September 24th, 2006

Erstwhile Concept Art

Classic Roberts: Robotrek

Originally written in May 2005 for jebzig.com

It took me until the very end of the game to figure out why Robotrek seemed oddly familiar. In the final stages, there are some bosses that don't look like they suck total ass, some decently trippy background effects, and even a bit of potentially interesting plot. The final boss clued me in: I was playing a game that amounted to an early, imperfect prototype of Chrono Trigger.

Robotrek follows the standard Enix/Quintet "not your regularly scheduled RPG" format that's alternated between sucking and blowing for them over the years. You're the son of a genius scientist who's just moved to a new town, when all of a sudden, some kids get trapped in a cave. Sound contrived? Get used to it. For about the first half of the game, unexpected coincidences are supplied as plot development. The family cat is missing? Might as well go look for it. A letter came in the mail inviting you to the southern islands? Hey, vacation time! It wouldn't be a big deal if there was one big overshadowing reason for everything, along the lines of "revive the orbs" in Final Fantasy, but as it is, the plot feels less like a story than a diary. There's no good reason to do anything except because it's there, and it's there because it's a video game. You could throw the cartridge in the dustbin and reasonably expect that a concerted digging effort on the part of the town saved the kids, the cat came home on its own, and the letter was just part of an evil time-share sales pitch.

Naturally, the plot blossoms after a while; once you get going on each of these seemingly unrelated events, it just so happens that the Hackers (a fancy-ass name for a gang of badly-dressed thieves) have a presence wherever you go, eventually forming an opportunity for the designers to drop in my favourite thing of all: time travel! Alas, it's all part of the show, featuring none of the watch your step you'll cause a paradox mentality that's been done so well in other games. The final boss comes after you with the same style of attack as Lavos from Chrono Trigger, the difference being that Lavos actually had a legitimate amount of inspiration to draw attacks from, whereas Robotrek's ultimate challenger appears to be making it up as he goes along.

The graphics seem to have less shine compared to some of Enix's other offerings, especially Robotrek's 1994 contemporary Illusion of Gaia. Enix's Super Nintendo games always have a bit of a cartoonish side to them, but Robotrek goes all the way. The main character is reminiscent of the generic Technos characters from River City Ransom, Renegade, Super Dodge Ball, and so on, bobbing his head as he scurries about on a pair of jittery feet, his shaggy red hair shaking like every other spikey-capped hero. And the robots, oh, the robots! Their bipedal motion and rotund figures are practically the blueprint for that one android from that one game with the time travel that I keep going on about. What was it called again, Chron... Chron-something. Chron-a-lon-a-ding-dong. What were the designers doing when they weren't working on the graphics? Attempting to reinvent the gameplay, apparently. You don't buy weapons and shields for your robots, oh no. You're an inventor, so you get to build them! Whether by getting the formulas out of the back of magazines or by combining outdated items with pieces of scrap metal, you find a way. Then you do battle in a real-time environment, moving your robot into an ideal position before attacking. There's a complicated "Program" system that lets you create battle combinations to perform on your opponents, but a casual level-builder like myself will have no trouble beating even the hardest foes with regular attacks from a close-range melee weapon. You already know what I'm talking about when I tell you another game came out later that perfected the real-time battle system, and I don't mean Terranigma.

So once you've gotten past the fact that the entire game feels like an orchestrated coincidence against the video-gaming public at large, what's left? It's kind of amusing to see some of the poorly-translated text, a main character with no well-defined love interest, and a single parent who's a father instead of a mother, but these are all things that can be experienced inside the first twenty minutes of play. When it's trying to be wacky, Robotrek usually falls short and ends up at muddling; when it goes for sentimental, it becomes detached and unemotional. A tip for Enix: stick to Dragon Warrior and leave the modernized stuff to Hal Labs. Robotrek gets five stars, but if you have a Scrap 3 you can combine it with a star to build a much better game.