Quintet burst onto the SNES scene with the unique and original ActRaiser
, easily one of the best launch titles for the system. They then went on to make a name for themselves with the "Heaven and Earth" trilogy, games that delivered high-quality action-RPG engines along with darker and more oddly philosophical stories than was common for the kid-centric SNES (at least in the West).
That's why Robotrek is the weirdest game they ever released, at least relatively speaking. It goes against the grain of pretty much everything else Quintet ever published. It's aimed at kids, it's cutesy and comical and doesn't ambush you with dark moments like graphic immolations
, and it's a turn-based RPG rather than an action hybrid.
It's also the Reverse Terranigma - released in North America but never in the PAL territories. Unfortunately, the same dude with a Japanese-to-English dictionary did the localization, contributing some lulzy Engrish but also making some bits needlessly hard to understand.
The setup is that you're the son of a famous inventor who works with robots. You start playing around with your own robot inventions, Dad eventually goes missing, there's this gang of sentai show villains called the Hackers running around causing mischief, and you'll get sucked into world-saving exploits in usual JRPG style.
The unique twist here is that you don't directly participate in combat - you create three robots to fight for you. The first one is handed to you early on, then you can build the next two as soon as you have enough money for them. Each robot's base stats and chassis color can be customized. With each new level, you get 10 more points to apply to their stats, but at any time you can totally move their whole stock of existing stat points around freely. You also gradually get a variety of weapon types, some of which you can build and strengthen by combining items in a rudimentary crafting system (possibly the first console game to ever have one?). The final element of powering up your robot is programming in attack codes, some of which do neat special combo moves.
Robotrek's systems aren't complicated, but they are unusual and unfamiliar even to RPG vets, and they really aren't explained well enough in-game. You have to fiddle around with both your inventory menu and the robot creation machine to get a full sense of everything you can do. The attack codes also appear to be a complete case of trial and error; I don't remember ever seeing anything in-game addressing them at all. Creating useful items also is mostly a case of just jamming things together to see what happens, though a few NPCs here and there do tip you off to the more useful combos.
Though kid-oriented and less dark than Quintet's usual fare, that doesn't mean the game is easy. For most of it you can kinda meander through the enemies and dungeons with just the basic attacks, but the occasional big boss is a slap in the face if you aren't on top of all your optional robot details. Quintet's penchant for large, maze-like dungeons that require lots of backtracking (and are probably a good idea to map) is also on full display here.
Though it's unlike their other games, a lot of Quintet's strengths are still on display here. A colorful and detailed game world, nice sprite work, a nice soundtrack (by Ayako Yoda, a classical pianist who appears to have only done this one game and who is now apparently a Couchsurfing host in Boston
) and creative area / scenario design. In addition to maybe kinda pioneering crafting in games, it also definitely seems to have been an influence on Pokemon - Shiggy (or some artist at Nintendo) appear to have totally swiped the robot ball / treasure chest design here for Pokeballs.
In turn, Robotrek shows some odd influences of its own. Parts of the game feel oddly like Metal Gear with all the sneaking through Hacker bases. You gradually gather items that give you abilities that you use to sneak through enemy territory, like infrared goggles to see hidden trip wires and enemies, and the ability to turn into a rat to sneak through vents. There's almost something of an adventure game element as you're left to figure out how to use items in various situations to overcome obstacles, with little to no hinting from the game.
Most of the game is enjoyable, but it really went downhill hard and fast in the late stages. In the last few dungeon areas, it seems like one random enemy in most mobs will just be inexplicably impervious to every type of attack, forcing you to run away. Some late-stage bosses are also ridiculous jumps in difficulty that require tons of grinding even if your equipment is on point. Much of this grinding is simply precipitated by the fact that your characters start whiffing like its Final Fantasy 1 against all the late bosses for some reason. It seems like Quintet didn't know how to balance the game appropriately across its length, so at the end they just resorted to extremely cheap bullshit instead.
Appropriate to the theme, the game is aimed at tinkerers. The more you're willing to mess around with all the menus, try to slap arbitrary items together and play around with attack codes, the more you'll end up getting out of it. There's no getting around the tedious slog that the late game becomes, unfortunately. But it's a fairly good ride getting there, and Quintet fans will probably want to check it out as it bears many of the marks of their signature style.