The Ethics of Custom Robo

WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Custom Robo (A.K.A. Custom Robo Battle Revolution).

It seems that no list of “Best Under-Rated Gamecube Games” is complete without some mention of the ‘Cube’s cult-classic robot gladiator simulator, Custom Robo. It’s so common for fans of Nintendo’s sixth generation console to lament the game’s lack of mainstream success, that it makes me question how a game so widely praised could have under-performed in first place. I mean, it seems everyone who owned a Gamecube recommends it. Of course, I’m not going to discourage people from lauding it: it truly is a (not terribly well-hidden) gem.

Custom Robo isn’t just one of my favorite games on the ‘Cube because of its intense action or strategic depth, however. It’s also the first game to get me to actively contemplate the implications of the events of its story. While the story ultimately revolves around using robots to fight evil, many of its themes and undertones dive into some surprisingly dark territory, which at the time blew my twelve-year-old mind. Sadly, the game sometimes prevents these unsettling concepts without even realizing it, meaning some of its most disturbing moments are such because they’re completely glossed over.

Custom Robo is the first game to get me to contemplate the implications of its story.

Living a More Comfortable Life Through Conspiracy

About halfway into the game, the player character and his cohorts are sent to investigate what appears to be a murder. It doesn’t take long for them to discover that the killer isn’t a person but some sort of autonomous robo. After further investigation and a few run-ins with the robotic killer, the police captain decides to officially enlist the heroes help in investigating the mysterious mechanical menace. Once the heroes have passed the necessary licensing exam, the police chief is finally ready to divulge some highly classified information.

The world’s dead.

Yep, the thing you and your plucky band of mercs have been chasing isn’t a robot. It’s an eldritch horror that nearly destroyed the human race and left the entire planet in ruins a long, long time ago. Now the last remnants of humanity live in a domed city completely unaware of what happened or that Rahu is still out there. Understandably, the protagonists are shocked not only to learn of such terrible events, but also that the government has been keeping all of it a secret from the people.

Just another wacky, post-apocalyptic Nintendo game.
Late in the game, the heroes discover the world is in ruins, humanity nearly went extinct, and the culprit wants to finish the job.

This conspiracy is one of the story’s major plot points and ultimately provides the motivation for many of the game’s characters, villains and heroes alike. The Z Syndicate, a criminal organization that the player clashes with on multiple occasions, was originally founded with the intent to subvert this conspiracy, which eventually leads its founder, the main character’s father, to instruct his son to become a robo commander, thus setting in motion the plot of the game.

Ultimately, the game takes a stance against mass censorship by painting the protagonist’s father in a heroic light. In the game’s epilogue bonus mode, the government even reneges on its censorship, deciding the people have a right to know the truth and to decide what to do with that information. Though admittedly, they do conveniently wait until after Rahu, the aforementioned world-destroying monster, has been dealt with.

Screw Your Convictions; We Have Mind Control!

While the thought of the government coming around and declassifying the existence of the outside world seems like a change for the better, the Grand Battle—the bonus mode I mentioned earlier—is actually where things get unintentionally dark.

The Grand Battle is where things get unintentionally dark.

Far into the mode, the hero has the option of fighting in a tournament in the old Z Syndicate’s hideout. There the hero is surprised to find that the old members of the Z Syndicate are participants in the tournament. The hero is initially confused that such dangerous criminals are free to compete in a friendly custom robo competition. The old Z Syndicate members don’t recognize the player character, however. It doesn’t take long for the hero to piece together what happened. The government used a memory erasure device on them, the same one they used to keep the outside world and Rahu a secret.

I remember when I got to this point in the story my older brother—ever the philosopher—pointing out just how disturbing that was. Instead of just being locked up, they were mind-wiped and told it was their job to peddle the government’s version of events to the public. Were they given a choice in the matter or did the government take their identity, memories, and beliefs from them by force?

And the scariest part is everyone’s response to this is essentially, “well…this is awkward.” Without even realizing it, the game introduced an even darker twist than the main one that served as the crux of its story mode. Here the government literally mind wipes individuals who disagree with it and—in the end—nobody cares!

Without even realizing it, the game introduced an even darker twist than the one in its story mode.

Ultimately, the ethics in Custom Robo come across as a bit muddled. On one hand, it advocates the right of the individual to make decisions for thonself, but it later glosses over an instance when the government brainwashes people to “rehabilitate” them.

That said, I don’t want to be too hard on the game. Chances are this dissonance was unintentional. The Grand Battle is way less plot focused than the main game, so 1) the story probably received much less attention and 2) there wasn’t much room within the gameplay structure to further expound on the story, characters, and world.

Lastly, I want to say that this isn’t one of those “this game’s story is ruined by this one thoughtless inclusion” articles. I love this game, story and all. The game has an interesting plot, likable characters, a decent sense of humor, and themes you almost never see in a Nintendo game. It’s a game that leaves you something to think about after you’ve finished playing it. After all, sometimes there’s more to say about what a game doesn’t say.

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Blog Writer/Tech Guy/Pedant
Glen is a lifelong Nintendo fan, having been first introduced to Mario around the age of three while at a friend's house. Since then, he's learned the dark art of computer programming, gotten a masters in computer science, and dreams of someday starting his own game studio. He got this position by writing essays in the YouTube comment section.