[Mainly focused on Robopon Sun, Star and Moon]
Robopon's Idiosyncratic Style
Robopon is an often mystifying oddball franchise. The original title, Robot Ponkotsu literally means "useless robots". Robopon, as opposed to Pokemon, are not magical creatures, but clunky, flawed machines. |
The world of Robopon is hyper-saturated with cartoonish yellow, gratingly juxtaposed with neon green and color-wheel orange and blue. The style is oddly reminiscent of the "ugly" world of the Simpsons. However, considering that the Pokemon games of the time were monochrome, the over-the-top color scheme was no doubt exciting to some kids like me who had a Game Boy Color.
The game developer's version of a diss track.
From the start of the first games this mood of awkwardness and banality is established with Grandpa Hogle, who, as opposed to the successful and respectable Professor Oak of Pokemon, is a crackpot mechanic turned failed businessman on the verge of bankruptcy. Cody and his Grandpa aren't genius inventors, they are just aimless, everyman tinkerers who enjoy working on Robopon as a hobby. Cody also begins the game with a girlfriend, Lisa, which does away with the "get-the-girl" cliche right off the bat.
The Late Nineties Were Weird...
Robopon Sun and Star versions were originally released in 1998, a full two years after the release of Pocket Monsters Red and Green. In the late 90's and early 2000's, two years was an eternity to spend developing a game, and the development life cycle of Pokemon Red and Green was barely over a year long. It makes one wonder what RED Company was even doing during those two years if Sun and Star were the final product they made, since it had a comparable development staff to Pokemon and twice the amount of time to work on the game.
RED did release several other much more mature and complex RPG's that same year, making me speculate that one of the other companies credited with production - Will Co, Ltd. - tag-teamed with RED on various aspects of production and development, leading to a very inconsistent, patchwork-y result. The games are pretty much what you would expect from a cheap knockoff aimed at young adults and children. They were very oddly slow - opening menus and loading battles and various other parts of the game feel almost maddeningly sluggish at times.
Many aspects of the games and franchise point to the ubiquitous 90's gaming industry's dizzyingly fast production cycles and the intoxicating fervor of the booming market. Almost everything from that era, looking back, seems like an unfocused, poorly-concieved, unfinished idea rushed into production to make cash, with so many companies and teams forming and reforming or going bankrupt left and right with a general feeling of callous mismanagement or naive exuberance. Honestly, for all the flaws, it is something we love and miss about those times, isn't it?
A World of Useless Junk
In the first Robopon game, some in-game collectibles are completely useless, such as an item called Dust which is described simply as "stinky". The primary way of collecting items is digging through trash cans scattered throughout the island.
Further solidifying the world of Robopon as a charminly quaint, unpretentious and endearing one is that in the first several towns, wild Robopon that are encountered are almost half of the time so broken that they will often just self-destruct or be unable to move.
Beyond Camp & Kitsch: Transcendence
"i like Robopon for the plot... i swear!"
The Robopon manga, of which there were actually many chapters, was drawn by Tamori Hataru and is often cited as a "trashy" series filled with sexual inuendo and low comedy. The original games include plenty of soft vulgarities like the scatological humor of Robopon like Peach and Snorks - the former being a butt and the latter resembling male genitalia. There is even a Robopon named Johnny that is literally just a walking toilet.
Adding to the overall campy, "low-brow" feel is the blatant plagiarism of properties like Bomberman, the fact that the entire franchise's name is a pun referring to the 1970's Japanese TV show, Ganbare!! Robocon, and other comically-ugly Robopon like Apebot, Chubbo, Uggy and Crowle, further indicate the Robopon's very intentional focus on profanity and raunchiness.
The irony shouldn't be lost on the player that the most absurd or ugly Robopon are also often some of the strongest and most useful ones to collect. An example of this is Teabot, which is awarded to Cody by Grandpa Hogle at the end of the game. Teabot, much like Sunny, is described as a "useless" Robopon that Grandpa Hogle recieved from a home shopping network giveaway, yet turns out to be one of the most powerful Robopon in the game.
The "Plot" (Spoilers)
The plot centers around Cody attempting to become the Legend1, which is the highest title in Porombo's BattleRobo Tournament. Early on the player learns that Porombo Island is ruled by a Monarch named Prince Tail who holds the title of Legend1. Tail lives in an enormous fantasy-world-style castle that is completely out of place and silly compared to the rest of the world, and this sore-thumb is played up quite a bit, with the monarchy itself being portrayed as a relatively inconsequential or sclerotic tradition.
At the end of the game, it is revealed by Dr. Zero, the lead antagonist, that Tail Kingdom and the entirety of the Legend1 is built on lies: not only did Prince Tail's father lose in battle to Dr. Zero, but the King actually killed
Dr. Zero in order to cover up the embarassment, but Dr. Zero was able to be revived as a cyborg.
Cold-blooded murder is not something you tend to find a lot in kids' games, what's more a "villain" motivated not primarily by a cartoonish and stereotypical, innate evil, but by a very justified resentment. While the game flip-flops on it, at some point Dr. Zero reveals that the reason he wants "world domination" as the Legend1 is so that he can get rid of the Legends ranking system entirely, as he sees it as immoral.
Not the kind of thing you'd really expect from the a game like this - the primary hinge point being a critique of the premise itself, the game's ending being a Gnostic revelation about the sins of Prince Tail's father. In fact, this revelation scene is where the game officially "ends" and the typical goals of similar games - saving Princess Darcy or winning the great prize at the end - are completely optional
What Even Are Robopon???
In the first generation, Robopon are seemingly just gadgets invented by human mechanics and engineers, but which may have attained some level of self-awareness. Grandpa Hogle and various NPC's for instance will refer to Robopon as living creatures that should not be used for evil or forced to compete for egotistical reasons.
In the N64 game (yes, they made one; yes, it has 3d Robopon; no, its not great and was only released in Japan) Robopon are grown from seeds like plants
, while In Ring and Cross versions they are born by "sparking" two batteries together
In gen1, Robopon are mostly robots that don't resemble humans in much of any way, although some Robopon seem to speak English (or Japanese) and are somewhat autonomous. On N64, they are voiced by human actors
, and in the manga series the female Robopon have very... fleshy
appearances. The N64 development of Robopon eating "human" foods is carried over to Ring/Cross versions where Robopon love human food and eat mushrooms.
While the plot of first-generation Robopon games is pretty scattered and incoherent, this is made even more complicated by the fact that the Game Boy Advance sequel games, Ring and Cross
versions introduce literal time travel
into the mix, making everything even more dizzyingly bizarre. While I don't know much about Sun and Cross, from what I can tell online they sound almost like an alternate timeline of Sun, Star and Moon with some recurring characters such as Dr. Zero but many new ones.
In the N64 Game you come to find that the entire planet in the world of Robopon is an Ocean World
with many scattered islands. This lends itself to theorizing that the game might actually take place in a post-apocalyptic Great Flood scenario, with Robopon being the recovered techologies of a destroyed civilization.
The entire series is possibly an alternate timeline to Ganbarre!! Robocon
, as various aspects of the games indicate that it is meant to take place in the 70's.