Nintendo is home to some of the most iconic characters in the world. 30 years after his debut, Mario is still starring in games that sell in the millions, while Pikachu T-shirts can be spotted from Toronto to Tokyo. Even still, some characters slip through the cracks, and dwell in relative obscurity.
Chibi-Robo made its debut on the Gamecube a decade ago, and since then the character has starred in a few handheld spin-offs. But the adorable, diminutive robot has yet to see that breakout hit that would see it join the ranks of Nintendo’s most popular mascots. The latest game in the series, Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash, launches on the 3DS next week, and it changes up the formula quite a bit with a new focus on action. For such a light, charming game, the stakes are high.
"To be honest, this might be the last chance for us," says Nintendo producer Kensuke Tanabe.
The Gamecube original was an adventure game in which the four-inch-tall robot helped do chores for humans. Much of the charm came from its sense of scale; you could run around the house, sneaking into cracks that humans couldn’t see, and at night you’d hang out with action figures come to life, Toy Story-style. The sequels largely followed this exploration theme: 2007’s Park Patrol had you revitalizing a big outdoor space, while the 3DS title Photo Finder was an augmented reality game about collecting everyday objects.
Chibi garnered something of a cult following — likely due to just how cute he is — but none of the games proved to be a sales success. "I’ve continually thought about ways to build this into a mainstream success," Tanabe says of the franchise. "We’ve challenged ourselves in assorted ways along those lines, but I can’t say that we’ve found the answer yet."
"I can’t say that we’ve found the answer yet."
For Zip Lash, the team is hoping that a new direction will be the answer. The game is a side-scrolling adventure, where Chibi wields his plug like a grappling hook; he can use it to scale up walls, or throw it at enemies to knock them out. It has the same adorable tone as past games, with the wonderful thrill of being so tiny in a huge world. Watering cans tower in the background like buildings, and Chibi struggles to lift a discarded coffee cup. But the game is much more straightforward and accessible.
"The first thing we decided upon was that we’d make an action game that took advantage of his plug and cord," explains Tanabe. "We then placed the core of the gameplay on using it like a grappling hook, throwing it into a faraway edge and using that to traverse gaps and so on. As we kept thinking about ideas, we naturally settled on the 2D side-scrolling format. If the character can gain more recognition, I believe we’ll have a chance to produce another adventure-style game for a large number of people. I’m hoping that we made the right choice for this game’s play style."
I’ve played through the early sections of the game, and while it is definitely a big change for the series, it’s also a lot of fun. It’s sort of like the NES classic Bionic Commando, but less intense and with a much cuter vibe. Whether that’s enough to woo more players remains to be seen, but Chibi’s commercial appeal — or lack thereof — has been part of Tanabe’s design process from the very beginning. "Instead of trying to come up with a character we thought would be a commercial success, it was more like we first had the Chibi-Robo character, and then we thought about what kind of game we could make that’d portray this character in as attractive a way as possible. It’s kind of fun along those lines, like taking an artist I’ve found and trying to mold him into a famous creator. That, of course, also creates its own unique challenges."
Zip Lash could very well be the last Chibi game released, but Nintendo seems to be making a strong effort to ensure that’s not the case; the 3DS game even comes with an unbelievably charming amiibo figure, which really drives home just how cute a character the little robot is. And who knows, if it proves to be a hit, we might start seeing him pop up in other places, like Nintendo’s seminal character fighter Super Smash Bros.
"If we receive an offer," says Tanabe, "we'll think about it."
Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash launches October 9th on the Nintendo 3DS