Players: 1 Player Game | Release Date: 02/06/06 | Genre: Action
Ten years ago, outside of Japan, a game like Chibi-Robo would only be available to the most hardcore. Only those who shelled out the money for an import system and took a chance on ordering an obscure and quirky title in the back of a game magazine would discover a game such as this. However, over the past few years, the US game market has become enlightened to the charm of quirky Japanese games, with the notable exception of dating games (let’s keep it that way, please). And with the stateside success of Katamari Damacy and the Nippon Ichi strategy RPGs, we’re likely to see even more of these in the future.
With this pedigree, there’s high expectations right off the bat for poor little Chibi-Robo. The assumption is, it’s weird and Japanese! It’s just got to be unique and unlike anything we’ve ever played. Unfortunately the reality doesn’t quite match.
The setting is definitely unique. Chibi-Robo revolves around the title character, a 3-inch high robot purchased by a borderline dysfunctional American family called the Sandersons. Father Sanderson, a man who is the epitome of the word “manchild”, uses his daughter Jenny’s birthday as an excuse to splurge on a new toy, namely, Chibi-Robo. Enter you, our intrepid, silent hero Chibo-Robo is a house-cleaning robot, with a trusty and charmingly annoying flying television (named “Telly Vison” - go figure) acting as spokesman.
And so your job begins that night, appropriately, with you cleaning up after the party that was in your honor. Right away this may turn off some gamers, as picking up trash and wiping up dog prints with a toothbrush are not exactly what most consider quality entertainment. Soon enough, however, it becomes evident that the trash and cleanup are secondary to the real purpose of Chibi-Robo’s existence, and therefore, the gameplay: happiness. Your quest in life is to do things to make people happy. Well, okay, not always people, as a good majority of the game taking quests from the plethora of living toys that populate the house (which, notably, are not owned by Jenny, but by her father. Truly a Toys-R-Us kid). Picking up trash, while productive at first, quickly takes a side line to things such as finding frog rings for Jenny, helping a platoon of egg soldiers in their war against the family dog, and having heart-to-heart chats with the depressed, flustered Mother Sanderson.
Right away you’ll notice that the quirkiness in this game is less overt than the sheer mind-numbing insanity of, say, Katamari Damacy. Fear not, however, the game is definitely weird, but in more of a Saturday morning cartoon way than a brown acid way (with the exception of a particularly surreal plotline involving a teddy bear with a drug addiction that practically turns him into a pink and stuffed version of the Hulk). Practically all the characters in the game are slightly insane in some little way, whether it be Drake Redcrest’s constant posing and monologues or Father’s signature scream of pure ecstasy (you’ll know when you see it). A lot of thought was put into making everything in the game charming and just a little odd. The voices, if they can be called such, are random guttural sounds ala Banjo-Kazooie, and add a boatload of charm and fun to the dialogue. Chibi-Robo is well endowed in the charm department, from the distinctive musical notes that play as he walks and works to the absolutely adorable - sorry, no other way to describe it - manner in which he carries his plug as he runs.
Now, why am I emphasizing the charm of this game so much? The answer to that brings us into the shortfalls of the game. Basically, the charm of this game is what you’ll remember the most because the gameplay is, quite frankly, somewhat forgettable. It feels somewhat wrong to admit this, as Chibi-Robo just oozes personality from every pore. Sadly, when you get past all that you’re left with what is essentially an unchallenging platformer with some adventure game elements.
The setting of the entire game is the Sandersons’ home, consisting of six rooms and a backyard (where the family goes to the bathroom is a mystery entirely). Your task is to find alternate methods of accessing various parts of the house that would be routine for someone not 3 inches tall. Power cords become climbing ropes, drawers become makeshift steps, etc. Once you get past the initial emphasis on cleaning up trash, the focus of the gameplay becomes exploration. Whenever you enter a new room your task is to go over ever inch looking for ways to climb up on all the tables, cabinets, counters and such to acquire various tools. In that respect, your tools include a toothbrush, spoon, and a few various mechanical gadgets such as helicopter blades and a head-mounted radar. You use these to access even more areas and find more gadgets.
Chibi-Robo is, of course, a robot, and as such, he requires electricity. This means that you’ll find yourself running for a power outlet pretty often to refill your juice. At first this is somewhat limiting and threatens to make exploring impractical. However, through normal play, you very quickly earn more battery power. About a third of the way into the game you gain enough battery time that recharging often becomes much less of a constant concern and more of an occasional routine.
After some time of play it becomes the gameplay simply does not have enough variety. The platforming is dead simple and almost never requires any timing or skill. The tools all involve just pressing the A button at a certain spot. And that’s really it as far as gameplay is concerned. While there are a small collection of minigames, most are just too simple to be interesting at all. Notable exceptions are the burger flipping game and the Free Ranger’s timed training missions. However, bad game design decisions abound, such as the racing minigame that involves nothing but pressing a single button to stop. (Really, now, that’s just insulting.)
In general, the theme here is wasted potential. There is so much more this game could have done. The idea of exploring a house as a robot the size of a mouse is great, but Chibi-Robo just does so little with it compared to the possibilities. I won’t bore you with my pipe dreams, as I’m no game designer, but it just strikes me that there are plenty of puzzles and minigames that could be themed around being tiny in a house. Instead 95% of the game is climbing up onto stuff and pressing A. Maybe if the developers had more time, or expanded the horizons outside the confines of the house, or didn’t adhere so strictly to the reality of the layout of a house... Shoulda, woulda, coulda. The fact is they didn’t do it, and after a while the lack of variety and complexity just becomes bland.
While graphics are certainly not the deciding of this or any game, Chibi-Robo’s visuals are disappointingly mixed. Chibi-Robo and his sidekick Telly both look great, all curved surfaces and silvery metallic. About half the models of the toys are just as good. Sadly, however, far too many character models look like something out of an N64 game. Most notably, the Sanderson family looks sub-par. Their faces are made of muddy, fuzzy textures with badly animated expressions. I can understand having a simple visual style, but that’s no excuse here. A little more work on a good number of the textures, on both characters and on the level design, should have been an important point for the development team, especially when contrasted against the clean and sharp title character.
The sound also has its pros and cons. Generally, the sound effects and music are appropriate and charming. The aforementioned “voices” add quite a bit to the game, and you’ll quickly pick out one or two voices you enjoy so much that you’ll go out of your way just to talk to that character (my personal favorite being Tao, the family dog). The music is generally fun, and Chibi-Robo’s musical movement adds a level of whimsy to everything he does. However, being a Gamecube game has its drawbacks, one of them being reduced disk space, and far too often sound quality is the first to go. A good number of sound effects and voice sounds are highly compressed and scratchy. They become less jarring as the game progresses, but it’s always there and takes a little something away from the game.
As I’m playing a game, I always like to think about exactly what kind of player the developers had in mind. With Katamari Damacy and other such quirky games, I’d go with a teenage-to-adult gamer with odd tastes, and maybe the occasional non-gamer who wants something different from the norm. That was how I expected to classify Chibi-Robo, but after a playthrough I’m going to have to judge that this game is really more for the young, burgeoning gamers out there. I make this judgment less on the content and more on the simplicity and general lack of difficulty. For adult players, it’s no so much a game as it is a relaxing sidetrack. Generally, I suggest buying this game if you have kids or a significant other that doesn’t usually play games. Either way, this is a decent 10-12 hour diversion with enough good points to outnumber the bad.