From the first screens released, developer Dreambox Games’s first WiiWare title looked set for stardom. Robox is a 2D side-scrolling platforming adventure that has a beguiling beauty, utilising an art style that's full of character and reminiscent of the pages of classic children’s books like Where the Wild Things Are. Unfortunately, as in all things, looks can be deceiving, and the game plays out rather blandly. It’s slightly ironic that for a game about a box, Robox lacks any edge at all.
The game has you playing as a probe sent to a strange planet to gather information and investigate the loss of earlier probes. That’s about all the story you get, so once you’ve finished snickering about the word "probe," the game hands over control to you and gives you free rein to explore the planet.
Played with the Wii Remote held horizontally, Robox feels a bit like Metroid as you explore to find new items that give you access to more of your environment. You move the probe with the d-pad, shoot with the 1 button and jump with 2. Much like Samus’s earlier, less refined appearances, Robox involves a lot of aimless wandering, and the lack of direction when orientating yourself means that you’ll spend a lot of time wondering what to do and where to go. With no map to guide you or set objectives to achieve, much of Robox becomes about making it to the next checkpoint without being killed by the planet’s hostile wildlife.
The probe is armed with a simple laser that it can use to blast the indigenous animals, which disappear with a flash of blue light and a variety of high-pitched noises. By only being able to shoot horizontally, the weapon is at a distinct disadvantage when facing the myriad creatures that inhabit the planet as they often attack from above and are overly fast compared to the sluggish probe. Even one of the standard wasp-like enemies can cause no end of troubles, flying about awkward areas and homing straight in on you the second you approach.
At the beginning of the game you’ll likely spend a lot of time restarting, as the nippy enemies and spiky environment can quickly drain the three parts of the probe's battery. Further battery segments can be gained by collecting the gears that are hidden across the planet, but you’ll still struggle to avoid damage for the majority of it. There is a great feeling of pride and relief when you make it through a particularly challenging section, but the constant repetition of quite lengthy bits of gameplay can frustrate after awhile. Retrying segments of the game will invariably lengthen the experience for those players unfortunate enough to get stuck a lot; couple this with a host of non-essential items to track down, and the game could last anywhere up to eight hours.
The difficulty gives Robox a decidedly old-school feel, which is only exacerbated by the slow overall pace. Retro gaming fans will enjoy Robox for its idiosyncrasies and aging mechanics. Comparative to, say, the speed of exploration in Metroid, however, Robox’s voyage of discovery is a much slower, more methodical affair; it can take awhile to find a route that doesn’t end in an impassable bit of terrain. The process is expedited by the ability to teleport between save points, but this does means repeating some difficult sections multiple times. Environmental puzzles are generally quite simple, involving things such as moving coloured crystals into corresponding patches of light to create platforms or navigating a mirrored version of the world in an ice reflection. It is often more a case of finding puzzles than solving them, however, as they are not often signposted.
It’s not all puzzle solving and exploration, however – the developers have added in some on-rails shooting using the Remote's pointer to vary the gameplay slightly. These sections involve the probe riding on the back of giant larva-like creatures, shooting down enemies that fly in from off-screen. The straight shooting requires quick reflexes and is relatively fun, adding some nice variety to the gameplay, though invariably these segments drag on for far too long, making the change of pace somewhat less worth it.
The developers have created an interesting quirk by allowing players to access the insides of the probe. You see, when it crash-landed on the planet, a number of tiny creatures took up residence within its four walls. These creatures can be used to fix certain parts of the Probe, find text documents that expand the story and activate new abilities that allow for further exploration. For instance, fixing the pincer allows you to pick up items by pressing A to open the top hatch, get out the grapple and, with a quick waggle of the Remote, clamp the pincers down and lift up an item. This is a clever mechanic, but it can sometimes be a bit fiddly, meaning that you’ll grab items with about as much success as in an arcade claw machine.
The creatures inside the probe come in a few different flavours: small ones can jump and fit through tiny gaps, big ones can break walls and stand beneath machinery to stop it, sticky ones are used to fix broken wires, and yellow ones can pass through electricity and power up doors. Combining the efforts of these creatures is essential to progress, and the game requires you to think about your moves – once each creature has performed an action, it can never be used again. Although more creatures can be found on the planet's surface encased in amber, they're hard to come by, so it’s advisable to plan your moves ahead.
The developers have opted for an unusual control method for these portions of the game, asking you to point the Remote at the creature you wish to use and select it with A; oddly, you then move them around with the D-pad, which just doesn’t feel quite right. The movement speed of each borders on the lethargic, and there is no option to have other creatures follow you; instead, you have to call them to you by pressing 1 once you’ve reached your destination, increasing the quantity of time you spend getting things into position.
With one solid musical theme per area, the soundtrack is good all around, though it's perhaps slightly too epic for the slow-paced gameplay, adding an unintentional hint of irony to proceedings. Arguably Robox’s greatest asset is its stunning graphics: the game is just wonderful to behold. The opening woodland environment is rendered in warm autumnal colours that blend into a complex mixture of background and foreground artwork with some lovely little lighting effects. Playing Robox is like playing a painting; it’s just a shame that the outer beauty belies some relatively uninspiring gameplay.
Robox is a game with some good ideas that unfortunately aren’t capitalised on nearly enough. As a first attempt it shows promise for the future of developer Dreambox Games, and it has a kind of old school charm that some gamers will find alluring. Exploration nuts will dig the ability to discover the planet at their own pace, whilst gamers who prefer the opposite style will wander aimlessly, bemoaning the lack of a map and swearing intermittently. All in all, Robox is rather average; were Dreambox to make a sequel, it would require some thinking outside the box.