Important Games of My Childhood: Custom Robo

by Tom Ingram

The year was 2005. A horrifically dull year, looking back. After six years of elementary school, where everybody seemed contented and everything was fun, we were having a shock. Middle school was not fun. And it was closer to the real world than what had come before. I don’t recall what we learned that year, only that I barely did any of the work. I was a funny-looking young boy in that awkward stage where I was old enough to have to shower daily but not old enough to realize it.

My friends and classmates were all hockey players. The NHL lockout was the most significant event that had happened in our lifetime. Hockey was gone. Would it ever come back? I played hockey, but I was never very good at it. I couldn’t raise the puck, I didn’t like to hit people, and I was so concerned with not getting a penalty that it affected the rest of my game. For that, and a host of other reasons, I didn’t do so well at sports. At this point in my life, the pinnacle of entertainment was the Nintendo Gamecube.

And always the Gamecube. I didn’t get a PS2 until after the formative years, and I still have played only a handful of games for it. During this time, the Xbox was a laughing stock. The Gamecube era (and the tail end of the N64 era) was my childhood, and it was good. Around this time, I bought a game entirely on a whim. It was something I’d never heard of before. None of my friends had it, and I had no knowledge about it beyond the cool-looking cover picture. It was Custom Robo (released in Japan as Custom Robo: Battle Revolution), and it was good.

Custom Robo came from a school of game design that hardly exists anymore. Since there was no way to disseminate updates, we expected seamless gameplay as a matter of course. If there are any bugs in this game, I’ve never found any through years of playing it. I like some of the things we can do with modern gaming, but this solidly built “closed-system” is an important part of games as a storytelling medium. If we let Orson Welles tinker with Citizen Kane after it hit theatres, it wouldn’t be the best movie ever made*.

The most important thing Custom Robo did for me was this: it introduced me, in a way nothing else had done before, to the concept of dystopian fiction. The idea of distrusting the government felt churlish when I was in elementary school, because I was an authoritarian little prick. It may sound silly, but there it is. A video game about tiny robots fighting each other is responsible for most of my political views today.

In Custom Robo, you live in a world centred around people fighting each other using robos, the aforementioned tiny robots. You “dive” into your robo, merging your mind with its computer and controlling it as if it were your body. This is the only major sport, as well as the chief weapon of both law enforcement and crime. It’s just as ridiculous a premise as Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh, but whoever wrote or translated the game is a skilled hack who injected plenty of self-awareness into it.

Your character is an unnamed guy in a futuristic city who learns one day that his estranged father has died. His father’s last wish was that he buy a robo and become a “commander” (roboteer). You apply to join the floundering mercenary team Steel Hearts, who nearly laugh you out of the room because you don’t have a robo. But they get a call to the local laboratory, which is being robbed. You accidentally perform eye-scan registration on an experimental robo, and it becomes tied to you.

Early on, something seems wrong with the city. The roads are all enclosed, with nothing leading out. It looks like there’s nothing beyond the local Chinese restaurant. Just a wall. Near the end, somebody asks you what shape the world is (it makes sense in context). Obviously, you answer either round, expecting to be right, or flat, expecting to be laughed at. Only in the world of Custom Robo, people believe the world is flat and there is a wall at the end. Because it’s true.

An alien robotic-organism thing called Rahu appears in the city partway through the game and starts wrecking shit up for no good reason. You find out at the end that decades ago, Rahu attacked the big, round Earth and no one was able to stop it. It ravaged the entire world until only a few people were left. These people created a device that could wipe memories. With it, they were able to beat Rahu by preventing it from learning and taking away its existing knowledge.

In order to get people to live happily and safely in the new dome they built, the government had to wipe all their memories and rewrite everything they knew about the world. Only a select few were allowed to know their history and the fact that at any moment Rahu could return.

This probably doesn’t seem like anything transcendent to you. But you’re not a young boy in middle school. I didn’t immediately say, “All righty, then, time to reevaluate everything I’ve ever known.” But it did set off a train of thought that’s been going to this very day. It is because of Custom Robo that I learned to think about things and decide what I believe is right, rather than just accept what I was told.

The game had another major effect on my life, though. It introduced me to the outside world. Although technically I wasn’t old enough to sign up for anything on the Internet, I made a GameFAQs account to use the Custom Robo message boards. It was a small, tight-knit group of maybe a dozen people. Probably everybody who ever bought the game in North America.

Being at that age, I immediately went and made a fool of myself. The first topic I made garnered maybe six posts, most of them making fun of me for bringing up the same topic every first-timer did, and making no interesting observations (what are your favourite robo builds? If you trade off speed, you can get high defense and attack!).

But soon I started to fit in with the group. I thought I must have been very mature because nobody suspected I might be under 13. Yeah. I had a lot to learn about the Internet. But I did learn some things. Stuff that I thought was really obscure because no one at school knew about it turned out to be fairly well-known in the real world. Ideas that I imagined were “totally deep” were actually quite shallow and pedestrian. And people, myself included, can be complete bastards when given a consequence-free voice.

He went under the name “StrongNerd”, and he was just like me a couple months before. Asking stupid questions, making idiotic observations, always using the dragon gun because it did the most damage. This time I was one of the six posters in his first thread. He stuck around, just as I had, and I took even more of a disliking to him. I can’t even remember why.

I and another poster whose handle I can’t remember started to beat on him verbally. Every opportunity we got. Every time he posted. The other guy was banned shortly afterwards. I’m not sure what led to it, but he probably deserved it. I never was, probably because I was good at going right up to the line without crossing it.

The other people on the board started to imagine that me, StrongNerd, and the other guy were all alt accounts created to act out a manufactured drama (it’s possible the other two were; I wasn’t). I gradually drifted away from the Custom Robo fandom, moving on to other games and other boards. I never did properly apologize**.

The Internet is, in many places, the ultimate “what you are in the dark” scenario. As a direct result of playing Custom Robo, I turned on the light and saw what I was in the dark, and it wasn’t pretty.

One thing you notice about the Ebert brigade saying that games can’t function as art is that they’re all from the wrong generation. When they grew up, their lives were changed by books, movies, and songs. Well, in my generation hardly anybody reads, good movies come out but nobody watches them, and everybody admits that our music is shitty. Video games are what we’ve got. Roger Ebert should play Custom Robo. Maybe he’d learn something from it.

It doesn’t take great Art(tm) to change your life. All you need is a well-timed robo battle.

* We did let George Lucas tinker with Star Wars, and look where that got us. [return]

** StrongNerd, if you’re out there, I’m sorry. Really. I was young and foolish. I didn’t even really mean the stuff I said, it’s just that the sheer power I felt at being the guy doing the ostracizing was intoxicating. It was stupid and inconsiderate and I hope you’ll forgive me. [return]