Virtual On for the N64? You wouldn't think so, but at its heart, Custom Robo is Virtual On with a little Armored Core thrown in for good measure. That's a really simplified way of putting it, but to acknowledge the sum of its parts, Custom Robo is essentially a Virtual On-style RPG for Nintendo's cartridge-based system. Developed by Marigul subsidiary Noise, Custom Robo takes standard RPG gameplay and uses the storyline as a launch pad for the successive string of arena battles that make up the majority of the gameplay.
Although you have a choice in how you play Custom Robo (story mode, arcade mode), the option with the most meat is the story mode. Through a series of successive battles, you will encounter and compete with numerous students, both for the challenge and for rivalry's sake. Defeating each student nets you parts from the defeated student's robo, such as dragon guns, hornet guns, and giant bombs. The type of parts won will vary from robo to robo, but among the parts available are a main gun, a secondary gun, a shoulder cannon, and different types of footwear. Each robo will typically cough up one or two of these but rarely, if ever, a complete set. Not that that's a problem, since you will fight more than 30 different opponents, and by the end of the game, you'll have a serious cache of unlocked weapons to select from.
Gameplay in the exploratory modes consists of superdeformed characters running around on 3D backgrounds, although these backgrounds, for the most part, remain fixed in place, with minor perspective adjustments that strive to enhance the 3D feel. For what it's worth, the RPG aspects move at 60fps, making the game seem silky smooth. Imagine Harvest Moon 64 set in a futuristic high school. The arena fights are what counts though, and the control here is as tight as anyone could expect, with the analog stick doing most of the grunt work. Moving your robo around the arena using the analog stick is painless and responsive, while the A button fires your main weapon. The B button launches your secondary bomb, usually a grenade of some sort, while the Z trigger fires a shoulder cannon. The R button activates your jetpack for quick dashes away from your opponent's weapons, while the C buttons unleash a close-quarters rocket punch. While the variety of weapons is your main consideration, so too is the changing face of every arena you unlock. With every few opponents you meet, a new arena, called holoseums, with its own unique geographical components will unlock, not only in story mode, but in the arcade mode as well. This means the further you get in the story mode, the more arenas you can use with computer or human opponents in multiplayer battles. The story mode pits you against wave after wave of increasingly difficult opponents, who require increased consideration and preparation to be defeated. Some enemies are big and strong but heavy and slow. Others are quick but lightly armored. Careful selection of the right weapons will often be the difference between a win and a loss, with some enemies requiring close-up beatings and others needing to be dealt with from a distance. These strategic nuances can be fleshed out via a prebattle setup screen, which lets you choose your weapons and also lets you test your weapons in a virtual arena before the actual melee.
Viewed from an overhead perspective, the battles themselves start you in a Vegas-esque dice shooter that has you and your opponent rolled up in a Transformer-dice formation and fires you out into the holoseum. Where you aim your robo will determine how close or far away you are from your opponent. Farther away is better since mad pummeling of the buttons is how you unfold from your shell, and more space will give you more time. Each side of the die also has a corresponding symbol for each body part, meaning that if you land on your head, it takes a little more time to pull your head out of the sand. This gives your opponent extra time to feed you a missile if you're not ready. Fortunately, what's good for the goose is good for the gander, offering you the same opportunities if you're paying close attention.
Thankfully, the battles are fast paced, with all sorts of strategic considerations, as holoseums range in style from Stonehenge-esque arenas, to Japanese sushi boats (with moving planks on a circular river), to moving treadmills set over a lava base. This is what makes up the bulk of the action, with the story mode acting as little more than a catalyst for each additional battle. The real reason for barreling your way through the story mode is to unlock all the weapons, characters, and holoseums for use in the multiplayer mode. Once the story mode is completed, there's always arcade mode, which is where the replay value lies. How well you do in arcade mode is contingent upon how much you've discovered in story mode. The sound is a mixed bag. Featuring some of the coolest, clanky big-robot sound effects ever heard in a game, Custom Robo's combatants have a wide palette of jetpack whooshes and rocket-launcher sounds. Gunfire, creaking metallic parts, and all types of explosive effects all sound awesome. Moving in the completely opposite direction is the soundtrack. Often sounding completely out of place with the action is a score that seems better suited to a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus atmosphere than a hi-tech game of robo combat. It is truly, truly horrible.
The game is fairly limited in scope, but it achieves what it sets out to accomplish. Offering as much replay value and action as something like Virtual On, while adding dozens of parts to the mix, as well as an actual storyline, Custom Robo is the thinking-man's mech fighter. It doesn't blaze new trails or offer any technological innovations, yet it remains engaging to play with or without friends. While it's not easy to figure out which weapons do what since the text is in Japanese, a little trial and error in the virtual holoseum will help you learn what each weapon does. In spite of its Japanese-only text, the import version of Custom Robo (with no domestic version on the horizon) is worth picking up if you can find it. With Nintendo's US lineup looking fairly sparse in the upcoming year, Custom Robo would make a fine addition to Nintendo's core library of games. It is a game you will return to again and again for one more play, and that alone is worth the price of admission.