Chibi-Robo! made his first appearance on the Nintendo GameCube back in 2005, when the first game in the series was released in Japan. Two years later he made his debut on the Nintendo DS in Chibi-Robo! Park Patrol, and then didn’t reappear in the U.S. or Europe until Chibi-Robo! Photo Finder was released as a download on the Nintendo 3DS.
This means that Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash!, a new Nintendo 3DS title that focuses on action-platforming, will be the first time the series has gotten a physical release outside of Japan for the better half of a decade. Siliconera had a chance to sit down with the game’s Assistant Director, Risa Tabata, along with the series Producer Kensuke Tanabe, to talk about the character’s peculiar past and uncertain future.
Can you tell us more about the origin of Chibi-Robo? It’s been a while since we’ve seen a Chibi-Robo game and I think people could use a little refresher on the character.
Kensuke Tanabe, Producer: Originally, we had this development company called Skip Ltd., working together with Bandai Namco Games. We were cooperating to come up with a game for GameCube. There were some things we couldn’t agree on and the project itself was put on hold for a while. I’m not quite sure what it was, but [Shigeru] Miyamoto had a chance to look at the character and he thought, ‘Oh, wow, this is actually pretty good! We can do stuff with this!’ So he took the project and we started working on it from scratch, basically.
The first Chibi-Robo game had some darker themes to it – divorce was at the heart of the story. Chibi-Robo: Zip-Lash! is a very different game with a very lighthearted feel. Why the change in theme?
KT: The director, Kenichi Nishi, liked to put a lot of emphasis on serious issues that are discussed around the world. Zip-Lash! may not seem like it has that kind of commentary, but, the plot of the game revolves around energy consumption, right? So I think the spirit of the original games lives on in Zip-Lash! to some degree.
Risa Tabata, Assistant Director: In terms of genre, we wanted to make something new, so naturally Zip-Lash! might feel different from other Chibi-Robo! titles. One of the key elements of the game is Chibi-Robo needing to recharge himself by plugging his cord into an outlet. The player can also collect trash scattered about the world to give Chibi-Robo more energy to draw from these outlets. Enemies also drop batteries to charge him up or parts he can turn into watts. In that way, I think we preserved some of the original games’ themes. Collecting trash and bringing it to Chibi-Robo’s house gives him Watts, which the player can access to charge Chibi-Robo’s battery if it runs low during a stage.
Speaking of collectibles, the game features some collectibles in the form of snacks or sweets. The one’s I’ve seen in the demo seem to be specific American candies, like Tootsie Rolls. How did you come up with this idea, and was licensing an issue?
KT: You’ll run into a lot of snacks in the game. There are some snacks that are specific to Japan and not sold in the United States. However, there are some differences in the types of snacks people will see. There are some things you’ll see in one region and not the other.
I noticed that one of the stages in the demo is a water ski. This hasn’t been done in a Chibi-Robo game before, can players expect to see other vehicle stages?
RT: That’s a good question, maybe we can give a hin-
KT: Woah woah woah, we can’t say anything about that yet!
RT: (laughs) Right! I guess you can find out when the game is released!
Tabata-san, since this is the first game you’re acting as the chief director for, can you tell us what the most difficult thing about producing this title was?
RT: The first big challenge that we had to face was, since Nintendo has a lot of side-scrolling games with their big-name characters, we had to consider how the make Zip-Lash! stand out. One of the first things Skip Ltd. suggested was having Chibi-Robo throw or spin his cord instead of having it plugged into the wall.
From that, we began thinking about different actions that Chibi-Robo could do to interact with a stage: maybe he can destroy enemies with it, or throw it toward a panel to scale an insurmountable wall. This wasn’t enough, though, so we decided to also have items that could change the length of Chibi-Robo’s cord. We also added the ability to perform Zip-Lashes, by which Chibi-Robo can charge up and throw his cord so that it bounces off of surfaces.
That must have been difficult for development, right? Did you ever have to re-visit gimmicks and stages while implementing this mechanic, since cord length might be used to skip parts of a level or reach areas the player can’t be?
RT: One of the things it affected most, I think, was the ability for the cord to bounce off of walls [this was an ability granted to the player by collecting the “Rebound Chip” on the first stage of the game]. We had a lot of fun testing this out and seeing how far we could get the cord to go, or if we could break the sequence of a level. In some stages, you’ll notice that if your cord isn’t long enough, you won’t be able to reach some secrets. There’s actually one more great challenge I’d really like to talk about if you don’t mind…it’s something we really struggled with.
RT: Chibi-Robo’s height is about 10 centimeters. There really wasn’t a good way for us to show that in-game. The first step to solving this problem was by implementing background elements into the stage – for example, a person knows how large a dandelion is, so you might see a dandelion in the background that towers over Chibi-Robo. However, it still wasn’t quite enough to express the actual size of Chibi-Robo. We kind of wanted to use something that we have in real life so that players can make that instant connection to his height.
KT: On that note, there were a lot of other things that we thought about implementing to make the users gauge that sort of height difference. Pyramids and Tokyo Tower, famous landmarks like that – but, obviously, with him being only 10 centimeters tall, we couldn’t really fit that on screen and have that make sense. That’s also how we came up with the concept of having real-life snacks incorporated into the game. When Chibi-Robo gets a snack, he holds it above this head, and players can draw the connection to how big he is in comparison to this snack they’ve seen before.
The Chibi-Robo games, I feel, were only popular among an older range of players. I think that incorporating snacks or candy into the game makes it more accessible and interesting for younger players, while also hitting those nostalgia notes with older ones. I think it adds a sort of subconscious familiarity to the game. That said, it wouldn’t have made sense unless we used real snacks. That’s how we got the idea for snacks, and that’s also where Tabata-san went through a lot of hardship to make it happen.
RT: I started by listing out all of the candies and snacks I would like to see in the game if I were playing it, and then I called all of the companies who owned the brand across the world, and made appointments with each and every one of them to pitch the project.
KT: How many companies was it again…?
RT: I think it was…a little over 30. I visited each one of them in person and tried to get them to agree with what had planned for the game.
KT: She was doing this during the summer too…
RT: It was so hot!
KT: (laughs) I’m sorry. I didn’t tag along for those pitches, but, in seeing her do so, I knew the project was in good hands. She played a huge role in how the game turned out. Not many people do that kind of face-to-face work for such a small detail. It really was a hardship. I was just sitting there from distance thinking, “man that seems really rough!”
RT: For our versions here in the US and in Europe, I had Nintendo of America and Nintendo of Europe’s help to reach out to some companies.
Is this the same rationale behind why toys were chosen to be the enemies in the game, to give players a size referent for Chibi-Robo?
RT: Actually our reasoning for that was a bit simpler! Since they’re made of plastic, they fall apart easily when hit – but when the player does hit an enemy, it feels really good. Everyone’s accidentally broken a toy before, right? So people can call on that feeling when they hit an enemy. In Japanese, we’re calling them Puramon – short for Plastic Monsters, in the way that Pokémon is short for Pocket Monsters.
In the third Chibi-Robo game, Jenny from the first Chibi-Robo game appears. Does it take place in the same universe? What did you want to do with that game that you couldn’t with the first?
KT: Something I couldn’t do…I think with the third one we started everything from scratch. I think that one of the fun things we implemented in that game was being able to sift through the dust after cleaning to find little treasures. One thing we couldn’t do that I wish we could have in the first was to be able to stretch the cord around corners or objects. In the third, we were able to get the cord to get stuck like we’d imagine it. That sounds boring, but, it allowed us to do some things with the third game that we couldn’t do without this feature.
Was it very different making a Chibi-Robo game where humans didn’t really play a role in the story?
RT: Since it’s an action-type game, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of room to focus too much on story. So, I guess you could say it wasn’t hard simply because there wasn’t really a story where humans needed to be involved. This game is more focused on the fact that you pay more attention to Chibi-Robo himself, and you’re using him to explore the world as opposed to see a story through his eyes.
KT: As a producer of Chibi-Robo, for those that really like the games, they love it, right? So they become really hardcore fans of the franchise. However, I think there’s still a lot of room to expand that fan base and get more people to enjoy him as a character. One thing we talked about during development was that by branching out and expanding the fan base with an action type game, then maybe we’ll be able to revisit him as a character that tells stories similar to what you’ve seen in past Chibi-Robo titles. We need everyone’s support to make the character popular, and then we’ll be able to return to storytelling.
You mention that the audience for him might actually be quite small, but he’s getting his own amiibo. Did you approach Nintendo about this possibility, or was it always in the game plan?
RT: We actually thought it’d be a perfect pairing from the start. Chibi-Robo is only 10 centimeters tall after all, that’s pretty much perfect for an amiibo! There are people who might be against the idea, since the character isn’t that popular. It was a bit of a challenge on our end to push that forward, but we did push for it, and we were able to do it. I had a lot of ideas on how to utilize the Chibi-Robo amiibo and present that to everyone [involved in making the decision] at the company to realize that there is potential, that it would be worthwhile to have.
KT: While there was challenging stuff to overcome, once we had a prototype of it, we showed it around internally, and the reaction to it primarily came from girls who thought the character was really cute or really adorable. That was a really big step for us in terms of its realization.
Can you give us some examples of ideas you had for using amiibo?
RT: Sure, if you use Chibi-Robo within the stage, then he will turn into Super Chibi-Robo. He’ll turn gold and a lot of his parameters are increased. His battery life is twice as long, the cord length is upped slightly, and he’ll be able to take advantage of that to go through stages faster or get through harder parts without concern or running out of battery power, and so on. That’s not all that he’ll do though. There are some other ideas we have that are still cooking, so please look forward to that!
How would you approach making a Chibi-Robo game on the technology offered by the Wii U?
RT: Well, one thing we’d be excited about is making Chibi-Robo very, very shiny! Since the system is hi-Definition and all…not just Chibi-Robo, but the environment! Like in Pikmin 3, actually.
Is there anything you really want people to know about Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash! or Chibi-Robo in general that they may have missed?
RT: Well, first of all, I would really love for people to give the game a try and become familiar with the character of Chibi-Robo. In a way this is sort of re-launching the character. Tanabe has always been working closely with Miyamoto, and in that way, we do have a very solid idea on how side scrolling games should be as a Nintendo franchise. That’s especially true in Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash! where we introduce actions that players haven’t really experienced yet in a side scrolling game, but with the promise that the foundations for have really been formed by experienced game creators. I hope everyone looks forward to that.
KT: (jokingly butting in, Tanabe says) I’d love for you guys to purchase the game and let us move the series forward!