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.
Fans of arcade-style action games will enjoy the combat component of Car Battler Joe. Instead of using the standard top-view perspective for the RPG interface, the combat mode uses a behind-the-back viewpoint that's more along the lines of that in Nintendo's Mario Kart. The vehicles look like miniature Hot Wheels cars with bazookas mounted on them, and the courses use the GBA's background-stretching capability to present the illusion of a three-dimensional environment. As for the car handling, you'll find that you skid around a lot, especially if there's a heavy trailer attached to the back of your car. This slipperiness isn't a bad thing necessarily, since the roads themselves are merely suggestions, and you can drive anywhere you like within a rather large area. Control is fairly intuitive, though aiming does take some getting used to. You can install up to four different weapons on a single car, but you don't actually have any input over which one fires when you push the attack button. Long-range weapons will fire if an enemy is far away, while missiles and mines fire if an enemy is closer or behind you. Vehicles also have an overdrive feature, which allows you to install enhancements such as nitro boosts and force fields and use them to accomplish missions in shorter amounts of time or to survive against superior opponents. Later on, when you collect the appropriate parts, you can build vehicles that hover above the ground or that can jump, which gives you access to areas that are normally off-limits to standard four-wheel cars and trucks. Cars are destroyed when their hit points reach zero, and there are generally dozens of CPU drones along each road for you to trash.
The most significant drawback to the game's combat aspect is that CPU opponents don't put up much of a fight. They tend to attack directly and will rarely attempt to sneak behind you or to use the terrain to their advantage. Only a few of the major characters make use of advanced weapons, such as napalm and force fields. The game compensates for this relative lack of competition through a strength-in-numbers approach. It's easy to find yourself surrounded by a group of bandit vehicles. You'll also come across gun turrets from time to time that make things even more interesting. Playing against human opponents is the best way to reap the most out of the combat mode. The game supports link play for up to four players, and you can compete against your friends using an assortment of stock vehicles or the cars you've built yourself. Against living opponents, the game feels like a miniaturized version of Twisted Metal or Vigilante 8, where the unpredictability of human behavior often leads to exciting and hilarious outcomes.
Much like in Advance Wars, Pokémon, and other games that don't leap out at you with their visuals or audio, the graphics, music, and sound in Car Battler Joe portray their subject matter exceptionally well, even though they aren't as extravagant as what you'd observe in games that are solely RPGs or solely driving games. You won't see an abundance of fog effects or shading during the RPG scenes, but the villages are drawn with a charming, rustic style, and the character sprites are large and expressive in a manner similar to that of the characters found in games like Golden Sun or Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The graphics in the combat perspective don't display a great amount of detail, particularly because there aren't any pitfalls or lakes to make the terrain interesting. You're usually driving too fast and shooting too frequently to notice, however, and the terrain-stretching technique is still fresh enough on the Game Boy Advance that it doesn't seem tacky. One nice feature is that every car you build looks different depending on the various parts and upgrades you install. Mathematically speaking, there are more than a million unique combinations. As for the audio, the music and sound effects stand out more for their tone than their quality. The soundtrack is a diverse mixture of 1960s spy music, taiko drums, and various overdramatic melodies--all composed by the famous video game musician Yuzo Koshiro, who is known for his work on games such as Streets of Rage, Actraiser, and Shenmue. The sound effects are pretty much what you'd expect from a generic RPG or racing game, although there are occasions when you'll be surprised by the crisp samples of a cheering audience or chirping birds.
Car Battler Joe is weird and unique, and it may not be right for your tastes. There's so much variety and personality, however, that the odds are good that you'll find your money's worth in some aspect or another. 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.