Biomotor Unitron

 

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Review by · July 5, 2022

When I was younger, I was obsessed with rare portable gaming devices. I spent countless hours reading about the Wonderswan, the N-Gage, and many other handhelds, but the Neo Geo Pocket Color was the holy grail of such devices. Unlike the Wonderswan, it was available locally and, unlike the N-Gage, it had games that looked good. Sadly, none of those devices ever found their way into my hands, yet SNK’s efforts to bring NGP classics to the Nintendo Switch have given me a chance to experience the games of my dreams. Despite their efforts in porting other titles, I never expected a re-release of the one game I had wanted most, Biomotor Unitron.

Biomotor Unitron combines several things I loved back when it was first released in 1999 and still love now. It has mecha. Not just any mecha, but fantasy mecha (shout out to all the fellow Escaflowne fans!). It is a dungeon-crawling RPG, a genre I am exceedingly fond of. It also shares large amounts of DNA with Pokemon: from the graphical style to the goal of becoming champion (or in Biomotor Unitron, the Master of Masters), it’s hard to miss. The crucial question is, though, does the game hold up?

We begin on the planet Elscea. One hundred ninety-nine years ago a crimson meteor fell from the sky. Its impact scattered mysterious crystals across the kingdom of Rhafiace. The eponymous unitrons spring from this event, powerful combat mecha that allowed Rhafiace to conquer the world and bring a time of peace. In the modern-day, unitrons have been repurposed as multi-purpose tools by the people of Rhafiace. Despite the lack of war, using unitrons in battle has become a popular sport—a yearly tournament determines the greatest Unitron master in the land, the Master of Masters.

A blue haired shopkeeping woman with pointed ears asks "Are you a UNITRON master too?" in Biomotor Unitron.
Lana and her husband Galb own the shop and take turns at the counter.

You play as a new Unitron Master entering the tournament for the love of adventure. Starting a new game, you choose an affiliation with one of the five peoples of Elscea, which dictates your Unitron’s starting parts and core body for the rest of the game. Soon after, you enter the central hub, the capital city of Rhafiace. Exploring Rhafiace is menu-driven. From there, you can tinker with your Unitron in the workshop, shop for items and parts, enter the tournament in the arena, and speak to the city folk.

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While your goal is to win the tournament, you need to upgrade your Unitron first, which requires you to delve into the four dungeons surrounding Rhafiace. These dungeons are elementally themed: wood, water, earth, and wind. Much like Pokemon, a system of elemental strengths and weaknesses allows you and your enemies to deal or resist extra damage. Your starting Unitron will have a default elemental affinity, and this affinity likely dictates which dungeon you want to tackle first, that is to say, the one where you will have the advantage. If your character is a Forester with a wood affinity, it makes sense to tackle the Maze of Stone first, but a Windian should probably head to the Corridor of Blue.

Each dungeon has seven floors, which contain progressively more powerful enemies, yet with greater risk comes greater rewards. It takes several upgrades before your Unitron can safely brave the upper floors, but thankfully you can instantly leave a dungeon at any time from your menu. When you head back in, you start at the first floor with a different layout randomly chosen from a selection of possible floorplans, lending a pseudo-randomized element to the dungeon crawling. Unfortunately, this does little to combat Biomotor Unitron’s main weakness: repetition. An extensive hoard of money and materials is required to create a first-class Unitron. You delve into each dungeon repeatedly, getting as far as possible before things get too dicey. Next, teleport out to buy parts, develop new ones, and maybe take a go at the current rank of tournament battles before doing it all over again. Biomotor Unitron’s a surprisingly quick game and is likely to take you less than ten hours to complete, but it can feel longer because of its repetitive nature.

A top-down view of a maze-like dungeon that appears to be in an underwater cave. A few chests are visible and at the center is a robotic character in Biomotor Unitron. The screen is framed by a Neo Geo Pocket Color.
There are various frames and filters you can apply.

On the other hand, this cycle can be plenty rewarding because it enables the best part of the game: developing your Unitron. Unitrons have six main parts: body, core, backpack, legs, and left and right arms. While you don’t choose the main body, it is upgraded by your engineer periodically throughout the game. The addition of two accessory slots still gives you seven possible options for customization. The core, backpack, legs, and accessories are usually bought from the shop (whose inventory grows as you go up ranks in the tournament) and occasionally found in chests.

Arm parts are an exception. Your engineer can take an arm and a material and attempt to develop a new and improved one from them. The chance of success is displayed when you do, which can be increased by using a tool or leveling up your engineer. Your engineer’s level goes up as they develop arms, so it is best to develop as many arms as you can at all times. Unfortunately, you lose both the arm and the material if the engineer is unsuccessful. Of course, this port has a rewind feature that makes this a non-issue if you choose to use it. Arms give you more diverse attribute boosts than other parts, so developing and choosing those is the key to creating a well-rounded, powerful Unitron.

Arms don’t just boost your attributes, though. They also dictate which attacks you can use in battle. Arms have an individual attack value and elemental affinity, and some can even cause status effects such as rust or paralyze. One of the best strategies for success is to have one arm of the element effective against the dungeon you are delving into and the other purely for boosting your attributes as much as possible.

A angelic robot attacks a red bipedal fish creature with flames. HP and EP are displayed for both the robot and the creature and a text box reads "Prynel's Demon!!" in Biomotor Unitron.
I might have gone a little overboard.

Combat is a simple affair in Biomotor Unitron. Dungeon encounters are random and fought one on one against various oddball monsters like Pengun (yes, it is a penguin with a gun) and Merman (he has a man’s body and a fish’s head). Tournament battles pit you against other Unitrons instead. You have four options in a round of combat: attack, use an item, charge your EP, or attempt to flee. Attacks cost EP to use and correspond to the arm parts you have equipped, but you can also eventually add two extra abilities from the former Master of Masters, Helmut, who speaks to you in town. Items include repair kits, status recovery, and various stat buffs for yourself and debuffs for your enemies. When you run out of EP, charge can build it back up 30% at a time. Flee is self-explanatory, but keep in mind that it can be unsuccessful. Once you have made a selection, you or your opponent will go first based on who has the higher MP (movement points) stat. Battles are mostly a slugfest until a victor is left standing, but I did often use items against the most powerful bosses and tournament opponents. The battle system may not be exciting or novel, but it succeeds in showcasing the growth of your Unitron, and it’s fun to see what wacky creature you will face next.

Changing parts on your Unitron also alters its appearance, a real treat, given that Biomotor Unitron has lavishly beautiful pixel art. It showcases how much more impressive the Neo Geo Pocket Color was than its competitors at the time. The remarkable visuals carry through to character portraits, town backgrounds, and dungeon tilesets, which are all superb. Sadly, the music did little to grab me in the way the graphics did. There are some pleasant tracks, but I find few particularly memorable, and none pass my subconsciously-humming-along test.  

Biomotor Unitron does a more than admirable job of living up to my childhood dreams. The game is pure fun, unique in the face of its inspirations, easy on the eyes, and surprisingly snappy. After finishing the game, despite accomplishing everything and developing every part I could, I immediately started a new game with a different character. This was partially to check out the other Unitron designs, but mostly because I had such a good time. Biomotor Unitron might seem daunting at first, but keep in mind the port is packaged with a virtual manual that is useful for deciphering its intricacies. If any part of this game draws your curiosity, I highly recommend giving it a shot. At its low price point, you are unlikely to be disappointed.


Pros

Beautiful pixel art, cool mecha customization and development, quick playtime, fun gameplay loop, simplicity is refreshing.

Cons

Repetitive dungeons and combat, unmemorable soundtrack, simplicity can be a deterrent for some.

Bottom Line

It's great to get a chance to play a game that could easily have been lost to time, and for the price point it's more than worth trying

Graphics
90
Sound
75
Gameplay
75
Control
80
Story
70
Overall Score 78
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Izzy Parsons

Izzy Parsons

Izzy has been a fan of RPGs since before they were born, so it's no surprise they would end up as a reviews editor for RPGFan. When they aren't playing seven different RPGs at once, Izzy enjoys reading and writing fiction, chatting with their friends, and long walks in nature.