|Platform:||Game Boy Advance|
The sim-type RPG is a subgenre of RPG that features simulation elements as well as RPG elements. A good example of this is Harvest Moon, which combines farming-sim elements with RPG elements. It's an unlikely combo, but the game's fervent fan base cannot lie. Everyone I know who plays it absolutely loves it. The danger of sim-type RPGs like this is that mass-market appeal is limited. But the fans of these types of games wouldn't have it any other way, as it makes their series more 'their' series and more exclusive as well. And I will be honest with you- as excellent as Harvest Moon may be, farming is not MY idea of a good time, and thus that series never quite tickled my fancy. However, I always respect when companies display unique and creative ideas without sacrificing their vision for the sake of mass-market acceptance.
But this is not a review of a Harvest Moon title. This is a review of Car Battler Joe for the Game Boy Advance -- a sim/RPG hybrid featuring a topic that interests me -- cars. Driving is one of my favorite genres of video game, and with games such as Sega GT, I could spend hours in my garage tweaking and modding my cars. It feels great to turn a stock Toyota Trueno into a lean, mean, racing machine. But sometimes racing games can get repetitive, such as racing the same tracks over and over with little motivation except for victories, money, new cars/car parts, etc. So how cool would it be to have a combination RPG and driving sim?
The "caRPG" is not a new concept. Final Lap Twin on the TurboGrafX-16 had an RPG mode that followed a storyline where battles were actually races done in Formula-1 style cars. Racing Lagoon for the import PlayStation was a Squaresoft RPG set in the world of street racing in urban Japan. And Namco's Ridge Racer R4 had a story mode in it, but it was a racing game through and through. Car Battler Joe is unique in that it's not a racing RPG but rather a car combat RPG. So, since I never got to play Final Lap Twin or Racing Lagoon, Car Battler Joe is truly the first caRPG I ever got to play.
So how does Car Battler Joe fare? It fares surprisingly well, actually. I found the game's sim elements addictively fun and the RPG story, though somewhat hackneyed, was not a throwaway plot either. While the game is primarily gameplay driven, as are such games as Pokemon, there is a decent story worth following. I spent a lot of extra time in driving mode and in the garage tweaking up cars like crazy, as the available options in the game are staggering. Don't be fooled by the game's cutesy appearance; even you gear heads may find something to enjoy, though the car tweaking elements are more simplistic than those in a full-on racing sim. The cardinal rule for sim RPGs is that if you can't get into the game's sim elements, then it will seem blasˇ to you, and Car Battler Joe is no exception. So, if car tweaking and car combat are not up your alley, spend your money elsewhere. But if I still have your interest in this cool and unique game, then read on for more in-depth coverage.
You fill the shoes of 16-year-old Joe Todoroki, spiky-haired mute protagonist, and son of Jim Todoroki, a champion car battler in the land of Galacia. Of course, since Dad's a celebrity, Joe doesn't see much of him, save for videotapes of his battles. Joe has been fascinated with car battling ever since he was a little boy and it's only natural he wants to follow in Dad's footsteps, much to the chagrin of his mother, Wanna. Like any typical mother in these types of storylines, she thinks car battling is much too dangerous for her little baby boy, but she quickly comes around and decides to encourage Joe.
Along the way, you'll meet such colorful characters as Marion, the cute girl who develops a crush on Joe, Ken Kaido, a fervently driven teenage car battler who regards Joe as his ultimate rival, Harry Yamda, a car battling legend from before Jim Todoroki's time who lives like a hermit, and many more. Even some NPCs who only have a minor plot role, such as the pop star Chao who you do a few jobs for, exude a certain coolness. However, character development is minimal.
In the beginning, you have a good amount of plot presented to you and are introduced to characters. Then, after your first car battling tournament, where first prize is a sweet set of wheels, the story gets pretty open-ended and you have to talk to NPCs in all the villages to find out the 411. Some jobs offer mini-plots, such as driving a pop-singer to a concert or standing in for a driver in a rally. When it is up to you to hunt for plot yourself, you might find it boring. However, I liked it as it gave me ample opportunities to do all the side stuff such as the jobs and the material hunting, which I will talk about later. You'll hear a lot about the rival car gangs The Red Guns and The Empire. The Empire, as a nod to RPG clichˇs everywhere, is evil and The Red Guns are the vigilante good guys. Of course you'll foil the empire, get an ending, and see the credits in a handful of hours... but that's only half the game. Be sure to save after the staff roll and play on, because there are some loose ends to be tied up. I quite enjoyed this interactive epilogue where I could help rebuild fallen villages and stuff. There was even a nice Easter Egg with a jukebox to listen to all the game's music, and a picture viewer to look at the anime still cutscenes. I spent more time in this 'interactive epilogue' than in the game proper.
One negative is how the plot is presented. The game gets very nonlinear at times, and you have to go hunting for plot while exploring towns, doing jobs, building up your garage and various villages, and engaging in lots of combat. So, while some gamers may find the often vague plot direction a liability, I found it cool. I liked that I had to go hunting for plot, as it felt more realistic than having the story spoon fed to me. Besides, a game like this needs to be open-ended to allow you time to experience all the sim elements. Still, some more concrete plot direction would have been nice so you know where to go and what to do when you feel like advancing the plot, as there were times I wanted to do that rather than play in the garage.
Also, there were plot threads and character subplots that the game left unresolved. I found this inexcusable. There were cases of major characters playing roles in the 'overthrow Empire' story who, when I sought them out in the epilogue, were absent. Or some NPC would say, "They just passed by here," and I'd go frantic looking for them. I wonder if this is Ancient's idea of leaving us clamoring for a sequel. If so, it worked, but also left me feeling somewhat cheated. This blatant incompleteness is why I rated the otherwise decent story low. Either way, this is a game that I think could make a good children's anime. There are many directions the plot could go, and the characters do have appeal in both looks and personality.
The graphics are very much a mixed bag. The town graphics are bright and colorful. The fantasy/ tech feel reminded me a bit of Elemental Gimmick Gear on Dreamcast. The sprites were large, detailed, and had portraits when you talked to them. However, some portraits of the women made them look like they had moustaches. There are a few instances where there are cutscenes showed with anime stills. These were well drawn, and I wish there were more in the game. The graphics used when driving between towns or in the battle arena are the weakest part. These graphics have a somewhat grainy and unrefined Mode-7 look. While the graphics get the job done and do not detract from the gameplay, the crudeness is noticeable after seeing the crisp town graphics.
The music is surprisingly good. At first I didn't think much of the soundtrack, but it slowly grew on me, and I had many of the tunes stuck in my head. It has a very anime-pop vibe, so if you like that style of music, you'll like CBJ's soundtrack. I found myself listening to the catchy title screen music every time I booted up the game. The various town, shop, and garage music have the catchiest melodies with lots of pop synth sounds, while the tracks during the driving sequences and battles feature more driving beats with lots of brassy sounds. The sound effects definitely grabbed my ear during the driving scenes. The cacophony of engines, bullets, lasers, bombs, explosions, sawblades and such dominate the driving scenes and are quite crisp.
The control takes some getting used to. When you get your first car, it will feel a bit unwieldy. But once you earn some money for new parts or find new parts for it, it will handle noticeably better. There are four types of cars to be built in the game: Panther, Tiger, Mammoth, and Eagle. Panthers are the most well-rounded cars, and is also the car you start out with. Tigers are fast and have slots for four weapons, but have poor defense. Mammoths have the highest HP and defensive stats along with four weapon slots, but are slower than glaciers and unwieldy to steer. The speedy Eagles have the tightest turning radius and can fly over some obstacles that would hinder other cars, but as a tradeoff, only have two weapon slots. The powerslide physics are nowhere near that of a dedicated racing game, but they're easy to get used to, and some terrain types, such as sand or snow do slow you down.
Luckily, firing your weapon doesn't take much effort; the game has a really good auto-targeting system and an automatic weapon selection system. Depending on your enemy's distance, the AI will automatically select the best weapon to use, so it's just point and shoot. Weapons don't run out of ammo, so you can be as trigger happy as you like. There is also a cool navigation system. You'll see a blue arrow labeled 'route' telling you where the road goes. Some maps don't have a 'route' arrow, but you can pick up navigation cards from some fallen foes for a temporary 'route' arrow. Some of the later maps are unmarked territory in Galacia and can be quite mazelike. Other stuff gets dropped by foes as well such as raw materials, money, restorative items, junk and even car parts in rare instances.
Gunning down foes nets you EXP and, eventually, levels. Some statistics, such as car HP, are dependent on parts, but statistics such as hit rate go up as you gain levels. The more you drive and shoot stuff, the easier it becomes. You build levels quite fast in this game, and maxing out your stats is not a daunting feat.
To build a car, you need a body, an engine, and a chassis. There is a smorgasbord of body, engine, and chassis types to be found in the game. Some parts may make your car speedy but lower defense. Some may give your car increased HP but limited weapon slots. Experimentation is highly encouraged to try and build cars that suit your style of play. And, of course, there is a ridiculous slew of weapons you can outfit your car with. From sawblades to lasers to bombs and machine guns, you can turn your car into a fighting machine. The instruction manual provides a nice list of all the available weapons and their statistics. Personally, I found myself using a Tiger car ninety-something percent of the time, but for your playing style, you may prefer something else. Parts can either be bought in some places, found on the field, or found in piles of junk. If you take junk back to Takah, the job office clerk/car part salseman in Padorko (Joe's home town), he may find some treasure in it. I snagged quite a few parts that way.
Over all, the gameplay is quite fun. The aforementioned driving and car-tweaking aspects definitely sat well with me. Also, I liked that when traversing the point-and-click overland, if you had already driven once from one town to another, you could skip the driving sequence and just warp on over.
But there is more to the gameplay than just driving and car tweaking. In the larger towns, such as Padorko, Coneha, and Georgetown, there are Job offices where Joe can take up odd jobs for money. They can be simple things such as delivering take-out to busting up troublemakers to chauffer work. Some jobs even have you dueling with other battlers. The job list gets randomized each time you talk to the job desk clerk, so many jobs repeat. There are a few one-time only jobs, such as those with Chao I mentioned earlier. Coneha also has a license testing place where you can test for higher level licenses. The better the license, the better the jobs you can get. Also, the faster you complete a job, the more money you earn.
Collecting raw materials is also a consuming task in the game. Near the beginning, Mom will ask you to bring back certain raw materials to build up your garage. These materials can either be bought or found. As you keep bringing Mom more stuff, the garage will get bigger, thus giving you more room to house cars. At one point, it will turn into a super cool mobile garage that Mom can drive to Coneha and Georgetown. Also, as the garage gets bigger, Mom starts selling stuff out of it so you can get money from her. In the post-ending play, you can collect raw materials for the mayors of three upcoming villages and see them getting built. As you keep bringing them stuff, you can get rare car parts.
There is also a multiplayer mode where up to four people can link up GBAs and battle it out in various arenas. Unfortunately I never had a chance to try this out, but I did play single player battle league mode quite a bit and it was quite fun. In general, it's these side distractions that keep one playing the game. If one plays Car Battler Joe for the story, they'll be disappointed. If one plays it for the gameplay, there is a lot to do. I didn't find the game all that difficult, but as job level goes up and as play goes on, the enemies do get tougher. And some of the final courses had me on the edge of my seat.
In the end, Car Battler Joe is a fun game and definitely worth a shot to anyone looking for an RPG that breaks the mold and does something unique. Certainly the game has its flaws, but its charm and heart definitely won me over. Even though I've conceivably done everything there is to do in this game, I still come back to it regularly for more. Sadly, good as this game is, the higher-profile RPGs already on the system or coming out for it will eclipse this title and it will not get the recognition it deserves. Car Battler Joe has shown that a car combat RPG can work, and I hope to see this subgenre of RPG expanded upon in the future. And at only $20 new, I can't complain. I definitely got my money's worth with this game, and would definitely play the sequel, if one came out.