of town by totally demolishing his car. Since you gain money and experience regardless of what you spend your time doing, you're rarely pigeonholed into activities you dislike.
The game is held together in a fashion similar to Nintendo's Pokémon games. You start in a home village with a single car. Suggestions from the residents in town give you the opportunity to travel roads that lead to other villages. On these roads, you can battle other drivers, gather car parts and supplies, and earn experience that improves both your reputation and numerous statistics related to your vehicle's attack and defense capabilities. Gradually, you'll unlock 23 different villages and more than 40 different roads. Although the story isn't as convoluted as that of the typical Final Fantasy game, you'll still meet dozens of colorful characters and encounter a number of interesting situations. Some of these involve rescuing people in distress, competing against a rival car battler that won't leave you alone, and saving the world from an organization out to eliminate car battling altogether. Most of the people you'll meet are obsessed with car battling, so there's a fair amount of humor in the deadpan manner with which they react to various current events.
The only major flaw in the RPG aspect of the game is that it's fairly straightforward. You can complete the primary plot in about 10 hours of continuous playtime. Even after you've completed the story, however, you can still work to build more vehicles and participate in the standard missions offered by the job centers. There are also two villages within the game that grow larger as you donate the necessary supplies to them.