Car Battler Joe is an interesting cross between a JRPG and a driving game. It was developed for the Game Boy Advance by Ancient and published in 2001.
In some respects the driving sections remind me of Tranz Am, but they’re much more varied and the car you drive is more dynamic than in Ultimate‘s classic driving game. In truth Car Battler Joe is probably more influenced by Origin‘s 1985 game Autoduel and Steve Jackson‘s post apocalyptic RPG, Cars Wars.
The main part of the game sees you playing as a spiky-haired young boy who looks permanently angry and who is a budding “Car Battler”, basically a kind of Final Fantasy-style hero who fights battles with cars.
You must take on jobs, build a garage, and explore nearby towns to earn money and collect materials. Between towns are roads that you must drive through and these are populated by hostile factions – some driving cars, but not always, and there are also gun turrets and boss vehicles to contend with.
Your car starts with a basic machine gun and you can use this to blast opponents and pick up anything they leave behind. The thing is: your starter car is small and can only carry one major item on the car’s towing hook. You can jettison what you’re currently carrying, though, and pick up something else, and later you can carry more – and even build a carrying vehicle with extra capacity.
Opponents do fire back (and ram you) so you always have to keep an eye on your HP meter and heal up (or retreat) if in trouble. As you progress the enemy cars get angrier and more aggressive so upgrading becomes important.
The car has an ‘Overdrive’ feature, which allows you to install special modules to beef it up and give it special powers, like jump, spin, or dash. You can in fact go to town with car modifications in your garage if you like, and the game encourages you to customise your vehicle to gain an edge over your opponents. You can assemble chassis, engine, and body parts to make better vehicles and collect “G-Cards” in battle to upgrade them.
As well as the single-player game there’s also a multiplayer Battle League, although – if the truth be told – I haven’t tried it so I don’t know what it’s like. The single-player game is very absorbing though.
Although it isn’t perfect (it has crappy flashing shadows, and the direction finder isn’t great, sometimes sending you the wrong way) Car Battler Joe is something of a hidden gem on the GBA. It wasn’t officially released in Europe, which makes it a game few people will have played in that territory.
Car Battler Joe isn’t a difficult game, and the premise is relatively original, so I would have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone who likes RPGs and driving games. It’s a perfect game for kids, or grown children (like me) who love unusual JRPGs.