released on Jun 23, 2005
Like most families, the Sandersons bicker about money and cleaning. Unlike most families, though, they also have robotic spiders, aliens, and talking toys to worry about. Enter Chibi-Robo, a tiny robot programmed to spread happiness. Join him on his quest to restore order to the Sanderson house and SAVE THE WORLD!
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A charming, solid adventure. Would be nice if this had a Switch port, but Nintendo would rather let it fester off and die, unfortunately.
Lovely, understated game that gets better the more time you spend with it. I love its willingness to tackle complicated, very real subject matter with its silly characters. Everything's softened with humor, but it feels no less real for the ideas that are being communicated. I get why Chibi-Robo has the complicated, unfocused legacy it does as a series - it's hard to sell the game on its action or proper gameplay loop, but it also wouldn't feel complete as a pure visual novel or TV show. So much of this game and its quiet exploration feels like a reflection of the types of things you think about as a kid growing up in a suburban home. What you see, what you don't see, and what you're left thinking about in the quiet moments on your own...
"Spread the happiness!"
I often say that the eras between N64 and GameCube were quite a charming, experimental phase for Nintendo games. And while Chibi-Robo! came out quite late in the GameCube's lifespan, it still manages to fold in many great design choices of Nintendo's "Disney-like" approach to their products. In a sense, it's a great game!
At least in the states, it's not often we get Nintendo games like this. (This is the same developer that made games like Giftpia and Captain Rainbow, of the same genre.) It's ultimately an adventure game, set throughout an in-game clock cycle, with movement reliant on a constantly-draining meter. It's not as difficult as it sounds, but it might not be for some gamers. Underneath all of this though, Chibi-Robo! reminds me a lot of something recent like Splatoon: a video game with cute designs and a dark undertone. This is pretty much Nintendo's take on Toy Story, although involving some mature things such as marital divorce and environmental consequences, one with a wide range of different characters from a pirate figurine, to extraterrestial robot beings, to even an army of egg soldiers. It's charming as hell, down to the sound design from individual movements and dialogue making noises.
The only thing I was a bit annoyed by this game though was its pacing. The little side stories are nice for those who want to discover them, but there are certain moments in the later half of the story that require currency and grinding to progress, which involves cleaning up the random messes in the house and hoping for certain enemies to spawn. This can be even more annoying when planning out your day; allowing you to set the timer to your own speed, but not allowing you to end your day early (unless you have a certain costume unlocked). When you're required to simply go around and collect money to get the equipment you need, it can be a bit too much of a slog, but I think the rest of the game makes up for it. Naturally though, with the genre, the cutscenes can be quite abundant and lengthy.
Not the best from the GameCube library, but Chibi-Robo! absolutely has that much-adored Nintendo charm, folding together into a time-based adventure game that we don't typically see outside of Japan. It's a cute one, for sure.
(6-year-old's review, typed by her dad)
You're a cute little robot! You got to pick up your plug and plug IN. And it's so cute and adorable nyeh nyeh nyeh nyehhhhhh. And a cute girl who dresses like a frog and she just says "ribbit" like how I like to be a CAT, and I just say "meow meow meow meow". That's all.
I've wanted to play Chibi-Robo for a long time, but I'm glad that I waited until now. I wouldn't have properly appreciated how mature the narrative is - but not in a "rated M for mature" way obviously. The maturity comes from the game's preoccupation with domesticity.
Examining what Chibi-Robo has to say about gendered expectations through the prism of the Sandersons is an interesting exercise insofar as it's hard to nail exactly how progressive (or, conversely, not progressive) the messaging is. I tend toward this game being more conservative given its fixation on making Mr. Sanderson "the man of the house" once more, and the archetypal albeit inverted gender roles between the Sandersons being inverted for the sake of disrupting the status quo. Nonetheless, its concern for conservation, the openness with which the game discusses divorce and the place in which Mr. Sanderson's character lands (recontextualizing the familial unit) feel more progressive. It's far more politically charged than I expected.
But it's also as whimsical as I'd hoped, being a Skip game. Like Captain Rainbow (which came after but I'd played before), there's a sense of goofiness met with an earnestness that defines Skip's approach to character, scripting, and art direction. I love just being around these characters, from Plankbeard to Sarge to Chibi-Robo and the Sandersons themselves. I came to truly love them all by the credits.
That's due in large part to how narratively-driven the experience is. While the gameplay largely leaves Chibi-Robo and the player to their own devices, the game is never shy to wrestle control away for extended, charming narrative sequences. There's a sense of care when it comes to nuanced storytelling here that feels beyond what the majority of Nintendo games which have succeeded it have lacked. Of course, that's Skip's trademark.
But it's interesting to experience that commitment in 2023, when so much of Chibi-Robo feels more modern than what Nintendo develops/publishes now. And, that's in part due to how excellent its open-world design is.
Ultimately, this is an open-world game, for as peculiar as that may sound. And I love the game for it, which is odd for me as I'm typically adverse to open-worlds. Yet, its Chibi-Robo's commitment to deliberate scale and meaningful world design that keep me engaged.
The Sanderson house is absolutely one of the most brilliant game environments I've ever had the pleasure of exploring. As Chibi-Robo is mere inches tall, the very act of basic traversal is a challenge. Better yet - it's a puzzle. You're forced to very carefully consider Chibi-Robo's spatial relationships, carefully determining how you do something as simple as get atop a couch. In this sense, the game makes you incredibly conscious of fundamental gameplay considerations otherwise taken for granted including; "how to I traverse vertical distance?," "how do I efficiently move across an open horizontal plane?" Well, the result meticulous engagement with the organic design of the home.
If I were still writing pieces to this effect, I'd be trying to pitch something along the lines of "What Death Stranding Borrowed from Chibi-Robo: Making the Player Conscious of Space." It's quite incredible how the game asks you to pay attention.
It's also bold to program so much friction into the moment-to-moment gameplay. Like Chibi-Robo himself, every simple gameplay action is methodical, robotic. To charge Chibi-Robo, for instance, you need to: click A to pick up the plug. Click A to plug into a wall socket. Click A to pull the plug back out. Hit B to drop the plug again. That's just one example of how procedural every action is, once again slowing down the pace of the experience to where you can really stop and relate to the space around you, and the simple act of doing. There's something almost Buddhist about how the game makes you stay present in its moment, and appreciate the digital life around you. After all, given the narrative and progression tracker of Happy Points, this is an experience about gratitude and love and appreciation foremost.
And it's also a dynamic one. It goes back to the characters and the notion of excellent open world design. There are plenty of side quests here, but each has a function and none require a quest log. You don't need one - the house is so logical in its design and the characters are so memorable in their creation that you'll neither forget what you need to do or where you need to go. Once more, it's a testament to how deliberately-placed everything here is.
Further, it's a testament to how thoughtfully-irreverent and dynamic the world becomes. You come to truly care about the Free Ranger egg soldiers and their war against the family dog, Tao, and thus are motivated to complete their quest not because of its reqard or exp boost, but because you've built an attachment to their silly story. Then, as the Sanderson house and its residents dynamically change to suit evolving questlines, you become further wrapped up in how alive it all feels.
But to that point, there's a sort of irreconcilable tension between how dynamic the game is in its overall construction, and how static it can feel on a minute level. Ultimately, it's Chibi-Robo's job to clean. And the house becomes predictably dirty in the exact same ways as each day/night cycle passes. Jenny will leave the same empty soda cans in the same place in her room. Tao will track his muddy prints along the same section of living room floor. And you will clean them up just the same every day. The game does make an effort to introduce new mechanics and ideas which complicate your daily routine - but nonetheless you reach a point where a degree of monotony undercuts the real-world comfort in routine. Paired with some arbitrary progression gating behind having enough "moolah" to unlock new items, there's a sense of gamification which somewhat dilutes an otherwise intentional, organic world.
But despite any issues that I may have, I loved Chibi-Robo. I love its bizarre sound design and continual sense of humor. I love its art direction and sixth-generation, polygonal appearance. I love the act of doing, and I love the relationships I form with other characters. This is a genuinely mature, brilliant experience that sits at the top of Nintendo's catalogue and exemplifies the best of what games can be. Can't wait to play the two DS sequels later this year.