You can already see where this is going. Robopon? A ‘version’? This game is certainly a Pokemon rip-off. That doesn’t make it inherently bad, though… there are plenty of games ‘inspired’ by Pokemon, heck, even whole franchises that manage to bring interesting and different spins on monster collection formula that Game Freak has capitalized on. Of course, Robopon is not one of those games.
For starters, Robopon doesn’t merely take inspiration from the Pokemon series of games: It outright lifts the idea wholesale and replaces “monsters” with “robots”. The name Robopon is startlingly close to Pokemon, the tagline “Build’em, Collect’em, Trash’em!” is clearly a robot flavored version of “Gotta Catch’em All!”, and the original release came with two versions (Sun and Moon) with a third enhanced version (Star) coming later. Nevermind the fact that only the Sun Version came out in the West, cutting players off from being able to collect’em all, effectively ruining one of the game’s main aspects.
Why Atlus decided to localize this, instead of their own in-house Pokemon clone, Devil Children, is understandable, but still a shame. Perhaps they figured the similarity in name would trick some poor, unknowing parents into buying Robopon for their children. Or maybe it was a more honest intention… after all, “Pokemon with robots” is far more marketable than “children collecting an army of demons to summon”. Maybe Atlus actually expected children to want this game; that, in their Pokemon deprived minds (hey, they only came out once a year!), anything involving the words ‘collecting sentient objects for battle’ would have them clamoring to the closest Babbage’s or EB Games.
A sentiment I can completely understand, as I was one of those children.
Yes, that’s right, I played Robopon, and many other Pokemon clones, completely of my own free will. Pokemon Red and Blue may not have been my first video games, but they were my true ‘introduction’ into the world of gaming, the first games that truly clicked with me. After I had beaten both versions enough times (yes, I was that kid), I started to branch out, look for most monster collecting games to satisfy my unending hunger. This usually led to some pretty interesting choices, like Dragon Warrior Monsters, the very fun title that helped me move on to ‘true’ RPGs, and a Digimon World title, which I didn’t appreciate at the time but was really quite competent.
But then there was Robopon. I think I saw it in the game store and recognized the cover as a clear monster collecting game, or maybe I read about it in a Pocket Gamer magazine and made a poorly informed decision. Whatever the case, I got my mother to buy me this game, and the moment I booted it up, I started what came to be one of the most regretful portable gaming experiences of my early days.
After getting the all too similar looking title screen, you are introduced to the player character, whom you can name. A very short introduction makes you, a preteen boy, the president of a Robopon company. As the President, you do… nothing of import to the company, but eventually you take the Robopon you collect and battle the Elite 8, in order to beat the school bully and become the best Robopon trainer around.
So… the story is rather weak, but what about the graphics? There’s probably a reason my brain subconsciously tried to type ‘craphics’ in that last sentence. Robopon appears to take the sprites of Pokemon Gold and Silver (which isn’t actually possible, considering their original release dates), garishly colored them, and shoved them together in such a manner to assault the eyes constantly. Considering it was a couple years ahead of Pokemon Crystal (the first full color Pokemon title), Robopon really had a chance to stand out with some impressive, colorful graphics, but Hudson Soft really dropped the ball on that one.
But, any self-respecting gamer knows that graphics aren’t everything… and other gamers don’t put much stock in a storyline… so how is Robopon’s gameplay? Well, technically battles aren’t too bad. Your team of Robopon fights your opponent’s team of Robopon in one-on-one matches to the death. Your Robopon can learn a variety of abilities with different attributes, which are effective against some types of Robopon but ineffective against others. Robopon stand face to face against one another on a blank white screen, and when they attack, a short animation relevant to the attack pops up before dealing damage. Move names can be a little difficult to decipher, but quite frankly many early games had this problem, so it’s hard to knock Robopon against it.
But while basic gameplay in itself isn’t particularly bad, it does nothing to really stand out, either. Worse, though, is that’s the title’s game balance is a bit off. I remember the point I finally gave up on Robopon: One of the Elite 8 had a certain robot with a skill that would absorb physical damage. It was still relatively early in the game (I believe), so I didn’t have a competent Robopon that could use any ‘magical’ spells that the enemy was weak against. The foe would use this move every turn, without fail, so the battle would always lead to a stalemate. The solution? I needed to find a new Robopon or greatly level up some of my current robots… both of which taking hours of grinding. Not being entirely smitten with the game, it’s easy to see why I would put the title down.
Oh, but Robopon doesn’t like to be put down. If you stop playing Robopon, it has ways to bother you even in the real world, haunting you in the middle of the night. See, Robopon is actually a bit of a monstrosity of a cart. Within its extra plastic top contains a few pieces of hardware designed to make the Robopon experience more enjoyable, including an infrared sensor to make trading between friends easy (but without Moon version, what’s the point?). The title also had an in-game clock, wherein Robopon would have different events happen on different days. When an event would begin, a separate little device within the cart would beep, alerting you to the new event and that you should play Robopon right this second.
In the typical fashion of the earlier technology days, this alarm was a loud, annoying beep.
Most events started at 12:01 AM.
For weeks after I stopped playing Robopon, that noise would go off at seemingly random intervals, begging me to just turn it on one more time. Because I really wanted to play it after it woke me up in the middle of the night. Eventually, my stepfather had to find a screwdriver that would unscrew the tiny battery port and remove the alarm battery. Why not just turn it off? Because you can’t turn it off. Not with a little switch, not in the game, not at all. It was terrible.
So yeah, Robopon? A very not fun Pokemon rip-off. Well, at least to me: The original game did well enough to get a sequel on the Game Boy Advance (of which both versions got localized), which means… something. Who knows, maybe they’re even good, but I don’t plan on finding out.
As a super bonus, you can look at this Let’s Play to see Robopon in action. Also a man dressed in a fairy outfit (?):