If you want to be all reductive about it, you can say there are two types of Nintendo mascot games: Biggies and Smallies.
Everyone knows the Biggies because they're the company pillars, the keystones keeping Nintendo in the money: your Marios, Pokemons, and so forth. They're polished, beautiful, and ultimately a little safe — can't mess too much with a good thing, right? Then you have the Smallies — franchises and characters whose gameplay ideas are a little daring, a little experimental, but largely too weird to live. Smallies might vanish for a while if nobody at Nintendo HQ can figure out a really great concept or gameplay idea for these to explore, but often have a strong, core fanbase keeping the flame alive in the meantime. (We still love you, F-Zero!)
Chibi-Robo is one of the Smallies, and not just because the robot is a diminutive 10 cm. It's a weird franchise where selflessness and environmentalism are major themes, and where cleaning a home can be a core gameplay element. So, when Nintendo brings its cutest robot out to play, one might assume that it's got a really cool concept to explore.
Chibi-Robo!: Zip Lash does indeed have some novel ideas, but by and large they're not terribly interesting. Some are even quite dull or downright annoying. The usual Nintendo polish and Chibi-Robo charm is intact, but restrained gameplay and a questionable emphasis on repetition and out-of-place elements undermine the better bits. Worst of all, though, is that Zip Lash seems to lack real ambition. We're not entirely sure why Zip Lash exists, and at times it feels like the game itself doesn't know either.
Ever the preservationist, Chibi-Robo springs into action when it's discovered that sneaky aliens called Gyorians are swiping all of Earth's natural resources. It's up to Chibi-Robo and his trusty pal Telly to save the planet (natch).
Being a robot and all, Chibi-Robo requires power to operate. Flowing through his tiny wires are watts, an always-depleting resource that's both health and stage timer. In addition to picking up batteries along the way to juice up, Chibi-Robo can restore power by tapping into his storage of house watts via outlets littered around stages. These house watts are replenished by picking up trash around stages and recycling them back at Chibi-House, our hero's face-shaped space ship hub. Watt management is a clever way to ensure players who need the extra boost can stock up enough juice to get through, and serves as a high score of sorts for those who don't.
This is the first proper 2D platformer in the series and — in addition to genre-standard running, jumping and rolling — the big hook is the Chibi-Plug. This accessory allows Chibi-Robo to grapple toward surfaces, pull switches, grab stuff, swing around or attack. The Chibi-Plug comes in two flavours: the whip lash and the zip lash. The whip is a basic grapple with a short reach, whereas the zip is a charged throw that can reach up to 12x further at its longest. Extending the reach of the lashes requires collecting power-ups in each stage — the reach resets at the start of each stage, though, which allows the game to explore challenges around varying lengths of reach.
The zip lash is the name of the game — literally — and most stages require copious, occasionally clever use of it. Lining up a well-placed shot that breaks through bricks, bounces off a wall, shatters enemies, collects coins, and then yanks Chibi-Robo to a higher platform is a satisfying feat, and makes up a big chunk of Chibi-Robo's interactions with the world. Most puzzles require banking the Zip Lash off an assortment of walls to get around obstacles — or to hit well-placed switches all in one whip. When everything clicks these mechanics come to an acrobatic head demanding exacting precision and lightning reflexes. Stringing together all of Chibi-Robo's moves into a fluid display can be immensely satisfying but, unfortunately, these higher-pressure moments are not as frequent as one might hope. More often than not Chibi-Robo has plenty of time to line up a shot or plan a route through — while it's still pleasing to pull off a well-planned whip or zip, there's a sense of misused potential here. The game's pace settles for pedestrian at most times — likely to suit less experienced gamers — despite being capable of riveting sprints.
Each world has a vehicular stage to break up the standard platforming, and these are often a highlight or absolute lowlight. The Chibi-Sub is...just...words cannot adequately describe our fury.
There's loads to collect throughout the game: hidden snacks, medals, Chibi-Tots, garbage to recycle, and moolah (little gold coins). Plus, there are badges to be earned by completing a stage without taking damage, using an item, or using a checkpoint. Odds are that you won't find everything in your first go through — in fact, some stuff doesn't even appear until a second attempt — so completionists will find plenty to do. The game even sends players on a collaborative Miiverse quest for codes that unlock new outfits for the little guy.
Each world has six stages and a boss, and the stages are arranged in a circle that Chibi-Robo works its way around. Zip Lash is designed for repeat play, whether you want it or not; progression is not immediately guaranteed thanks to the Destination Wheel at the end of each stage.
Giving the Destination Wheel a whirl dictates how many steps you advance around the circular overworld. You might move on to the next stage without issue, or you might skip ahead a few places to a later stage. The rub is that all six stages have to be completed before the world's boss appears, and an errant spin on the wheel might send you into a stage that you've already completed. Since the overworld is arranged in a loop, you could end up replaying several completed stages just to get back on track.
Constantly threatening players down the path of having to repeat stages is a crummy way to add tension or extend the life of a game — even for completionists who might choose to do this stuff anyway. You can sidestep the whole thing by buying panels with moolah to guarantee your odds of getting the spin you want, which just undermines the whole point. Once a world boss is bested, you can freely replay whatever stage you'd like. The Destination Wheel is a forced, needless hurdle that serves no real purpose other than padding out the game length.
Speaking of forced and needless, let's talk about those snacks. They're found hidden in treasure chests in each stage, and Chibi-Robo hands them over to strange toy characters hankering for a fix. The toys request specific snacks, so you have to scour the game to find the right one to get the toy's reward. The toys then tell you how much they love the snack. Hooray. Clearly, Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash wants you to care about these snacks.
But these aren't generic video game snacks — they're real-world brands, and their presence manages to pull off the unholy trifecta of confusion, distraction, and annoyance. Product placement isn't a new concept for games, and when integrated well can actually enhance the game world. Chibi-Robo uses the real world as a backdrop but is hardly working within a plausible snapshot of Earth, and brands like Utz Pretzel Wheels have zero place here. It makes no sense for toys to gush about how much they love these snacks, and it's even weirder to save their gushing in Chibi-Robo's log for later reading. A gentle nudge to post your every snack discovery to Miiverse just twists the knife further. This is crass product placement, not "world-building" stuff, and feels wholly out of place.
The robo amiibo bundled with physical copies of the game has a few purposes. Get extra points or access to a special attack with the Daily Fortune, or unleash Super Chibi-Robo in-game a few times a day. Tapping the amiibo while in the Chibi-House brings up a toy capsule machine filled with collectible figurines — throw in some moolah and take your chances on getting a random one. You can level up the figure by saving your scores at the end of each stage. Higher-level amiibo add increasingly rare figurines to the capsule pool and also allow you to power up more times during the day. Scanning other amiibo will give moolah, and depending on the character may add a new figurine pose to the capsule machine. As an added bonus, scan Chibi-Robo in Super Mario Maker to unlock a neat costume there. Zip Lash offers plenty of reason to keep the figure nearby — plus, it's just darn cute. Mission accomplished, amiigo.
Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash is a fun but ultimately unexciting title, which makes it occupy a weird space in our minds. The whole package is undoubtedly polished and pleasing, and if you're looking for a solid platformer that zigs where a Mario may zag then this is a safe bet for an enjoyable time. But for all the charm and smooth polish, there's little texture here to make the game stand out from others in this genre. Over time, we suspect we won't remember a lot of the finer details — the amiibo for sure, and maybe a stage or two here, but on the whole will struggle to pin down a reason to revisit.
So what's the point of Zip Lash, then? Is it to simply experiment with gameplay concepts? There aren't any radical new ideas at play, and it seems odd for this to be a grand experiment — Bionic Commando explored similar concepts back in the NES days. Is it to test whether Chibi-Robo can find success in a new genre? Perhaps — he's been in a few quirky games already, and maybe some think it's time for him to take a swing at the big time. Whatever the problem that Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash is trying to solve, we hope Nintendo can find the answer it seeks. We'll be over here, scratching our heads about it.