Delve in the uncomfortably long list of Nintendo game series published in Japan that never really had a chance to shine in the West, and you will undoubtedly stumble upon Custom Robo. This game series developed by NOISE began on Nintendo 64, offering tight solo and multiplayer arena fighting action with customizable robots. The fantastic GameCube entry was actually localized and released in America, while the follow-up Nintendo DS title Custom Robot Arena was the first and only title to receive a worldwide release, adding online battles to an already proven formula. After 2007, the franchise was quietly shelved.
Fast forward to the present day, and with very little fanfare, Synaptic Drive has secured a release on the Nintendo eShop. Developed by the original Custom Robo producer Kouji Kenjou, it promises to deliver the same compelling arena-based action that players of the original series love – but does this spiritual sequel live up to the addictive and engaging gameplay of the source material?
After a brief text-only plot exposure, the game offers up a tutorial that highlights all the basics of arena brawling. Moving and shooting will be your two main disciplines here since there is no blocking. The combat arenas are relatively small and confined spaces that provide ample opportunity to both dish-out and receive copious amounts of firepower. Do more of the dishing than receiving and you'll win the round. The setup is simple and straightforward enough at first glance, but in true Custom Robo fashion, the devil is in the detail.
Before you start darting around the arenas, you need to assemble your character. There are body types with varying stats for speed, weight, knockdown resistance, jump capability, melee attack strength and a unique super special move. Once you settle for a body befitting your play style, you complement it with three distinct weapon types (Gun, Wire and Tracker) along with two bonus boosts.
Guns are your primary weapon; these are held on your right forearm and mostly providing rapid-fire damage along with a secondary charged shot in a variety of shapes and sizes. Wire fits in your left forearm and is a weapon designed for finesse, being fired and controlled with the right analogue stick before being detonated on-demand by default with the “R” button (a word of caution: try not to blow yourself up while using it). Last but not least, the Tracker missiles go on your character's back and, as the name implies, will slowly but surely home onto your opponent’s position.
It is not unusual to spend more time customizing your fighter than in an actual match, and most of the proper fighting is usually decided in under a single minute. The more you play and rank up, the more body types, weapons and enhancements will unlock, which expands your customization opportunities further.
Simply put, the core gameplay is superb. The action is responsive, fast and offers plenty of chances for you to ambush your opponent in the small confined arenas. All of this is helped by excellent performance, in both handheld and docked modes. If you've ever played a Custom Robo title before, you will feel right at home here; if not for the more sober and mature art direction, this could easily pass as a new entry in the series. Yet, just as the lighting fast battles come to their explosive conclusion, Synaptic Drive's shortcomings begin to rise to the surface.
One of the best features of the Custom Robo series was the single-player RPG portion of the game that introduced a Pokémon-style adventure where you had to gather parts for your robot and enter competitions. Sadly, there is nothing like that here, with single-player content limited to an Arcade mode with four different variants to keep you entertained. At least, after the day one patch, the experience bonus has increased so it is far easier to level-up by your lone self than it was originally planned.
Of course, multiplayer remains the main focus, but despite having a four-player mode, the combat is always limited to just two characters on-screen, which seems like a wasted opportunity. Online multiplayer competition is present, but at the time of writing, our experience was not a smooth one. Without any regional matchmaking options, all we found were Japanese players that quickly destroyed us in lag-heavy matches (even with the Ethernet adaptor).
Synaptic Drive feels slightly too expensive and bare-bones and feels almost 'early-access' quality in some regards. That's a real shame, since the core gameplay is solid and lots of fun if you have friends to make the most out of it. The game will most likely improve over time, with ongoing updates and new content downloads promised, but since we can only review what is currently on offer, we're only able to recommend this to the most die-hard fans of Custom Robo who find themselves constantly longing for a new entry in this niche franchise. This isn't quite on the same level yet, but it should scratch the itch nonetheless.