We spent some time cleaning house in this oddly charming platformer for the Nintendo GameCube.
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At a recent Nintendo press event, we took the opportunity to spend some time playing Chibi-Robo, a quirky little platformer developed by Skip Ltd. At first glance the game seems to appeal to a younger audience, with bright colorful graphics and light action. However, the cheerful visuals and simple gamplay belie a bizarre, subversive, and often hilarious experience that's sure to interest fans of the truly weird.
The premise of the game is simple enough. You play as a tiny robot named Chibi. Chibi was purchased as a birthday present for a crazy little girl named Jenny Sanderson, who thinks she's a frog, wears a frog hat, and says little more than "ribbit" unless she's wearing a special frog outfit that makes her gibberish somewhat more coherent. It seems that Jenny's identity issues stem from the fact that things aren't going so well at home. It turns out that Mom and Dad Sanderson are experiencing some marital difficulties, which are compounded by the fact that Dad is unemployed and just lies around on the couch all day. There are a lot of serious undertones here, but the dialogue and characters are so odd and goofy that the game doesn't feel the least bit heavy-handed (at least not in the early parts we played).
The entire game takes place in the Sanderson house. The house is divided into various rooms, each one offering different characters, events, and activities. There are about eight different areas to explore, including the living room, foyer, kitchen, and backyard. Your job as Chibi is basically to make everyone happy, which is accomplished by doing chores, completing fetch quests, and giving people presents that you find throughout the house. By completing these tasks, you'll be rewarded with happiness points and moolah.
Moolah is the currency in Chibi-Robo, and it can be used to purchase utilibots, which are tools like ladders, bridges, and warp points that help you get around the house. Happiness points improve your Chibi ranking, which is important, because as your rank increases you'll earn upgrades like better batteries.
As you move around you'll expend energy. Your remaining energy is indicated by a small gauge at the bottom of the screen. If your energy reaches zero, you'll collapse, and your friend Telly Vision will drag you back to your Chibi house, where you can be recharged. To prevent this from happening, you can plug into one of the many available outlets throughout the house to quickly recharge your battery.
Early in the game, the best way to earn happiness points is to do chores around the house. Since you're so small, you can run around into every nook and cranny in the house, picking up garbage and cleaning up stains. You can pick up scraps of paper, cookie crumbs, and other bits of garbage and take them to the proper trash receptacle. Chibi is able to store a lot of junk in his little metal head, so you can stock up on lots of trash before you have to dump it. Chibi also stores tools in his head. Early on you can find Dad's toothbrush underneath the couch, and you can use that toothbrush to clean up stains you find on the floor. Other such tools include a blaster weapon and a helicopter attachment that lets you briefly float through the air, which is handy when you need to safely jump off a high ledge or clear a narrow gap.
There's a day-and-night cycle in Chibi-Robo that directly affects what you can do at any given time. You can purchase different timers to change the frequency of the night-and-day cycle. The cycle is important, because at night the house comes alive. You see, there are many more occupants in the house than just Jenny, Mom, and Dad. First off, there's the family dog, named Tao. There are also all kinds of strange toys that come to life at night. You can talk to these toys to learn all about what's going on in the house, and some of the interactions are quite funny.
In fact, the whole cast of characters is pretty hilarious. There's the cheesy superhero, Space Hunter Drake Redcrest, who at one point hatches a scheme to develop a freeze ray so he can "slap evil across the face with the icy hand of justice." Drake has lots of great corny lines like these, and although the dialogue isn't final yet, the localization seems to be spot on so far. There's also a Barbie-type girl named Princess Pits (a good-natured jab at Nintendo's own Princess Peach), who Drake is constantly trying to hook up with. We also briefly met a honey-addicted teddy bear who is usually quite calm and nice but who gets real irritable when he's fiending for the sweet stuff. There's also a mopey female stuffed animal that kind of looks like a caterpillar. At night she writes in her diary all about her secret crush on Space Hunter Drake, and by day she's a chew toy for the family dog.
You'll also get different reactions from characters by wearing different outfits. Chibi can collect a variety of outfits, including a Drake Redcrest suit, a bandage costume, a frog outfit, and more. While wearing an outfit, you can hit the Z button to strike a special pose. These poses have different uses. For example, when talking to the caterpillar girl, we were dressed as Drake Redcrest. She asked if we were in fact the man of her dreams, and we said that we were. She then wanted us to prove it by striking Drake's signature pose. The caterpillar girl then got bashful and ran away through the door she was blocking, thus giving us access to another area of the house.
In addition to doing chores and talking to friends, you'll engage in a bit of light combat. There are evil robot spiders that sometimes appear in the house. Known as "spidors," these evil little robots will attack you and your friends. Luckily, you can easily take them out with your trusty blaster. In a nod to Metroid Prime, you can even shoot the blaster in first-person mode and charge it up just like Samus' arm cannon. By defeating spidors you collect scrap, which can be recycled to earn moolah. As you progress though the game, the spidors will get bigger and tougher, and eventually you'll have to face the queen, who has a refrigerator for a head.
Visually, Chibi-Robo is quite charming, though not technically remarkable. Since you're a tiny robot running around an average-sized house, the game has a definite Toy Story feel. You'll see all kinds of everyday objects blown up to massive proportions, and from what we saw, the game does a good job of conveying a sense of scale. Everything is bright and colorful, and artistically this game lies somewhere between Katamari Damacy and Mr. Mosquito. Everything is very cute and cheerful, and the characters are quite expressive in a cartoony sort of way. Some of the characters--like little Jenny with her frog hat--will have you laughing just looking at them.
The sound in Chibi-Robo goes right along with the theme of the game, in that it's a bit weird but somehow makes sense in the context of the game. You'll get to hear Space Hunter Drake Redcrest's theme song, which has been rerecorded with English vocals for the US release of the game. The rest of the score is original music, and it's kept fairly light to match the look and feel of the game. The characters do all have voices, but they speak in gibberish so you can't understand what they're saying (you'll have to rely on subtitles for the dialogue sequences).
Chibi-Robo seems to be a game that will appeal to people who are looking for something a bit different from the usual shooter or action adventure game. It has a distinct Japanese feel to it, but the localization seems to be coming along quite well, so the game should appeal to just about anyone with a bit of an open mind and a fondness for subtle, off-the-wall humor. Chibi-Robo ships in February, so be sure to check back for more details and our full review of this strange little game.