Medabots DS - Import Retroview  

Ready to Ro-Battle Again
by Michael Baker

20-40 Hours
+ Large variety of parts
+ Depth to combat tactics
+ Delivers the fun
- Didn't get full mileage from story
- Last segment of game felt tacked on
- Wi-Fi elements no longer available
Click here for scoring definitions 

   "Medabots? Ro-battle!" For a certain generation of anime fans, Mr. Referee's enthusiastic exhortation to robot violence still rings in the psyche. While it wasn't a runaway hit, Medabots made its niche. What not everyone was aware of is how many games were produced for the series, and in a fairly short amount of time. Between 1997 and 2001, there were five numbered-entry games, plus a few spin-offs — and that was all before the rest of the world got the action-oriented Medabots AX and the remade version of Medabots 2 in 2002. And then the series hit a bit of a slump, with only two more spin-offs appearing in Japan. Only one of those, the much-maligned Medabots Infinity, made it abroad, and it did so poorly that it could well have been a series-killer.

   But then Imagineer and its developmental subsidiary Rocket Company got their act together by 2010, producing a long-awaited, all-new primary installment of the series: Medabots DS, which comes in the regular Kuwagata and Kabuto versions. Despite the lack of a number, it's officially the sixth of the series, with subsequent titles even reflecting this in their own numbering. In Medabots DS, Rocket Company decided to move the series forward, both in technology and time-frame. At least a decade has passed since the events of the previous main games (as well as the anime based on them), though several familiar faces will appear from time to time.

   The main character is a boy named Azuma, who is rather embarrassed to be the most tech-illiterate kid at Morokoshi Elementary. Basic computer tasks mystify him, bicycles taunt him, and his cell phone is actually older than he is. Despite all this, he's never willing to give up, and when a pair of local bullies cream his friends in a Medabot fight, he goes the extra mile to get revenge on them. After finding an old Medal on the floor of his dad's office, Azuma takes his piggy bank to the convenience store to buy parts. The store clerk, a twenty-something guy named Ikki whom some might recognize as the protagonist of the five previous games, gives him a hefty discount on some "old junk" they had lying around, and thus Metabee comes into his life.

   The story functions well as a season of an anime series, though this style brings its own issues at times when it comes to pacing. The plot is a highly episodic romp, and while there are some threads that continue throughout, others get dropped a little too quickly. Ikki's presence in the game is never expanded upon, though his friend Arika (another principal from the earlier games) gets a lot more screentime as an intrepid cub reporter looking for a scoop. The Rubberobo Gang makes a comeback, with a new boss who's actually quite impressive, but the real mastermind gets all of five lines of text before making a Dr. Wily exit after the game's effective final boss battle. Then the main storyline is followed up by a coda or epilogue section built up around an international ro-battling tournament. For a more in-depth plot summary, look here, but suffice to say that Medabots DS could have gone another fifteen to twenty hours easily, just based on the amount of material revealed (or not) in the last big scene of the Rubberobo plot.

The beginning of a contentious relationship. The beginning of a contentious relationship.

   Customization and gameplay are what this series was built around, and Medabots DS delivers on its reputation. There are seventy Medabot models in this game, each with four basic parts, for a total of two-hundred eighty pieces to collect for a full Medalbum. Parts can be bought and sold at stores, but most will be gained through combat. The Medals, a.k.a. the animating force and mind/soul of the Medabot, can only be found or received from certain NPCs, and some trading between the game's two versions is necessary to get absolutely everything. This is definitely a game made with trading and collection in mind, and it hits a good balance of fun while maintaining this focus.

   Collection is also where the mix-and-match aspects of the game really come into play. All a Medabot needs to function is two arms, a pair of legs or leg-analogs, and a head-torso combo, plus a Medal installed to provide anima. There is nothing that says that all those parts need to match in an aesthetically pleasing manner, and the only real limitation is that most parts are gendered and thus only work on a Tinpet (body template) of the same type. With twenty-four female sets, forty-four male sets, and two neutral sets, that adds up to almost five million possible combinations. Of course, this includes multiple skillset redundancies and plenty of parts that just aren't as good as others — not to mention how many of these parts won't even be seen till the post-game — but it's still an impressive number. A new part is gained randomly after every battle, so there's usually an impetus to keep on ro-battling.

   Arm and head pieces all come with set commands for use in battle, with each one based on a specific skill type: Aim, Shoot, Punch, Grapple, Repair, Defend, Assist, or Set Device. Any given Medal will have three preferred skill types and a preferred mobility type with which it works best, and the player is strongly encouraged to work with this whenever possible. Most importantly, these preferences are directly linked to level advancement.

   This is perhaps the most radical concept introduced in the game. All semblance of an experience point system has been excised, and in its stead Medals gain levels in their preferred skills as they are used in battle. Using ranged attacks will raise either Shoot or Aim, for example, while melee combat favors Punch and Grapple. Defending can raise levels upon initial activation of the skill, or at any point it comes into use while it's active (even if the robot is felled by the attack it defended against). The aggregate of these skill scores is the Medal's total level, which determines things like attack effectiveness and when Medaforce abilities become available. So while Metabee can equip a punching arm if needed, he won't actually gain anything from using it because the Beetle Medal's skills are Shoot, Aim, and Assist.

Millions of misbegotten mechanical medleys! Millions of misbegotten mechanical medleys!

   As can be imagined from the variety of parts, there are plenty of strategies that can, and sometimes must, be utilized to survive tough battles. Traps are remarkably effective, as their effects can be stacked over multiple uses, and there are myriad sub-types to consider for all skillsets, often with their own special attributes to factor in. Missile attacks cannot normally miss, for example, while electrical or freezing attacks can stop an enemy in its tracks for a few crucial seconds. There are attacks that can cause progressive damage each round, and others that can cancel the enemy's attacks before they happen. While some parts are gimmicky, pretty much everything is potentially useful.

   The actual battles have the appearance of frantic action, while being more akin to active-time turn-based combat. Whatever the scenery may be, the field of combat resembles a glorified dodgeball game. All bots start at the back, on their side's command line, and rush up to the center line to use skills. Speed is determined by the stats on their leg pieces, compounded by terrain bonuses or penalties, as well as by how well those pieces jive with the bot's Medal. One attack skill — the highly dangerous Destroy — is dependent on enemy positions, as it only works if the hit comes from behind. The rest aren't quite so finicky, but there is bound to be a lot of anxious back-and-forth on the big battles. The time limit for a battle in Medabots DS is set to a default of ninety seconds, but that's like saying a game of American football has a time limit of sixty minutes. The clock is paused whenever a bot stops by the command line for a new order, as well as when that order is carried out on the middle line, so a battle can take quite a long time to complete. Thankfully, the encounter rate in most areas isn't too high, and Azuma can buy his way out of all minor fights with Rubberobo Tokens, which drop frequently from regular bouts with the bad guys. Even so, the battles are enjoyable enough that the player might now want to skip them at all unless he or she is in a hurry.

   The people in the graphics department had their work cut out for them, as every single one of the seventy Medabots had to be 3D-modeled and designed in such a way that it would allow for all possible combinations, plus the various combat animations. The character designs and general aesthetic outside of combat are, while definitely in the shonen manga style, also their own distinct thing. There's no mistaking this game's characters as coming from anywhere else, and the wide variety of designs, both in portrait art and in sprites, works well in its favor.

Rush to action. Rush to action.

   The soundtrack is also unmistakable in its genre roots, but the game benefits from the long legacy left to it by Kinuyo Yamashita, who was the composer for the first five games and who also co-operated on the music in this one. When a game is unabashedly shonen, and the entire theme hinges on robot battles, then the music really needs to be upbeat, fast, and hard to dislodge from the brain. For music, Medabots DS meets all three criteria.

   For those interested in importing, Medabots DS is a fairly easy game to work with. The majority of the game text is in basic phonetic script, hiragana and katakana, with the most common kanji actually being the symbols for left and right. The game's progression is straightforward, with no major deviations from the main plot, so it's hard to get lost as to where to go next. The only real downside is that it's difficult to find other players to challenge to battles, especially since Nintendo ended Wi-Fi service to the DS years ago. This also affects the collection side of the game a bit, as the rare parts gatcha machine demands special tokens only obtainable through Wi-Fi battles or regular uplinks to the main server.

   While it could have been far more, Medabots DS proved a success with the Japanese fanbase. The GameCube spinoff Medabots Infinity sold only thirteen thousand or so copies in Japan. Medabots DS sold over one hundred thousand. Numbers don't necessarily mean quality, but even so this was a truly enjoyable game to play. Judging from how the earlier games worked, it will be interesting to see how the plot continues on in Medabots 7. Rocket Company pulled off an excellent series reboot here, which is marred only by Imagineer's reluctance to ever let the series be truly international again.

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