Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 79, Chibi-Robo!
One of the GameCube's final classics is also one of the best Nintendo games going.
I’m ranking the top-101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
Chibi-Robo! never really stood a chance as a successful franchise. It was a little too weird, a little too long ago for that to be a widely accepted trait. And it released near the end of the GameCube’s life cycle, to boot: Chibi-Robo! came out in North America in February of 2006, and the Wii released later that same year. A brand new franchise, with a strange concept and gameplay, hitting months before a brand new console comes out, when reviewers are already looking at the graphical prowess of next-gen systems and slighting current-gen capabilities in the process? Like I said, Chibi-Robo! never really had a chance.
It didn’t help that the sequels to this GameCube original were all underwhelming, for one reason or another. Without a successful followup, there was never much reason for folks to go back and discover the original entry. And that’s a shame, because it’s a lovely little platform-adventure game to this day.
You are, as implied by the title, in control of a diminutive robot. Does this tiny robot use his size and robotic abilities to sneakily fight evil and infiltrate enemy strongholds? Well… sort of. He mostly cleans and picks up trash. You see, Chibi is part of a line of household robots that are meant to help around the home. He’s part of the energy-efficient re-brand of these at-home robots, and yes, that ends up playing a major part of the story. While going around cleaning the home of the Sandersons, the family that purchased him, Chibi-Robo encounters and grapples with more than just messes: there are toys that come alive at night, evil mini robots, themes of energy consumption and pollution, the personal and familial impacts of the crushing combination of capitalism and loneliness, consumerism, divorce, aliens, and talking frogs. Ribbit.
The game was developed by Skip Ltd., and directed by Kenichi Nishi, whose work you know from, if anywhere, Squaresoft’s Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Nishi, though, in his post-Square life, also developed more offbeat titles like Moon: Remix RPG Adventure, and L.O.L.: Lack of Love. Those two were both Japan-exclusives, though, Moon has since come stateside and recently received an English translation on the Switch. L.O.L. is a life simulation game that has you interpreting the facial expressions and non-verbal communication of the world around you, and therefore doesn’t require you know how to read Japanese in order to find a way to play it on your Sega Dreamcast. (And since it is a Dreamcast game, you don’t necessarily need to buy an expensive import off of eBay in order to play it on the system. Cough.) Like with Chibi-Robo, L.O.L. also evokes a sense of loneliness in a strange world, and uses that as a major theme.
All of these games are extremely cute, both in their presentation and artistically. That combination of adorable presentation mixed with heavier themes is a hallmark of Nishi’s games, as he explained to Nintendo Power back in 2006 while promoting Chibi-Robo! "If we only concentrate on cheerful fun, we'll lose depth. There's nothing surprising for people if the game looks cheerful and the experience is cheerful. There are no surprises or unexpected things." This delivery of heavier topics and emotions by way of cheerful presentation is also the kind of development strategy that makes another Nintendo property, Pikmin, work. So it’s no wonder that Shigeru Miyamoto was down with Nishi’s vision when Miyamoto (and therefore Nintendo) took an interest in the Chibi-Robo! project and became its publishers well into development.
As for the gameplay itself, Chibi-Robo runs on electricity, and you’ll need to keep his battery charged if you want to accomplish anything. He has a plug trailing from his backside, and you can shove that into an outlet to recharge your battery, which also increases in size as you earn “Happy Points.” You’ll get Happy Points for things like cleaning up messes, helping out a toy in need, flirting with a dog toy while dressed as a superhero, or giving frog-related items to the Sanderson’s daughter, Jenny, who is either very into frogs and so speaks like one, or was cursed and therefore can only speak frog now. I’ll, uh, leave that to you to figure out.
The Happy Points determine your ranking among the other Chibi-Robos out there in the world, and your initial goal, per your little robo-pal Telly Vision, who does basically all of the plot-advancement talking for your silent protagonist, is to become the top-earning Chibi bot in the world. To get to that top ranking, you’ll have to solve all kinds of levels of stress and distress at the Sanderson household, whether it come from tension over your existence in the house in the first place, to Mr. Sanderson’s obsession with expensive collector toys despite his unemployment, to Jenny’s (rightful) fear that her parents are about to get divorced and throw a little too much “that’s life, kid” in the face of a young girl who just wants to draw robots, play with dolls, and speak in frog.
Chibi-Robo will solve some environmental puzzles, defeat enemies, find hidden objects, face mysteries and some weirdo side characters, and try to keep the Sandersons from getting divorced and ruining Jenny’s life. The little robot will do this by converting some household items into tools: a toothbrush becomes a mop for Chibi, a cup becomes a shield Chibi can drape over himself to ward against projectiles, a spoon is a shovel, and so on. Figuring out how and when to implement these tools will make up a considerable amount of the gameplay, and using each tool will suck up a lot more battery than just walking around would, so you have to balance action with inaction, and your distance from an outlet, at all times.
Chibi’s movement influences the game’s music, as it speeds up or slows down based on Chibi’s own pace: it’s a wonderful little system that helps a world that should not be even a little bit immersive feel like it is, anyway, and it helps that the music is good, too. The game is broken up into a day/night cycle, which you can adjust the length of in between days while in Chibi’s little robo house. The short version of a day (or night) is five minutes, the medium option is 10 minutes, and the long one is 15. So, if you feel like you need more time to get things done, select the 15-minute plan. If you just need to accomplish like, one thing in the day before moving on to progress the story during a night’s event, then go with the five-minute option to move things along. It’s flexible, and useful, but I also find you can always discover something to do or get started on if you just stick with the 15-minute setup, too. After all, it’s a big house when you’re just a little robot.
The cast of characters adds so much to the game, from the Sandersons joy at your existence to their problems to what the toys and frogs and everyone else needs from Chibi. It’s a genuinely funny game, sometimes heartwarming, often disheartening for its themes, but not in a way that makes you upset at a game. Just in the way you react to narratives and themes, in the way the game is doing its job of presenting a cheerful veneer which hides the sadness within. Sadness Chibi will have to confront in order to fix the Sanderson’s problems and become the top Chibi-Robo unit in the world.
Now, the game does go off the rails a bit late, but not necessarily in a bad way. All the weirdness just continues to build up, though, and as the emotional stakes grow, so too does the strangeness of the world and narrative. The balance, though, still worked and continues to work for me: I might even like Chibi-Robo! a bit more in the present than I did in the past, and I was always a fan. Some of the game’s themes just hit a little harder in my 30s than they did at the end of my teenage experience.
Chibi-Robo! might be a game you missed the first time, and since the New Play Control! re-release of it on the Wii was a Japan-exclusive and Nintendo hasn’t made GameCube games available again in any kind of Virtual Console form, the original GCN release version remains your only option. Like with L.O.L., you aren’t going to find a copy of it for sale on eBay without paying at least three times its original MSRP. (I, uh, genuinely did not realize how lucky I was to still have a copy of the game until I just searched for pricing for the purposes of this entry.) But hey, there are other ways to discover lost gems, for those who want them enough. Huh, there’s that cough again.
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