Custom Robo is a game that is hard to define as "bad" or "good". Such monikers exist in order to compare games to other games, and to be perfectly frank with you I have never played a game with a combination of ingredients quite like this one. As such, it is hard to compare it to any other game on the Gamecube. Judging it as a party game is simple enough: viewing it as a fighting game isn't very hard either. Giving my opinion on it as a videogame in general, though, when it doesn't fit into any other genre I've played, is hard. However, I'll do my best.
Let's start with the basic premise: you play as a character in a world where conflicts are usually resolved using customizable robots slightly more than a foot tall. It doesn't matter what it is: domestic abuse, sibling violence, gang wars, taking over the world - everything is done using these itty bitty robots who, in the real world, wouldn't be able to do as much as bust down a person's door. Of course, then, it's lucky that these battles take place in a virtual world either generated by the participants or programmed into the aforementioned Custom Robos. Yes, they have to be referred to in that matter, the game makes them seem only slightly less destructive than a nuclear bomb.
The whole idea seems complicated, and without a little imagination it can be. But, regardless, you don't have to worry about it too much, because the entire thing only exists as a justification for really tiny metal freaks to shoot each other. And if you're reading this review, that's all you really care about.
Each function of the combatants is assigned to a specific button - the A button jumps, the B button fires your primary weapons, the L button fires the pods on your back (think missiles), the R button fires bombs, and the X button does a short of shoulder-rush attack which varies depending on the model of robot you're using. The controls in battle are simple, intuitive, and easy to pick up. After about an hour, the only thing you can do is work on your reflexes and your strategy.
The environments in which you do battle aren't very interactive, but at least they're varied and often fun to look at. Each one has its own unique flair and obstacles - you will do combat everywhere from a magma-filled, mostly-dormant volcano to a gigantic empty soup bowl. The graphics that compose them aren't especially impressive, but you have to appreciate the battlefields simply because of their novelty. And, to be frank, there are a ton of them.
The combat itself is as frenzied and as hectic as you can imagine - so much so that I cannot accurately describe it in words. You don't get a sense of this in the first few hours, when combat is mostly limited to the most basic weaponry, but once you're able to customize your tiny warrior and send him in against multiple opponents at the same time you begin to understand how fast these battles can start and how violently they can end. And when you play the multiplayer mode...well. It also helps the game that the combat is enjoyable - otherwise it would fall flat on its face.
Let's talk about the graphics. In-battle, they are certainly enjoyable. Particle effects aren't uncommon, and the lighting is nice. Character models look good in the (relatively) up-close shots you get at the end of battles, but you don't usually get to appreciate them because the camera is typically far away - especially in cases where more than two opponents are duking it out. Out of battle, though, they aren't so pleasing to the eye - everything has a certain monotone quality to it that seems to be mimicking cel-shading without actually going so far as to implement the technique. The characters all have an admittedly unique appearance, but they never change. Except for closing their eyes, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between them getting punched in the stomach and eating ice cream.
The graphics are a mixed bag, but the sound is poor-quality on the whole. Excepting only a couple of the sounds generated by your various weapons, the whole thing is very generic and bland. There isn't really a single memorable tune throughout the entire game, and most of the sound affects remind one of something that came off a mix tape of bad action movie sound effects. The aural experience is lacking almost to the point of brutality, and while none of it is very bad you're going to walk away disappointed if this is one of the areas that really makes or breaks a game for you.
And heck, while we're addressing this I might as well talk about the one part of the game that you will hear more people complain of than anything else: the dialogue. Now, while a game like this doesn't lend itself very well to much talking, but…actually, I don't know how to end that sentence. This game just doesn't lend itself to talking. However, there is a lot of talking. And I mean a lot. In a fashion similar to Metal Gear Solid, the cutscenes involving the characters talking to each other can often breach the five-minute mark, and that's with nothing but talking. What's more is that this game isn't like Metal Gear Solid - whereas in that game all conversations are actually voiced, the chats in this game are conveyed with dialog boxes. Because the writers aren't very creative and the animation team was apparently very lazy, emotion can only be conveyed in two ways: a variety of different facial expression in little avatars for each character, and text so huge that two words will fill up the entire box. This might be fine in and of itself, but the creators of this game actually mock you with a system of feminine or masculine blips and grunts that hearken back to the days when Banjo-Kazooie was state of the art. It's as if, instead of writing tolerable dialogue for us to read, they have opted to drive us completely and utterly insane. And, for the sake of emphasis, when the text gets bigger, so do the beeps. Isn't that special.
Might as well get this out of the way, too: the gameplay outside of the battles is horrendous. In fact, it's so barren that I can condense it into a single descriptive sentence: walk to the next battle. And I am not even kidding. The whole thing is walking to the next battle so you can kill the next robot. You think I'm kidding? Oh, friend, if only it were so. All the decisions in the game are mandatory, it's so linear it's almost funny - and, in fact, all of the battles are completely scripted. Yes, all eighteen trillion of them are written out from beginning to end. And what's worse is that all of them save for maybe ten are basically unavoidable. So if you want to play through the game again, be forewarned: it isn't going to be much shorter than the first time.
On the whole, though, the game isn't at all bad: one of the most-vaunted parts of it is the customization of the various robots, and in this the game shines more than any other game out there. There are more than thirty different robot models, over fifty guns, thirty bombs, thirty pods, and fifteen legs. Do the math, that's a lot of combinations - and each combination works in a significantly different way from every other. You don't believe me, but I swear it's true. The sheer and absolute depth of this system makes the game very engrossing, especially in multiplayer; every single fight is strikingly different.
Come to think of it, the multiplayer is the biggest reason there is to play this game. Plug in four controllers and get a few friends together and you have distilled chaos unseen since the release of Smash Brothers. The rush of adrenaline one feels from blasting two of your friends to smithereens in succession before being shot in the back by the fourth man, who dances around in triumph before being kicked into submission, is borderline unmatched. This may be the best party game I've played on the Gamecube, and for that it gets a ton of extra points. Weeeee.
Looking back on the game as a whole, it's really not that great: the single-player mode's story is lackluster, but at least good enough to impress a twelve-year-old, the dialog is horrible and numerous, the gameplay is as linear as you can get without reading a book, and on the whole the entire single-player mode is a lackluster experience which, by itself, would make me file it away with such non-classics as Buck Bumble or Rampage: World Tour. However, the myriad options for your robot combatants, combined with the sheer fun of the multiplayer, has earned this game a pretty much permanent place in my (brother's) library.
Easily the best party game on the Gamecube
Deep customization system
Nice robot models
One of the main villains is a guy named Evil - yes, Evil - who's like an even more effeminate Kefka
The game has style, even if it's missing depth
Combat relies on a heavy twitch factor, which is just what a game like this calls for
The game has almost no depth outside of the confines of the multiplayer
The conversations in-game are annoying and last longer than the Cold War
All the characters are cookie cutter copies of basic anime stereotypes
I don't like to give games with this many faults a very high score, but I can't help really, really liking it. I like robots, and I like fighting. By God, what have I to complain about? Throwing down with your siblings or your best friends is exquisitely satisfying, and I don't recommend turning this game down on merits of the multiplayer alone. If you can find it for a good price then, by all means, pick it up. Don't expect too much - know what you're getting, and you'll be quite satisfied.