Image: Nintendo

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Even the most enthusiastic Nintendo fan could be forgiven for overlooking Chibi-Robo. Not just because he’s a mere four inches tall, but because his GameCube exclusive debut arrived so late in the west that most of the console’s owners had either moved on or were saving up for a Wii. With a short print run and barely any marketing campaign to speak of, its release went by almost unnoticed. But those who did play Chibi-Robo remember it fondly as one of Nintendo’s great hidden treasures – though it almost wasn’t a Nintendo release at all…

When Chibi-Robo was first in development at Skip Ltd, it was originally to be published by Bandai. In fact, if you own a Chibi-Robo amiibo, have a look under the base and you’ll see a Bandai-Namco copyright that remains in place to this day. Back then, the game was a point-and-click adventure, quite different to the action-adventure it later became – but one thing that’s remained constant was the design of the character itself; a tiny robot with a flat head, cute beady eyes and, most notably, a power cord trailing behind him like a tail.

In an exclusive interview with Time Extension, Chibi-Robo director Kenichi Nishi tells us how Chibi-Robo came to be. "Keita Eto, who was working with me at Skip at the time, came up with the character," he says. "I think the image was that of a 10cm tall, powerless, but hard-working robot. I thought the power cord was a distinctive feature."

All of the characters in Chibi-Robo have their own daily routines, which change in response to your actions. — Image: Nintendo

"Chibi-Robo is an electricity-consuming robot," Nishi continues. "So the theme of the game was the dilemma of acting for the happiness of others while also consuming electricity to do so. We were thinking of an adventure game, with various episodes, of a family with a robot that makes the family happy while consuming electricity."

We had our disagreements along the way, but we thoroughly discussed the game while respecting each other, and I remember it as a fun experience

An early version of the game was announced by Bandai in 2003 and can be seen in action here. In this unreleased version, Chibi-Robo lived with his inventor rather than a family and was tasked with protecting their home from a pair of burglars. It received conservatively positive previews at the time but was shelved in 2004, as Bandai mysteriously informed IGN that the game had been put on “indefinite hold.” That is until Shigeru Miyamoto took a liking to it.

Nishi won’t be drawn on exactly how or why the Chibi-Robo project moved from Bandai to Nintendo, but he does say that it was Miyamoto who was initially interested in the game, specifically because of the character design. At Nintendo’s request, Nishi was appointed director of the development team and was assigned to Kensuke Tanabe, a well-known producer, responsible for managing Nintendo’s third-party collaborations. "We worked on the development with Mr. Tanabe," says Nishi. "We were advised to emphasise that the game should have a tactile feel and simple rules that anyone can play. We had our disagreements along the way, but we thoroughly discussed the game while respecting each other, and I remember it as a fun experience."

Finding a way to connect and communicate with Jenny is one of the game’s most emotionally rewarding quests — Image: Nintendo

In a 2006 interview with Cubed3, Tanabe explained that he felt the point-and-click control method created too much distance between the player and Chibi-Robo and that direct control suited the GameCube’s analogue stick much better; a challenge that inspired Nishi to take the game in the direction we know today. "I decided to redesign it as an action-adventure game."

We had several opportunities to have Mr. Miyamoto check the game... his most significant advice was that Chibi-Robo should be able to plug in and pull out his own power cord at power outlets in the wall

This transformed Chibi-Robo into a vast open-world adventure, albeit one in which you never set foot outside the house (or at least the garden). Our diminutive hero is so tiny that the modest family home he’s programmed to clean has the scale and sense of wondrous possibility you might otherwise expect from Hyrule field. From his four-inch high perspective, a couch appears mountainous, carpets stretch on forever and a little girl might as well be a giant.

To manage the pace of exploration, Nishi implemented a unique game mechanic, following Nintendo’s advice. "We had several opportunities to have Mr. Miyamoto check the game during the process," he tells us. "His most significant advice was that Chibi-Robo should be able to plug in and pull out his own power cord at power outlets in the wall." If players allowed Chibi’s battery to run dry, he would pass out and wake up at his base, setting back their progress significantly, but if they managed to find a power socket in time, then they could top up his battery and push on that little bit further.

To ascend new heights in Chibi-Robo, you might have to get creative — Image: Nintendo

Even if you’re lucky enough to reach a power socket, Chibi-Robo’s little battery will only get him so far, but you can expand his power limits by 'spreading the happiness'. Chibi-Robo isn’t just a cleaner, you see; he’s a robot with a heart of gold, and if he helps out the sentient toys around the house (or the Sanderson family who live there) then he’ll earn happy points that can be spent to increase battery capacity. Before you know it, he’ll be strong enough to ascend the stairs, climb up to the kitchen counter or even shimmy up the living room curtains to get an amazing view. This made the game feel large and expansive – not just on a horizontal plane but also on a vertical one. From the player’s perspective, ceilings seem miles high. Even working out how you might climb the leg of a dining room chair can present an adventurous challenge. All of this gives Chibi-Robo a sense of scale that few other GameCube games could compete with.

I had never made a 3D action game before, so I had to go through a lot of trial and error regarding the camera

This three-dimensional scope was fairly new to Skip, who had only previously developed Giftpia, an import-only GameCube adventure that’s depicted from a top-down perspective, similar to Animal Crossing. Even at his previous company, Lovedelic, Nishi had only worked on smaller-scale adventures with no action elements, such as the cult hit Moon: Remix RPG Adventure. As you might expect, this made Chibi-Robo’s development a technical challenge for the small, boutique developer. "I had never made a 3D action game before," says Nishi. "So I had to go through a lot of trial and error regarding the camera. It was difficult to create a spatial structure that would not create blind spots without rotating the camera. Hironori Ahiko, the main programmer, did a great job on the 3D and action parts, which was a big help."

The unique 3D world is one of the greatest strengths of Chibi-Robo, as is the character design, but many of the game’s biggest fans will tell you they fell in love with the game because of its story and wider cast. While the original prototype version saw Chibi-Robo protect the house of his inventor, Nishi changed the story for his version to make Chibi-Robo a mass-produced household robot, bought by the dad of the Sanderson family to help clean the house. “If I made it too much of an epic fantasy, the world view would be different from the characters of the little robot, so I made an ordinary family the core of the story.”

If you can hear this screenshot, Nishi says it’s all down to sound designer Hirofumi Taniguchi. “I simply suggested that we do something a little different and the result was an explosion of Taniguchi's sense of style” — Image: Nintendo

To really nail the family home feeling, Nishi also added a family dog named Tao. "I thought it would be unrealistic to have only human and robot characters, so I thought it would be better to have a dog as an intermediary between them," he explains. This adorable black and white pooch may be familiar to players of other games Nishi was involved in. He also appears in Moon: Remix RPG Adventure, Giftpia and Captain Rainbow, amongst others. Why? "Tao was modelled after a dog I used to own," says Nishi. "It felt natural to choose him whenever I needed to add a dog to a game."

Tao was modelled after a dog I used to own... it felt natural to choose him whenever I needed to add a dog to a game

The masterstroke of the Sanderson family is that Nishi opted not to make them a typical happy family but instead chose to depict them as a dysfunctional one, almost on the verge of collapse. At the start of the game, Mrs. Sanderson has grown so fed up with her husband, who spends too much of his time and money on gadgets and not enough on his responsibilities, that she’s banished him from the bedroom to the couch. Daughter Jenny, meanwhile, has grown so depressed by the family conflict that she’s become disassociated and severely introverted. When you first meet her, she refuses to speak and lives in her own fantasy world. Thankfully, as Chibi-Robo starts to help out around the house – cleaning up, solving problems and spreading happiness – his actions eventually lead to a positive emotional outcome as he repairs the family ties.

Though it’s a colourful, cartoonish game, published by the same company behind Super Mario, these underlying themes of a family in crisis make Chibi-Robo a more mature game than you might assume. "I wanted to depict that even a small, seemingly powerless robot can save his family and the world if he tries his best," explains Nishi. "This may be an unusual theme for a video game, but it's just that this is the kind of game we can only make."

For Nishi, the ecological theme – the dilemma of consuming electricity to improve the world – was also extremely important. "A few years after release, in 2011, Japan was hit by the Tōhoku Earthquake," he recalls. "The tsunami shut down nuclear power plants and caused an unprecedented energy crisis. I am proud of the fact that we were able to explore the theme of energy crisis years earlier with Chibi-Robo."

I am proud of the fact that we were able to explore the theme of energy crisis years earlier with Chibi-Robo

Chibi-Robo was initially released in Japan in 2005 and was the first of Nishi’s games to receive a worldwide release, hitting the US and Europe in 2006. Sadly, despite positive reviews, the game was not a big seller. The themes of the game would always have made it a cult hit at best, but the waning fortunes of the GameCube also held it back. Nevertheless, this modest release still made a bigger impact than any of Nishi’s previous releases and those who did play Chibi-Robo adored it. "The response from the press and players was great," Nishi recalls. "It was a game that had broader appeal than my previous games, so it was a refreshing change from the maniacal reaction I had been getting. Fans also responded well, especially women, and I felt as if I had become popular."

Although Chibi-Robo wasn’t a huge hit, someone at Nintendo clearly liked the little guy, as several sequels and spin-offs followed between 2006 and 2015. Unfortunately, most of the sequels, while good games in their own right, failed to satisfy fans of the original GameCube game, as they moved too far away from the core concept.

The final Chibi-Robo game, Zip Lash, was a commercial flop — Image: Nintendo

2007’s Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol did away with exploration almost entirely and replaced it with a gardening sim. Chibi-Robo: Photo Finder was a novel but shallow AR game that challenged players to find and photograph real-world objects using their Nintendo 3DS camera. While the final game to date, Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash, a platform game that used Chibi’s power cord like a whip to attack and swing with, failed to resonate with either fans or newcomers. Only one sequel, Nintendo DS’s Welcome Home, Chibi-Robo, attempted to recreate the gameplay of the original. Unfortunately, it was never officially released outside of Japan, although a fan translation thankfully followed years later. "I’ve only played a few of the sequels," says Nishi, "but I thought they all showed the personality of their directors."

I don't know if Skip will release another Chibi-Robo, but I would like to make a sequel if the timing is right, because he is a fascinating character

Will there ever be another Chibi-Robo game again, one that can scale the same heights as the original? At this stage, it’s doubtful. After Zip-Lash, Skip went very quiet, and when their corporate website disappeared in 2020, many feared that they had closed their doors for good – something that has since been privately confirmed to Time Extension by an anonymous source.

When asked what happened to Skip, Nishi doesn’t say much, but his answer sadly tells us all we need to know. "Skip is a company that I founded, but I left halfway through to work on a separate project, so I don't know what happened to it. Currently, most of the staff have moved on to other companies, and some of them are now working with me on my projects. We didn't have any troubles or quarrels, and we still see each other once in a while and get along well, but I think they chose not to work together at the same company."

"I don't know if Skip will release another Chibi-Robo," he adds, "but I would like to make a sequel if the timing is right, because he is a fascinating character."

Ashley Day is a mostly ex-games journalist who edited the Retro section of gamesTM magazine from 2006 to 2012. These days he works in the games industry and occasionally writes about the old games he’s been playing on his personal blog, Games From The Black Hole.