Meet the Sandersons, your atypical dysfunctional American family: Mr. Sanderson is an out-of-work engineer-cum-manchild who lives on the lounge sofa playing with action figures and watching his favourite superhero program Space Ranger Drake Redcrest(TM) (apologies if that hits too close to the bone for some readers). Mrs. Sanderson is trying to keep everything together in the wake of her husband's apparent disinterest in finding gainful employment and habit of spending their meager funds on toys. Their daughter Jenny wears a frog costume and refuses to communicate in anything but frog language. She worries about her family's future now that Mom won't let Dad sleep in their bedroom; instead locking herself up at night to go over the family finances. In a move that infuriates Mrs. Sanderson, Mr. Sanderson brings home yet another new toy in the form of Chibi-Robo, a tiny robot whose mission in life is to become the number 1 Chibi-Robo in the world via giving happiness to the people in his new home. Thus is the stage set for one of the most charming and endearing games ever to grace a console as players assume the role of Chibi-Robo in order to restore harmony and happiness to the Sanderson home.
The game's sights and sounds are an immediate draw: the house is a bright and colourful mix of different eras, with a TV that looks vintage 1960s set admist a timeless household decor filled with all manner of odd and lovable characters. The music is simple and light; punctuated by musical notes that play in time to Chibi-Robo's footsteps and change depending upon the surface he's walking on. The speech is an appealing musical gibberish that is commonplace nowadays, though the English subtitles are well-translated giving each character their own unique personality. Whilst Chibi-Robo! deals with serious issues like death and divorce it doesn't get too heavy and being an active participant in the story's unfolding is one of the great joys of playing the game.
It's a bit difficult to describe what kind of game Chibi-Robo! is. It's not really an action game, although Chibi-Robo can obtain a weapon (the Sonic Blaster) and destroy little enemy robots called Spydorz. It's not really an RPG, though Chibi-Robo does gain larger battery capacity as he rises through the global Chibi-Robo rankings and you advance the story by talking with other characters. It's not really a platform game, though the game's setting in the Sanderson's family home does have ample platforms to traverse in Chibi's travels. Whatever the genre, it's definitely a fun game and that's what counts!
Chibi-Robo lives in a plugged-in house on the living room floor with his companion robo ("manager") Telly-Vision, who floats about giving advice and taking him home when the day is done (or he fails to get to a plug in time and collapses on the floor with a spent battery). Initially Chibi-Robo's out-and-about times last for 5min, but this can be quickly upgraded to 10 or 15 minutes if you so desire. You may also use Moolah to buy upgrades for Chibi-Robo or other items. If you fight Spydorz and destroy them you can pick up pieces of scrap metal for making Utility Bots that act as ladders or bridges in various rooms which you can use to reach high places.
Chibi-Robo's activities alternate between day and night periods for each day. During the day the Sandersons are active and can be chatted, whereas toys are inert. Everybody loves Chibi-Robo!: Mr. Sanderson bought you and he likes gadgets so he just thinks you're the best (changing the TV channel to his favourite TV show gets you some bonus Happy Points, although given his slovenly behaviour is a big cause of strife in the house this might not be the best choice). Jenny likes drawing pictures of you and if you bring her frog rings found scattered about the house she'll bestow you with kisses. Mrs. Sanderson enjoys having tea and being able to discuss her problems with you (though she hasn't gotten your name right and insists upon calling you "Cheebo") and their dog Tao just growls at you (it's a shame you can't speak dog - yet).
At night the Sanderson house takes a darker turn and not just because the lights are out. Mr. Sanderson sleeps on the sofa with the dog and can be heard muttering "sorry dear" in his sleep; you'll find Jenny outside of her mother's bedroom with a sorrowful look on her face, while mother can be heard inside the bedroom telling everyone outside to be quiet and muttering about the finances. The household toys all come to life at night and they all have their own dramas to entagle Chibi-Robo in and provide windows into how the Sandersons got where they are now. Of course with drama and strife comes the opportunity to make people happy - whether that person is one of the Sandersons, a doll, an action figure or one of those novelty musical dancing flowerpot-things.
The active inhabitants of the Sanderson house may be different day or night, but one thing that never changes is that the house is a mess. Chibi-Robo! is a great way to work out your obsessive-compulsive disorder as the start of every active period reveals more rubbish to pick up and stains to clean off the floors and carpets. This ends up being rather satisfying and a good way to ensure a steady flow of Happy Points and Moolah for your coffers. Whilst Mrs. Sanderson may have opposed your presence initially, your helping out around the house is greatly appreciated so she gives you a bonus of both Happy Points and Moolah after a certain number of stains are cleaned or bits of rubbish collected. You never know when these bonuses are assigned so it pays to never leave a pawprint unscrubbed or crumpled paper uncollected.
This game was absolutely made for anyone who enjoys exploring virtual worlds. Chibi-Robo is less than 10 centimetres tall (much like a certain diminutive space traveller), so the Sanderson's modest two-bedroom home is a massive world to navigate. The genius of the game's design is shown by the many ways this world can be navigated; not all of which are immediately apparent. Part of the fun of the game is simply looking around for objects of note and then trying to figure out how to reach them using stacks of books or shimmying up shoelaces, electrical cables or purse straps. Chibi-Vision gives you a first-person view through Chibi-Robo's eyes highlighting special items and enabling full camera control beyond that present in the normal third person view. Items for Chibi-Robo's use in cleaning make themselves known immediately, but the function of other items won't be clear until a conversation or some other event takes place.
If there's a criticism to be made it's that the automatic camera will sometimes allow objects to block the player's view of Chibi-Robo or have trouble changing perspective when navigating a corner of the room. Thankfully manual control with the C-stick is available and does a good job of moving around obstacles, though the camera won't pass through walls so sometimes it can only be moved in one direction. That this minor issue is the only serious complaint shows how well-crafted this game truly is.
Throughout the game you get the sense that the developers really did their best to bring this world to life and let players have fun exploring it. Rather than using a mission structure or outright telling players what to do, you're given the tools and then enticed into moving the central story along by dropping hints that something interesting could happen if you go somewhere or take a certain action. At any given time you can have multiple avenues of exploration on the go with different storylines happening, so if you run into a dead end with one you can focus on another. The bite-sized gaming portions and ability to save anywhere that Chibi-Robo can plug-in to recharge his batteries also makes Chibi-Robo! well-suited to gamers who don't have time for lengthy play sessions. Best of all after the credits roll, the game doesn't stop, but players can choose to continue play so they can tie-up loose ends or find some more secrets.
Chibi-Robo is an oddity: a game with a simple goal but a great deal of freedom in making the journey. It's a game about tiny altruistic robots helping humans with real problems told in a light-hearted manner that will appeal to a wide audience. This is a game that really defines where Nintendo is coming from as a company: focusing on making people happy and doing good deeds; on helping people rather than shooting them in the face.