Back in the early days of Game Boy, portable gaming was seen as a novelty, allowing people to play videogames more conveniently than ever before. It was understood from the start that the pleasure provided by these handheld games was often much less than the titles on a standard console. RPGs have always suffered most from this 'dumbing down' of games when placed on a portable system. Even with Game Boy Color going strong and Game Boy Advance looming on the horizon, developers insist on making the same sub-par games that launched the handheld craze years ago. While there are some titles available for Game Boy and Game Boy Color that are exceptions to this trend, Robopon is not one of them.
Humans and robotic creatures called 'Robopon' live on Porombo Island. One day, Cody inherits the failing Robopon Dispatching Company from his Grandpa Hogle after it's been driven into the ground. With the latest craze on the island being Robopon competition, Cody sets out to capture, upgrade, and train his Robopon in order to challenge other masters and eventually work his way up to earning the title of Legend 1 in the BattleRobo Tournament. The rules of the contest state that he must begin by challenging the Legend 7 master and then work his was past each master on his way to the top. This is by no means a swift task since he must locate the challengers before he can even fight them.
The majority of this game is spent capturing Robopon, raising them, and crawling through dungeons to find challengers in order to advance to the next one. Random battles in this game pit one of Cody's Robopon against an enemy Robopon. He can carry four different Robopon into battle and order any one of them to fight the enemy. The remaining Robopon are stored in the garage, which is accessible from the menu. In this one-on-one battle, the Robopon can be captured with the use of various magnets, or defeated in order to raise experience and gain energyballs. Once enough energyballs are allocated to a specific Robopon, it can be evolved in a laboratory to a stronger version of itself. Non-random battles can occur when talking to other Robopon masters throughout the island, especially within dungeons. You cannot capture their Robopon, but you can earn gold from them.
Robopon are split up into three categories: arm type, move type, and boot type. Arm types excel in attacking, move types specialize in agility, and boot types have high defense. Arm type and move type Robopon can each equip one part at a time. These parts alter their statistics in varying degrees, depending on which part is used. Then, depending on the RAM available with the part, multiple pieces of software can be equipped, which are the Robopon's special attacks. Using software with certain elemental properties on the same Robopon can allow the use of more powerful attacks, many of which cause abnormal status effects. Boot type Robopon cannot change their equipment and are stuck with what they start with. Robopon also have CPUs, which can be upgraded as well. A low quality CPU can cause stronger attacks, but the Robopon can be a bit unpredictable and unreliable. The key to a steady Robopon is an upgraded CPU.
In order to acquire all Robopon, money must be invested for research at Robopon laboratories around the island in order to buy Robopon from them. In addition, the Robopon Dispatching Company headquarters in Cody's hometown can be expanded to feature many shops, which carry items many other towns don't have.
Those who like mini-games will be pleased with the five that Robopon has. Each one is a test of a Robopon's attributes and is played throughout some dungeons, in the Robopon headquarters, or in two-player mode. The games are called Battler, Jumper, Shielder, Puncher, and Speeder.
Battler is just a normal battle, except items can't be used, nor can Cody run away.
Jumper tests how far your Robopon can jump, and it largely depends upon weight and speed.
Shielder starts with each player choosing one of six cards. Each card has a random attack and it's carried out in one turn of battle. This is repeated until one of the Robopon is scrapped.
Puncher requires Robopon to punch at a device at the right time and the Robopon with the highest meter reading wins.
Speeder is a mini maze, which two Robopon must navigate. They basically wander around until one of them finds their way to the goal. The better the Robopon's CPU and speed, the more likely it is to win. All of these games rely more on the Robopon's statistics than any skill on the player's part so they very quickly become dull.
One unique feature found in Robopon is the cartridge itself. Using a standard watch battery included in the cart, it has an internal clock, which allows certain things to happen while the game is turned off. With the use of a built-in speaker, a chime sounds when certain events occur, such as laboratory additions being completed or when certain areas are made available like a town or a cave, based on what time it is.
As with any game using an internal clock, it can always be manipulated to speed things up. An especially useful application of this is when the floor in the Robopon Dispatching Company headquarters has been built that allows the deployment of three Robopon groups for a certain amount of time to level up. After finding a place where they can survive long enough, the time can be set forward to make reaching level 99 simply a matter of time manipulation rather than mindless combat.
Another feature, which relies on the internal clock, is the Scheduler System. When you find stuffed bears around the island, a Scheduler Man shows up and lets Cody randomly choose a card. He can then place this card on a two-hour increment in the 24-hour day. Each card can have positive effects such as higher defense or lower item prices. Conversely, negative effects like an increased encounter rate can also occur. During the time interval for each card, the specific positive or negative effect is temporarily present. The strategy here is to place negative effects at times when you'd be less likely to play, but then again, the internal clock can always be altered.
The other cartridge feature is the "GB Kiss" infrared system. Much like infrared window found on the GBC itself, this can be used to play two-player games. Also, when any household remote is held up to the GB Kiss at certain times like encountering a locked chest or buying a Robopon, the signal can open the chest or power up your newly acquired Robopon, depending on the type of signal and type of remote.
The biggest problem with the gameplay in Robopon isn't the way it's set up, but rather its sheer repetition. At first, it was entertaining to go through dungeons and see what kinds of Robopon could be caught. The battle mechanics are very simplistic, as any one-on-one turn-based battle engine would be, but it was still fun...for a while. Not too long after reaching Legend 6 status, battles start becoming tedious and boring, since so much level raising is required to keep a core group of Robopon battle-ready. Most towns sport the exact tiles as the first one so they become equally as repetitive. Dungeons change color and orientation and that's about it, except for a few puzzles that turn out to require more trial-and-error than logical thinking.
Even with repetitive and simplistic gameplay, certain RPGs have still been enjoyable. By incorporating a story and characters that keep the player interested, even the simplest RPG has its merits. Unfortunately, the majority of the story elements found in this game are described above, and much of them are only found in the instruction manual. Any semblance of a story after the introduction usually rears its ugly head purely to give the player a clue as to where the next challenger can be found. This is done with unimaginative dialogue and bland characters. Sure, it's a GBC RPG, but large amounts of text can fit on a Game Boy cart with room to spare.
The graphics in Robopon are fairly average for those games that are still designed to play on both GBC and standard Game Boy systems. Aside from reusing tiles way too often, towns look nice on both handhelds and color is used nicely on GBC. The only portion of Robopon's graphical presentation to excel beyond average is the character and Robopon designs found in battle. The unique, creative, and at times hilarious designs of robotic creatures, and freakish Robopon masters provided a chuckle or two and one incentive to keep playing.
Robopon's music and sound prompt what many Game Boy titles cause players to do and that's turn the volume all the way down. Sure, the limited capacity of sound on handhelds is partially to blame, but games like the FF Legend series have shown that limited technology can still produce catchy tunes.
One final quirk that bears mentioning is the extensive, yet sluggish menu system used to manipulate items and Robopon. Not only is it designed poorly, but there's actually a lag time when selecting an option in battle, while buying items, navigating the menu screen, or even reading dialogue. This is not a major problem, but it adds to the already present tedium and causes the game to go even slower.
In the end, there is really no reason to recommend this game to anyone, unless mindless level raising and an uncontrollable urge to "catch 'em all" are fun for you. Not having extensively played any Pokémon title, it's hard to determine whether fans of that series will enjoy this game. However, for those who want a more traditional RPG experience, it's recommended that you pick up one of the old FF Legend titles or pray that developers will make a handheld RPG with characters and dialogue comparable to that found on consoles. If not on GBC, then perhaps this will finally occur on GBA.