Car Battler Joe tells the cliched story of how Joe Todoroki went out of the comfort of his bedroom to drive through the wasteland of Galacia in pursuit of his estranged father. Rumour has it that he joined a band of misfits in order to destroy the same sport that made him the most famous Car Battler in the world.
Taking the role of Joe, the player has to traverse the land in search for clues about his father's whereabouts and being the son of the best Car Battler in the world, and most of the time will be spent inside the cockpit of your Gun Vehicle. It's the kind of premise that would fit perfectly in a Saturday morning cartoon: simple, lighthearted and with enough action to keep a youngster (that's how we refer to children nowadays, right?) glued to the TV - just don't expect anything too complex.
Where Car Battler Joe truly shines is in how it takes the best of RPG and Action games and blends them together. If turn based battles are the gist of a RPG game, then Car Battles are what keeps Car Battler Joe motor running. Presented in Mode 7-style graphics that would make every F-Zero fan squeak with joy, players have to battle raiders and gangs when traversing the wild roads of Galicia. There are no transitions, stats or time bars, in its place there is - other than a health and a special moves bar - nothing. Battles take place in the same roads that connect the towns and they develop in real time; think of it like playing Twisted Metal with an isometric view.
Players are free to wander around aimlessly through the dirt roads of Galacia while levelling up, scavenging for car parts/supplies or even completing jobs. Interestingly enough that's how the story progresses in Car Battler Joe. Players take on jobs to expand the roads in the world map, each road opens up a new city and each city opens up new jobs. When a certain amount of jobs have been completed a new story portion opens up. It's a limiting system, but it gets the job done by keeping the objectives short and focused; especially since the game was designed for a portable console that ran on AA batteries.
Visually the game is a bit of a mixed bag - the Car Battle portions look great, the Mode 7 graphics still hold up great to this day, and there's enough variety in the maps to keep the exploration entertaining. Unlike the majority of the SNES games that featured the graphics mode, the car models in this GBA game are rendered with polygons and not sprites, albeit there's a notable lack of texture in them, similar to how the 3D models in Star Fox/Lylat Wars looked back in 1994.
The problem more or less arises in the city maps of the game. It could be that the world in the game is going through a crisis, but they certainly looked like a barren wasteland with no city map distinct from another. What changes between one city and the other is the layout and amount of assets placed in the grid. The same can be said about most NPC models - they simply lack distinction, even the protagonists are just dull. It isn't exactly a deal breaker, but it is obvious that most of the time and effort was put into getting the Car Battle portion of the game right.
The audio department, just like the main plot of the game, simply gets the job done. Some of the themes are well composed and give the sensation of adventure and thrill, but as much as they try they can be quite forgettable. The sound effects on the other hand evoke memories of 1960s anime, each one with enough twang and panache to keep you smiling like a little kid, well.... if you're into that sort of thing.
The game shines best when it comes to taking control of the steering wheel. The GBA may have few buttons, but the developing team managed to get the best out of them. Acceleration is controlled with the A button, and using the button in tandem with the down direction in the D-Pad sets the car in reverse. The B button handles the Overdrive skills, each mapped to a direction of the D-Pad, when pressing the B button and Up, Left/Right or Down the car performs an array of special moves.
The shoulder buttons L and R handle the Cargo and Weapons system respectively. Handling the inventory in the cargo is a bit tedious since you cannot pick which item you want to get rid of, instead you have to expel every item you have on hold until you get rid of the one that's unnecessary to you. The weapons system is a bit cumbersome too, as it automatically handles which weapon to use depending on the distance between the car and the target.
Both these limitations hamper the enjoyment of the game, especially when hunting for supplies and parts to craft new machines. During the early stages your car is only able to carry one large item, which are essential to upgrade your garage to hold more vehicles and upgrade your cargo hold. Furthermore, these supplies are also crucial to the development of a couple of cities in the world of Galacia. To make things worse, car parts are also considered large items, making this whole process of scavenging extremely repetitive.
All of these consequences are unfortunate, because one of the most addictive portions of the game is being able to craft new vehicles - there are four different models, but countless amount of parts to craft them and give different attributes. Add all that to the 70+ weapons available to mount into the battle car and the possibilities are endless, not to mention that each part can be upgraded by using battle chips left behind by the enemies or received as a reward for completing a job. Furthermore, there are up to 25 Overdrive skills that can be assigned to the car, from jumps to boosts and even shields.
Car Battler Joe is as limited as the hardware it ran on, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. As previously stated, the game is designed around these limitations, and while some of the choices hurt the game's overall fun factor, it's certainly addictive. The 15 hour quest is short but sweet, mostly due to the amazing crafting system and the sense of progression that comes with it, especially when testing out a new machine and obliterating every other car on the road.