Chibi-Robo: Zen and the Art of No-Wax Floor Maintenance

First Published: 3/16/2006

I’m a dabbler. I dabble. Sometimes I dabble in cooking styles, sometimes in fashion, sometimes in major life changes. Occasionally something sticks, but more often than not, after I’m done with my dabbling, I return to the old tried and true. Like chicken-fried steak, black t-shirts and jobs that suck.

Several years ago, I dabbled in Eastern religions. I was working at a bookstore, and the Religion guy was on vacation. So, in the process of minding his part of the store, I decided to digest dust-jacket descriptions of just about every major world religion before zeroing in on the “Eastern” shelf. Of those books, I read mostly the pop-culture digest versions. Tao of Pooh was my favorite. That crazy bear is so wise, and so dumb. But the only book I ended up reading all the way through was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Part of Zen tells the story of two men traveling across the country on their motorcycles. One knows nothing about caring for his bike, instead relying on others to do the work for him, the other is a bit of an enthusiast. The tale is about (among other things) motorcycle maintenance and how the simple act of caring for the machine that makes you go can teach you a lot about what’s important and what’s bullsh*t. I’ll skip to the end for you – it’s all bullsh*t. Even the motorcycle part (hint: the motorcycle was a metaphor for himself).

I’ve since lost my copy of that book, but I metaphorically carry it with me wherever I go. It’s just one of those kinds of books. Like Johnathan Livingston Seagull or Things to Expect When You’re Expecting. The wisdom contained therein rings so true that you cannot help but absorb it into your worldview. Games of the same ilk are few and far between. We’ve talked about many of them on these very pages, in fact. The latest of these is Chibi-Robo.

If you’re like me, and you bought a Nintendo Gamecube to play a few Zelda and Mario games, were wowed by Resident Evil 4 and have since been using the device as a doorstop, it’s time to dig that controller out of the bottom of the closet. Check under your summer sandals. That’s where mine was.

Chibi-Robo, the adventure platformer developed by Skip and published by Nintendo, tells the story of the Sanderson family and their new toy/home helper robot, the three-inch tall Chibi-Robo. You play Chibi-Robo, and your goal is to assist the Sandersons by cleaning stains with a toothbrush, picking up trash and playing matchmaker to a host of animate toys. By fulfilling these tasks you earn money (called moolah) and “Happy Points,” both of which you can use to upgrade yourself and extend your capabilities. The Happy Points raise you in rank, which in turn earns you larger batteries. The larger your battery, the longer you can attempt to make people happy without having to plug yourself into the wall to recharge. Follow so far? By getting better at what you do, you become able to become better at what you do. How many other games reward your success by making it easier for you to accomplish your tasks? Not many, and the change is refreshing.

The Sanderson family is perhaps the most interesting assortment of giant humans ever put into a game. Mr. Sanderson is a large, loud, untidy man, who’s recently become unemployed. His wife struggles valiantly to not want to kill him, but seeing as her job is to raise his child and cook his meals, her patience soon wears thin. The child in question is also a piece of work. She wears a frog hat and refuses to say anything other than “Ribbit.” Add to all of this the fact that the Chibi-Robo is but the latest illicit off-budget expenditure that Mr. Sanderson has inflicted on the household finances, and you’ve got a pretty good pressure cooker of adventure gaming possibilities.

Mechanically, the game is all but flawless. The designers have seen fit to give the player complete camera control, allowing you to pan around almost any obstacle to find your path through the maze of ordinary household objects that are Chibi’s main antagonists in the game. Even when you can’t zoom around a thing, Chibi-Robo always appears as a rough outline of himself when he is behind a solid object, making it possible to control the robot accurately even when you can’t see him. That more designers haven’t adopted this amazing, yet subtle game mechanic is one of the most profoundly disturbing tragedies in gaming today. For even when faced with an ordinarily frustrating jumping exercise, the precise control and exceptional camera make planting Chibi in just the right spot a breeze.

Yet controls and a precise camera can only make a game good. Chibi-Robo is truly great. What sets it apart are the aforementioned story, excellent graphics and a soundscape that can only be described as “inspired.” Every move Chibi-Robo makes creates music. His footsteps, for example, sound like the tinkling of a xylophone, producing differently pitched notes on different surfaces. Every tool he uses produces a different sound. “What could make cleaning up after a dysfunctional family fun?” I wondered when I first saw the game. The fact that by merely scrubbing the floor I was able to almost compose my own piece of music is the answer I discovered. After merely a few hours, I was enthralled. Cleaning house had never been more entertaining. Or more relaxing

Playing Chibi-Robo is like working on the machine that makes you go. The music, the atmosphere, the simple, yet challenging nature of the quests and the superbly smooth gameplay make it less of a game and more of a meditative exercise. One that also happens to be wildly entertaining. The titular robot doesn’t speak or ostensibly feel, but through his unquestioning drive to excel only at making other people happy by performing useful tasks, one can (if one wishes), find within oneself a center of joy and understanding. I did. I played the game for almost 24 hours over the course of four days, and when I was done I felt like a completely healed human being. Then I cleaned my apartment top to bottom, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Official Site
Release Date: June 2005
Skip, Ltd.