Chibi-Robo is certainly a special game for me. I fell in love with it before release, while I was in college. On its day of release, I braved some harsh February Ottawa weather to go and find a copy at one of the nearby game stores. It left a lasting impact, and every time I revisit it, I seem to appreciate it more.
It’s a game that had a difficult development cycle. Developed by Skip Ltd, one of the shards of the defunct, mythical Japanese developer, Love-De-Lic, it was originally slated to be published by Bandai, but then shelved. It was eventually rescued by Nintendo and Shigeru Miyamoto, and released in the twilight days of the Gamecube. I only wish that it was embraced more eagerly by the gaming community because, well, there’s a lot of pain there.
You play as the titular Chibi-Robo, a little robot who stands about 10 or 12cm tall. The little guy is a mass produced household robot whose only purpose in life is making people happy. That’s where you come in. You’ve been purchased by the Sanderson family, who could really use some cheering up. Mr. Sanderson is unemployed. Mrs. Sanderson is tired of thanklessly doing the housework and balancing the budget. The daughter, Jenny, thinks she’s a frog. And now here you are to sponge up electricity, you blasted leech.
To add to this, the toys come to life when no one is looking, and they have problems of their own. There’s also an abandoned, lifeless robot in the basement that the toys all treat with reverence. It’s a household full of problems, and you’re just a diminutive toy robot with the dream of collecting enough happy points to climb the chibi rankings and claim the crown of Super Chibi-Robo.
It’s one of those side-quest centered adventure games. Did you ever play Chulip? How about The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask? Remember how a lot of the townsfolk had their own individual problems for you to help solve? Chibi-Robo is exactly like that. You navigate various social situations to help a slew of characters deal with their problems. These range from love triangles, to dealing with mortality, and even the wedges that seem to be driving the Sanderson family apart.
DRAWING FROM HAPPINESS AND ELECTRIC PLUGS
You’ll typically be gaining your happy points by doing house work. You scrub the floors with a toothbrush and pick up wrappers and other garbage that is lying around, which may not sound very exciting… because it’s not. However, I’m sure I’m not the only one out there that gains pleasure from slowly making a room spotless, and Chibi-Robo certainly scratches that itch. I mean, until the family messes it up again the very next day, the ingrates.
Anyway, you can do surprisingly little housework and still progress through the ranks. You gain a tremendous amount of points by simply helping the household’s inhabitants, especially if you follow through to the end of their story arc.
The game is rather strict about its day/night cycle, however. The days are divided into night and day periods, and when the time runs out on one, you’re whisked back to your chibi-house regardless of how close you were to accomplishing an objective. In the beginning, each day is 5 minutes, which makes this time limit rather constraining, but you’re almost immediately able to expand this to 15 minutes, which is almost too long. No matter how much time you give yourself, the transition will no doubt happen the moment you’re doing something important, mark my word.
SMALL ROBOT, BIG PROBLEMS
The overall goal to Chibi-Robo isn’t immediately clear. Some tasks seem more important than others, but aside from climbing the happy point rankings, you’re never told what you should be doing. This may sound like it results in a lack of progression, but, in my experience, it truly causes the narrative to progress rather organically. Although things aren’t signposted, just through exploration and juggling the various sidequests, it seems like arriving at the finale is inevitable.
Instead of being moved along from plot-point to plot-point, you’re left on your own to explore and solve everyone’s problems. The game gives you credit that you’ll eventually make it to the basement, and eventually trip across Giga-Robo, it doesn’t hold your hand. As long as you’re constantly curious, and always helping people in pursuit of those happy points, you’ll reach the end. In an age of mini-maps loaded with quest markers, Chibi-Robo’s approach is incredibly refreshing.
The fact that the game doesn’t really hold your hand makes the existence of your manager, Telly Vision, all the more annoying. Telly primarily acts as Chibi-Robo’s voice, as Cheebo is mainly a silent protagonist, only capable of communicating yes and no. However, Telly falls into the category of wordy support characters. The guy never shuts the hell up, which annoys me to no end. I hate support characters, and as much as I like Telly’s personality, he represents a lot of what I despise about the archetype. My husband found him cute, though, for what that’s worth.
The sound design
The music that plays during your normal activities is mixed really far into the background, which reduces its impact to the point where I’d liken it to running a vacuum cleaner while the neighbours are having a party. It’s also supposed to sync with Cheebo’s footsteps, with each footfall producing a note. That sounds kind of cool, but the steps don’t produce a consistent tune, so it doesn’t mesh with the background well. Then you can pick up your plug to move faster, which causes the background music to speed up which always sounds noticeably unusual.
A BANDAGE FOR A WORLD OF HURT
Chibi-Robo is a game I carry pretty close to my heart. When I was once asked what video game character I most relate with, the first that came to mind was Chibi-Robo. It’s a character whose only goal is to make everyone as happy as possible, and I relate to that. I mean, they’re a lot more stoic and far less emotional than I am, but still.
It’s just an incredibly unique and meaningful game. I can’t name a single other narrative in the business where you’re placed in the midst of a family falling to pieces, and it’s your goal to hold it together. It’s heartwarming, it’s saddening, and it’s sentimental; it’s something that’s incredibly rare in a medium that so frequently focuses on violence as the only means to an end. Mechanically, it’s not perfect, but narratively, it sticks to its message.
I just wish it was treated better after its launch. Sales after release weren’t bad, but they weren’t remarkable either. Chibi-Robo would have multiple sequels, but almost all of them seemed to be searching for a way to connect with a wider audience. The only exception is the DS game, Okaeri! Chibi-Robo!, which wasn’t even released in North America, much to my intense chagrin.
What I’m saying is, if Chibi-Robo was a person, I’d want to hug it tightly. I’d want to tell it that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, that it’s absolutely amazing from head to toe, and if other people can’t see that, then I’m just going to have to love it twice as hard to make up for their loss.
This review was conducted on a Nintendo Gamecube using a disk based version of the game. The author braved the frigid wastelands of Ottawa to buy it themselves.