Including unlockable bonus content in a game is a popular way of adding value to a fairly expensive piece of software, as well as adding inducement for the player to invest a significant amount of time in playing the game (thereby increasing her sense of having received value for her purchase). The question is, what constitutes “bonus” material as opposed to the game itself?

Here’s a little exercise: Custom Robo is a robot fighting game. It combines common elements of the mech genre (elaborately designed, combat-ready robots) with common elements of the tournament fighting genre (one-on-one or two-on-two combat in a closed arena). Which of these features in the game should be locked away as bonus content, requiring completion of the story mode to be accessed?

  • Arcade Mode: Play a series of eight matches against a computer-controlled opponent.
  • 1-Player Vs. Mode: Straight-up player-vs-computer fights.
  • Parts Index: A gallery of the different pieces of equipment the player can customize her robot with.
  • Sound Test: Allows the player to replay music tracks from the game.

The answer according to the developer is “all of the above.” The Sound Test and Parts Index make sense: they’re non-essential but pleasant features whose presence adds to the enjoyment of the game but whose absence does not detract from it. However, I have no idea how anyone could interpret 1-Player Vs. Mode as optional content, unless they felt that the story mode really was the compelling reason for playing the game. That’s a valid line of thinking for some types of games, like, Zork or Metal Gear Solid. But for a fighting game, leaving out modes that are considered standard to the form seems like an odd decision, to put it mildly.

Having to unlock basic gameplay modes wouldn’t really be so bad if the story mode were at all interesting. But it’s simply a long series of matches separated by interminably long cutscenes. Cutscenes that feature unattractively designed and poorly animated characters delivering dialogue that reads like it was written by a seven-year-old on tranquilizers. The whole story feels as if it were tacked onto the game at the last minute. Which again, isn’t necessarily the worst possible thing: plenty of games are fun despite having lame stories. But those games don’t force the player to play through their worst parts to access their most basic. Rather than feeling like I’m receiving rewards for playing Custom Robo, I feel like I’m doing penance for some unspecified sin, and only after I’ve done penance by suffering through screen after screen of shitty dialogue will I find absolution in the form of a halfway decent game.