Chibi Robo Review
Plug into Fun
The Sanderson family household is in absolute shambles: the place is a mess; Mrs. Sanderson is worn out from the constant cleaning, cooking, and babying of her family; Mr. Sanderson overspends the household budget on generally useless gadgets while lazing about watching television and eating snacks; Tao the Dog is aggressive and unhelpful; and daughter Jenny seems to have decided that she is, of all the things in the world to be, a frog. It’s not the ideal environment, but it’s into this scenario that the player is thrust when Chibi Robo begins during little Jenny’s birthday party. As the family celebrates, Mr. Sanderson unveils his latest costly toy — a three-inch silver robot dedicated to making people happy.
He’s only three inches tall, dwarfed by his surroundings. He’s not very intimidating — the little fellow has wide, innocent eyes, a blank face, and spindly, gangling limbs that seem barely strong enough to lift and carry his own power cord. And his mission, to make people’s lives better by fixing their problems and generally spreading joy, seems positively saccharine and is a far cry from such noble pursuits as overthrowing an oppressive overclass or saving the world (again and again). Let’s face it, Chibi Robo makes an unlikely hero, and it’s difficult to imagine a game starring such an oddball hero turning out to be good. But the game and its pint-sized protagonist are full of surprises. Chibi Robo is, to say the least, an unusual title and a game quite radically unlike anything else out there.
Though the game and its story, bordering impeccably between the starkly realistic and the vaguely preposterous, could easily become overwhelmed by the sheer cheeriness of its happy-spreading premise, this never happens. In part, this is because the hero is impossible not to like — though eternally silent, Chibi Robo comes across as remarkably well personified, and the player can easily embrace the tiny robot’s endless eagerness, determination, and quiet empathy as he goes about performing drudgerous tasks to which he has been assigned, or listening compassionately as a poor lost soul relates its problems to the helper. In part, too, the game stays appreciable even to the most cynical by offering a hilarious script and a truly quirky cast of supporting characters.
The last two deserve special mention. The script is simply fantastic, made up of sharp and concise dialogue that conveys vast amounts of personality from each character while delivering lines of sharp and subtle wit, or portraying downright insane scenes with amusing grace. The scenes of insanity are most often triggered by the truly bizarre characters that join Chibi Robo and the Sandersons in their home. The ensemble ranges from a wooden pirate to a horde of vigilant, militant hard-boiled eggs to a sometimes honey sweet and other times raving pink bipolar teddy bear. These unusual allies and many more help illustrate how Chibi Robo utterly embraces the quirky and the stylistic. And as the story grows progressively more outlandish and at the same time increasingly, and surprisingly, darker, it’s this zany cast and this unusual hero that keep the game solidly grounded in a sense of pure fun.
The characters aren’t just window dressing, but they actually play a major part in the unfolding of the story. The game’s narrative advances as the character completes a variety of non-linear character-based quests. Each character has a problem, and it’s Chibi Robo’s job to figure out what it is and then devise a way to solve the dilemma. In many ways, this style of play is highly reminiscent of Majora’s Mask, and Chibi Robo pulls it off adeptly. Most of these are optional, but some of the character-quests are required in order to see the story through to the end. At the completion of each quest, Chibi Robo is rewarded with a sticker of the given character to celebrate his resolution of the challenge.
Achieving the goal of collecting all of the stickers in the game in the process of helping each character becomes a huge drive for the player and is hugely rewarding from both a storyline and gameplay perspective. Many of the quests are post-game bonuses, encouraging the player to keep helping characters and learning more about them even after the main storyline has been beaten. With all the quests and unlockables, there’s an impressive amount of meaty gameplay content to be found here — but the game strikes a great balance in allowing those who just want to get to the end to do that, while allowing those who want more content to complete more and more of the optional quests. Even more content is afforded in the form of entertaining minigames like car and jet racing.
In diving deep into the troves of quirkiness for its story, Chibi Robo follows in the footsteps of games like Giftpia and Earthbound. The gameplay, however, falls more in line with games from the Legend of Zelda or Castlevania series, with a solid foundation in adventuring, exploration, puzzle solving, and the acquisition of tools to enable further progression into previously sealed off areas. Chibi Robo, however, does so in a thoroughly unusual atmosphere, as the game takes place entirely within the confines of a, from the hero’s perspective, gargantuan house. Rather than trodding through dank dungeons, Chibi Robo must delve into a cobwebby basement; foregoing monolithic forest temples, Chibi Robo’s faced with obstacles like figuring out how to climb the stairs to the second floor, or devising a way to reach the kitchen counter. It’s amazing how well a simple two-story house lends itself to such an adventure, how many diverse locales it affords, and how much there can be to explore in such an environment. The game makes full use of its atmosphere in every way.
To help Chibi explore this alien terrain, the player will need to acquire a variety of tools and costumes. Whereas heroes like Link go ruins diving with equipment like hookshots, boomerangs, and magic wands, Chibi Robo supplements his determination with more mundane objects like a spoon and toothbrush. These everyday items are surprisingly useful in traversing the house and completing tasks, and once more the game benefits by providing the player with something original and out-of-the-ordinary. The costumes are another nice touch — by dressing up in various outfits, Chibi can acquire different abilities such as communicating with different animals or triggering an immediate switch in the game’s real-time day and night cycle.
Unlike the vast, vast majority of RPGs, combat plays only a minimal role in Chibi Robo. The helpful protagonist does acquire a weapon in the Chibi-Blaster, and throughout the game he’ll use it to face merciless adversaries in the pestilent robotic Spydorz. These random encounters are usually fairly brief, though; So the combat is there; it just never comprises a significant portion of the gameplay. Chibi Robo remains focused to its core on the resolution of the character quests.
Initially, Chibi’s ability to explore the house is limited by a hit point-like battery life. The further time he spends wandering, the more his energy is depleted, and he can only restore it by plugging into one of the electrical outlets in the house. However, by acquiring experience points, called happy points in the game, Chibi can level up and get better batteries with a longer duration. This allows him to go further afield than he could before, and spend a longer amount of time in areas short on outlets. Experience points are acquired by completing character quests, by conversing with the household residents or doing nice things for them, by solving minor problems, or by completing various chores like cleaning up trash and stains or cooking dinner for the family. Chibi also earns an allowance through these tasks, which allows him to purchase upgrades from the Chibi Shop such as backup batteries and a better Chibi Blaster.
Though the art direction in Chibi Robo is impressively stylistic, the graphics are far below the average standards on a technical level. It’s a step above the N64’s capabilities, but not a very big one, and when set alongside other GameCube RPGs like Tales of Symphonia, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, Paper Mario, or even the Dreamcast-ported Skies of Arcadia, the low production values inherent in the game’s graphics are immediately apparent and are a bit disappointing given the unique nature of the game’s environments.
The game doesn’t do much musically. While there are a few nice, catchy tunes in the game, throughout the bulk of Chibi Robo the atmosphere will more be carried by ambient noise and odd, flourishing sound effects that accompany everything from scurrying up a dangling rope to the synth-keyboard beats that sound in perfect synchronization with Chibi’s footsteps. The approach works within the context of the game, and it’s an interesting style that further sets the offbeat game apart from the crowd. However, it’s still difficult not to notice the lack of any real soundtrack to the game, and the overall presentation suffers for it. The game has voice acting — of a sort. Whenever any character speaks, their words are read aloud in a made-up gibberish language. It’s generally extremely funny to listen to, and again, lends itself well to the game’s quirky style. But it probably will get old fast for some, and the game doesn’t give the option of turning it off or skipping it.
Chibi Robo is an easy game to overlook. On the surface, it seems childish as well as both shallow and simplistic — often presented as a “cleaning game.” But there’s a huge amount of depth to this underappreciated gem, both in the quality story and characterization as well as the fantastic gameplay. What’s more, Chibi Robo manages to accomplish what precious few RPGs can achieve in this cliched day and age — a truly original, unique story. Even the most bitter and sardonic gamer should be willing to give Chibi Robo a chance and help him spread the happiness.