Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Brobots

Welcome to Save State, where we failed at joining the BattleBots championship, so we do the next best thing. While relocating stacks of Wii, Gamecube, and PSOne games earlier last week, I discovered a game that I legitimately haven’t even thought about in over a decade: Custom Robo. I remembered adoring this game as a teenager, but could hardly remember anything about it, so I decided to pop the disc into my Gamecube and relive some delightful childhood memories.

Custom Robo for the Gamecube, featured in an assist trophy in Super Smash Bros Brawl, miscellaneous trophies throughout the series, as a Mii Costume in Smash Bros Ultimate, and in very little else. The series has largely been absent in the last 15 years, with the last entry of the series being 2007’s Custom Robo Arena. The entire series of Custom Robo really seems to have dropped off everyone’s collective radar- if it tells you anything, Custom Robo and F-Zero are only three years apart in not having any new entries.

The story of Custom Robo is a pretty simple one, or it at least starts that way. In a futuristic world, the protagonist lives in a kind of domed city and joins up with a bounty hunting organization in order to get an official license to battle robos legally. As you progress in your journey to get higher license ranks, you encounter a strangely powerful autonomous robo that’s incredibly powerful. The story is a bit more cheesy than what was remembered from playing the game as a child, but it is still surprising how well they managed to stick information about a centuries-old calamity in a story about several inch tall robots bonking each other until one can’t fight anymore.

The combat in Custom Robo is the main focus of the game: You will battle in a variety of arenas in an angled top-down view that shows both robos in combat. This gives the player the ability to see the full area around them without needing to shift the camera around them, so if you need to boost around enemy attacks or jump over obstacles in the arena, giving you the largest amount of visibility for the fast-paced combat of Custom Robo without the need to fiddle around with the camera. The camera and style of combat really brings the arcade-style approach to gameplay to life as you zoom and airdash around the battlefield and leave traps for and chase your opponents with your various weapons. Up to four robos can participate in a ro-battle (Metabee isn’t in this game, though), so there can be quite a lot of action taking place at any point in time.

The customization of Custom Robo, as the name would imply, is off the charts. As you play through the story mode, you gain access to additional frames of different capabilities, loads of different weapons of which you can equip three at a time, and a variety of leg parts. There’s a whopping 7 different categories of robot bodies for you to pick from with 3 bodies of different capabilities in each, with some specializing in maneuverability on the ground or in the air, high power on the ground, and more. There’s around a hundred different robo parts to collect, and they’re fed to the player at a pretty constant rate while you play so you always have something new and interesting to use to change up your strategy should you come across a roadblock.

So there’s an interesting story mode that rewards the player with tons of customization options for their robos of choice, frenetic and rewarding combat that you can approach multiple ways thanks to the wide variety of components you can choose from, what else could this game have? If you thought multiplayer, you’d be right: Everything you unlock, from dozens of battle arenas and robo parts, can be used to battle against your friends. The multiplayer is anemic until you play through story mode, but upon clearing it, you’ll have so many options that both you and your friends could spend loads of time just customizing in preparation for beating one another.

The visuals of Custom Robo are typically bright and colorful; fitting for a sci-fi game in the early ‘00s. The character models of the robos, themselves, are expertly detailed and vibrant, and the overworld character models were very fitting for the time with portraits that show off the personality quirks of the characters. The music is a great combination of techno beats and chiptune, replete with powerful drum lines and guitar riffs that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bruce Falconer Dragon Ball Z track (yeah, it’s that era.- deal with it, I’m old).

Of course, Custom Robo is by no means a perfect game. If arena battlers with loads of customization aren’t your thing, there’s really not a lot to enjoy in the game, otherwise. The story is pretty fun, but it’s punctuated with Pokemon-like moments of, “Hey I caught you committing a crime, let’s battle our little robots to determine if you go to jail or pass go, thereby not collecting $200.” For those who can enjoy arcade action games with lots of options, however, Custom Robo is an extremely enjoyable ride that anyone could be happy they found at the bottom of a stack of games behind Future Tactics and Lost Kingdoms.

The second game to be talked about this week is One Step From Eden, which is a roguelite card battling game, where you build intricate decks featuring synergistic elements, or you die to robots. One Step From Eden is actually quite difficult to describe without leaning on how similar it is, at least superficially, to Mega Man Battle Network’s approach to combat. The game begins with you on a menu where you can select your path on a map, some nodes leading to battle, others being camps you can replenish your health in, shop locations, or even spots where you need to rescue hostages. Once you go into a combat node, two 4×4 grids appear on which you and your enemies can move, which is from where the comparisons between the two games really stems.

One Step From Eden is simultaneously both so much more and so much less than Mega Man Battle Network. Outside of combat, there is no gallivanting about the Internet, all of your options are selected from the map screen menu, so you advance until you get defeated or surmount the next challenge. In combat, instead of battle chips you acquire, at random, spell cards that you can fit into your deck. Your chosen character picks two of these cards randomly with the rest lining up against the left side of the screen, with the bottom left of the screen showing their mana costs and your overall maximum mana.

For the most part, combat is performed by you maneuvering about on the 4×4 grid to dodge enemy attacks, traps, and obstacles, while attacking with your weapon and slinging spells. For most characters, your weapon can be fired as a consistent source of damage, though there are exceptions, and your spells are your big damage dealers, tied to your overall amount of mana as a source of cooldown. For example, if a spell takes 4 mana, your maximum mana is 4, and it takes 4 seconds to refill all of your mana, using that heavy mana spell will leave you without other spells to cast for four full seconds. One Step From Eden is also a very, very fast paced game, so these kinds of decisions must typically be made quickly and decisively.

There’s almost always so much going on in One Step From Eden that I found myself being much more successful at the game by being overly selective with which cards I take and passing on new spells more often than I took them after a battle. So rather than attempting any sort of nuanced, strategic play while in combat, I would just watch my cooldowns and sling whatever spells came up while watching out for enemy attacks. This made the game substantially easier to understand at a glance, as watching your upcoming spells (which isn’t a list, just pictures), available mana meter, which spells are in which active slot, what spaces on your side of the field the enemies are attacking every second, what tiles may be broken, etc., is way too much visual information to take in at the rate in which One Step From Eden tries to force feed it to you, and you don’t actually have to take it all in at once, thankfully. Due to the fact that looking down and doing math in combat is hard, I found that I generally preferred to watch the spell icons above my character’s head as there will be a kind of “cooldown wheel” over the spell until your mana has regenerated enough to cast it.

After taking up the approach of, “Only take specific spells based off what you were first offered for artifacts and spells” it became much more manageable to handle my deck. Like many roguelites, One Step From Eden does have various spells that can have atrocious anti-synergy with the rest of your deck, and taking every card thinking it’s a reward increases your chances of this happening to you. Thankfully, you can buy items that let you remove cards from your deck if you discover something that kills your synergy or requires too much investment to make usable.

Some spells synergize better than others, which obviously is by design. Frost spells apply the Frost status, which will deal a whopping 150 damage on the third stack, but artifacts exist that can cause Frost damage to give you Flow stacks, inflict bonus Flame or Poison damage, and more. There are a good number of secondary and tertiary mechanics in the game, though One Step From Eden explains practically none of them. The first time you come across a spell that gives you Flow or Trinity, you’ll either likely google what they are, or will just accept them and try to figure it out. Luck, an important stat involving difficulty and the likelihood of finding powerful spells and artifacts, I don’t think is explained in the game at all.

Each spell belongs to one of ten brands, and you can focus two brands in the menu which will make them more likely to appear, which is incredibly important, and each battle earns you money that you can use to buy spells and artifacts at the shop (or becomes your max HP if you start as the shopkeeper character). This particular mechanic is probably the single most important one the game never outright tells you to use, as it makes it substantially easier to find spells that synergize with one another when you focus the brands in which they appear. So, for example, if you found the artifact that causes Frost-inflicted enemies to catch on fire, focusing the Anima brand makes more Frost and Flame spells to appear after combat or in the shop.

I think the largest general issue with One Step From Eden is that I’ve successfully completed the game three times now- two pacifist runs and a genocide run, and I largely had to view outside sources to even understand what some core mechanics of the game were. After doing so, my three successful clears of the game came one after another, proving to the fact that knowing is at least half the battle. Considering this is a roguelite, a genre in which you typically bash your head against a brick wall until you start seeing some semblance of success, needing to view outside information is not generally out of the ordinary, but it definitely makes life easier rather than trying to figure out things on your own, as knowing what brands to focus really does make a sizable difference in whether or not you can find the spells and artifacts you need to make a successful build.

That said, the shopkeeper’s my favorite character. She chucks money at enemies to kill them. Capitalism kills, baby!

That said, One Step From Eden is a great time. It features a beautiful chiptune soundtrack, and a great retro visual design that is clean and immediately legible, though can get pretty busy when what feels like thirty things are happening onscreen at once. While the game itself clearly apes on the concept of Mega Man Battle Network’s grid based combat design, it winds up being its own unique beast in practice- an absolute blast of a fast-paced roguelite that has unlockable characters, cards, and costumes to keep you coming back for more and more runs.

With that said, I’m momentarily burnt out on roguelites. Join me here next time, where maybe we’ll look into something completely different from either my childhood or the random stacks of games in my back room. Either way, we can consider this column saved, at least for now.

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