Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Chibi-Robo - Gamecube

I first picked up the American import of Chibi-Robo back in May 2006. However, due to a faulty Gamecube and subsequently the Wii's region lockout, I only had the briefest of chances to play the game upon its release. But that changed last week when I bought a cheap second-hand Cube, allowing me to really get my teeth stuck into this cracking little game. I managed to complete it last night and I've been blown away by just how wonderful the experience was.

But let's take the clock back to when Chibi-Robo made his debut. Unfortunately for the little fella, the game was released just as shops in the UK were stopping their Gamecube support. As a result, Chibi-Robo never got the recognition it deserved and while it received favourable reviews upon release, people struggled to get their hands on a copy. In fact it's something of a miracle that Nintendo released it at all in the UK.

That's a real shame, as this Skip Ltd creation is definitely one of the Gamecube's finest pieces of software.

Chibi-Robo makes his entrance at the Sanderson family's house during their daughter, Jenny's, birthday party. Mr Sanderson has bought our mini robot chum as an expensive gift for his daughter, but it soon becomes apparent the family are struggling financially, which leads to friction between Mr and Mrs Sanderson.

As Chibi-Robo, it's your job to wander through the house, collecting and disposing of rubbish, cleaning floors and surfaces, generally helping out and spreading happiness as you go. Chibi starts with only a limited amount of battery power, which means he initially can't wander very far. However, as you gather happy points by doing good deeds, your battery life increases, meaning the whole house becomes accessible. If you find yourself running out of juice, simply find the nearest power socket and plug yourself in to replenish your energy.

It doesn't take long to find out just how serious the situation between Mr and Mrs Sanderson has become, as you discover that Mr Sanderson has been turfed out of the bedroom and is now sleeping on the sofa.

It turns out his latest expensive blunder is just one of many and comes at a time when his marriage is already under pressure due to his laziness and lack of job prospects - a theme which runs for the majority of the game. It's very unusual to see a game feature social problems such as family breakdowns and financial troubles, especially when it's the least thing you expect in a cutesy, Toy Story-like wrapping. It works incredibly well, though and leads to many touching scenes, and it's hard not to feel for poor Jenny as she is forced to look on as her parents constantly bicker.

The flip side to Chibi-Robo's darker themes is the game's brilliantly realised comedy characters. As night falls, toys across the house spring to life, and what a colourful cast they are: Sophie, a lovestruck toy caterpillar, Drake Redcrest, a cheesy Buzz Lightyear wannabe, the wonderful Captain Plankbeard, a wooden pirate who constantly swigs from his obligatory bottle of grog, Funky Phil, a musical flower who almost steals the show with his laugh out loud dance moves, Mort, the mournful monster who lives under Jenny's bed, Sunshine, Jenny's innocent looking teddy bear who is actually suffering from a nasty drug addiction, and an army of egg soldiers called the Free Rangers...I mean, what's not to like?

As Chibi progresses through the game's story, he receives new outfits to achieve different tasks. The achingly cute frog suit, for example, allows Chibi to communicate with animals, while the ghost outfit lets him scare other toys. He'll also utilise household objects to help with his cleaning duties: a toothbrush becomes a useful scrubbing brush, while a spoon is used for digging in flower beds. Chibi also gets access to a range of gadgets, such as the Chibi-Copter, which lets him float down gently from high places.

The Sanderson's house is a joy to explore thanks to well thought out level design and the game's bright, colourful look, and while some of the quests are nothing more than standard fetch quests, they never feel repetitive or boring as there are so many new places to be discovered and secrets to be found.

Special mention also goes to the game's soundtrack - it has a sort of Charlie Brown feel to it, with the cheery upbeat theme suiting the game perfectly. The game's use of sound is also something special - using a toothbrush to clean paw marks off the carpet is accompanied by gentle acoustic strings, while each step our chipper little robot takes is met with plinking musical notes which change depending on the surface he's traversing. And although there is no speech - think of Okami's or Animal Crossing's garbled take on the spoken word - it's hard not to smile when Sarge - an egg with a bad attitude - gives his troops an earful.

Chibi-Robo took me a little over 20 hours to complete and it brought me so much enjoyment that I didn't want it to end. If you have a Wii - or a Cube in the cupboard - and haven't experienced this gem of a game, get on eBay now and see if a copy is kicking about.

Go on, Spread The Happiness.

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