Welcome back to our third and final part Nintendo History 101: Chibi-Robo. In today’s lesson we are going to be looking at the final two Chibi-Robo games, both of which were on the Nintendo 3DS. We will also be discussing the exodus of skip Ltd., which is important in showing the change in direction of the Chibi-Robo franchise from 2009 to 2013. I will end the lesson by giving my own thoughts on the future of the franchise based on what we already know.
Before jumping into the fourth game, Chibi-Robo! Photo Finder, I have to make it clear that there is very little information on the game whatsoever, mainly due to the fact that it was both announced and launched at the same time in Japan on July 3rd 2013. This meant that there was no promotion leading up to the game’s release but we can still gather that development on the game was very rough. In order to see this, we have to look at the state of skip Ltd. as a whole between 2009 when Okaeri! Chibi-Robo! Happy Richie Ōsōji! launched and 2013, a whole 4 years later, when Chibi-Robo! Photo Finder first appeared.
With a skip and a hop…
Last time we left Chibi-Robo, his team had been disbanded. With the departure of the series director, Hiroshi Moriyama, Chibi-Robo was left directionless. This was the second director to leave skip and with him the original vision of the Chibi-Robo franchise, that had been around since the beginning, was gone. It was not just Chibi-Robo that was suffering at this time but skip as a whole was in a bad situation. Between the release of the original Chibi-Robo in 2006 and the release of the third Chibi-Robo in 2009, skip expanded its developers into new departments. The first of the departments, apply named Department 1, was led by a man called Keita Eto and was in charge of the ArtStyle games, from the original Game Boy Advance titles all the way up to the WiiWare versions of the game. The next department was Route24, later renamed Department 24 in 2008, and was the independent area of the company led by Kenichi Nishi after is attempted leave of the company in 2006. This department worked on the sequel to L.O.L. on the Nintendo DS in 2007, as well as made the Wii title Captain Rainbow. The final department is the Chibi-Robo team, originally called Department 816 while working on Park Patrol but then got a name change to Department 160 when developing Okaeri! Chibi-Robo! This team was led by Moriyama and overall, these 3 factions of skip Ltd. numbered roughly 30 people.
All of this is important when discussing the Chibi-Robo series, along with any skip franchise really, because it shows how the series drastically changed between Okaeri! Chibi-Robo! and Chibi-Robo! Photo Finder. In 2009, after the development of Okaeri! Chibi-Robo!, skip Ltd. saw an exodus of its staff with nearly 1/3rd of the entire working force leaving the company, including 3 of their 4 game directors. We have no concrete date for this exodus, nor do we have a reason. What we do know is that in 2008, skip was looking fairly healthy and that this must have lasted until August of 2009. However, come 2011 and all of the companies departments had been merged into 1, with the workforce being cut down to a smaller size, one that would increasingly get smaller up until the present day where skip is confirmed to have less than 20 people.
The exodus seems to have likely happened in 2009 for one reason: Okaeri! Chibi-Robo! was the last ‘big budget’ game that skp Ltd. would release on their own. The company’s next title, apart from the various ArtStyle ports to DSiWare and WiiWare that lasted until 2011, would be the WiiWare exclusive Snowpack Park in 2010 and then nothing until 2013’s Chibi-Robo! Photo Finder. skip were brought in as one of Nintendo’s developers for a mini-game in Wii Play Motion, along with various other smaller developers like Vanpool and Artzest, but the company went completely silent around this time making no attempts to communicate with fans, even go so far as to not update their website. Then, out of the blue, Chibi-Robo! Photo Finder was announced and launched that same day in Japan in 2013 and skip was finally confirmed to be back and make some headway into recovery.
We know very little on the development of Photo Finder but we can piece some things together from the facts. In order to begin development, Chibi-Robo needed a new director and so, Keita Eto was put in charge. Keita Eto was the only one of skips game directors left after the exodus and had previously joined skip Ltd. in 2006, working exclusively on the ArtStyle series. This meant that this was his first Chibi-Robo game which explains the shift in focus and themes between this game and the last. A bigger emphasis was placed on mini-games and a sole gimmick than in the previous titles. This lines up with all of Eto’s previous titles and so makes sense. It’s not known when the game began development but the big focus was taking advantage of the AR features exclusive to the Nintendo 3DS but skip seemingly had issues with adding this feature. Two outside studios were brought in to help with development of this game: Studio-Zan and Oink Games. Oink Games in particular was made up of previous skip employees and were likely brought in because of time issues. A similar situation happened with the next game in the series so it is very possible that it also happened here.
Chibi-Robo was first announced in Japan under the title Chibi-Robo! Photography but eventually gained the name Chibi-Robo! in Live-Action to represent the AR nature of the game. The game got no advertising, being the surprise announcement of the direct. Unlike previous games, Nintendo has not released any sales data for the game mainly because of its downloadable nature. Looking at reviews though, it becomes clear that the game was considered the worst game in the Chibi-Robo franchise up to this point having a much lower score on metacritic than previous games in the title. Nintendo went silent on the western front, but eventually it was decided that Chibi-Robo! Photo-Finder would launch in both the US on the 9th January 2014 and Europe on July 3rd 2014. This made it the first Chibi-Robo game for Europe since the original.
We can infer that the game sold poorly thanks to the direction it took and the words of the series producer, Kensuke Tanabe. To Nintendo, skip was failing to be successful and not even their biggest franchise was reaching the heights of popularity that it use to have. The only hope Chibi-Robo had now was to reinvent the franchise in a way that might appeal to a more wider market and so the next, and final title to date, in the Chibi-Robo franchise completely jumped genre and focus, from a unique 3D adventure game to the genre that Nintendo does best: a 2D platformer.
Zipping into the mainstream.
A big focus for this Chibi-Robo game was to try something new and so the team wanted to pull away from the traditional adventure genre, that the previous games had, and move into the action genre. They felt this type of genre would appeal to a more wider audience. A team at skip began coming up with ideas to present to Tanabe and a team of higher-ups at Nintendo. The big issue they had was trying to make Chibi-Robo stand out from other action games like Mario, Donkey Kong and Kirby. The team thought that the best way to do this would be to focus on what Chibi-Robo has that the others do not and that is his Chibi-plug. In previous games, the plug was only used to open doors and recharge your battery and objects found in the game. For such a prominent part of the little fella, it does not actually play a major role in the grand scheme of each game and so the team thought of focusing on that for the new one.
The idea the team presented involved holding the plug via the cord and swinging it above Chibi-Robo’s head. He could then throw it at enemies and use it like a whip to damage people. This focus on a weapon was different from Nintendo’s traditional platformers, where the majority have you defeat enemies by jumping on them, and so the idea was greenlit. Originally, Chibi-Robo could only perform his whip-lash attack which would destroy enemies and allow him to scale walls but the team felt this was not enough. This also confined the level design as everything interactable would need to be close enough for Chibi-Robo to hit. It was here when the developers decided to give Chibi-Robo items that he could use to increase the length of his whip, allowing everything to be more spaced out. From here the titular Zip-Lash attack was created, as was the plugs ability to bounce off of walls.
Work began straight away and the first thing was decide whether the game should be in 2D or 3D. A 2D platformer was eventually settled on because they believed that aiming in a 2D space would make the game much easier. A big part of making this game accessible was to make it easy and simple to control, and a 2D platformer was better for this. However, the team wanted to make the game challenging for fans as well and so elected to add in a lot of gimmicks and puzzles to each stage in order to stop the game from getting old. This is when Chibi-Robo’s ice and fire power-ups were thought up as well as the decision to bring back vehicles from previous games. In order to keep the game feeling like a Chibi-Robo title, the game also brought back key elements from previous titles like Chibi-Robo’s battery life meter being his health and collecting trash in order to get watts so that you can recharge.
Chibi-Robo games had never been as grand as some of Nintendo’s other mascots. They often dealt in small local problems that matched up with Chibi-Robo’s height; but this time the team wanted to make Chibi-Robo’s game feel more grand. This time a new Chibi-Robo takes center stage and tries to save the earth from an invading alien race called the Puramon – which is short for ‘plastic [purasuchikku] monsters’ in a similar way that Pokemon is short for ‘Pocket Monster’. The team felt that having a game where Chibi-Robo travelled the world would make for much more interesting levels than one set just inside a house or on a neighbourhood. However, setting the game across the world created one problem for the team and that was emphasizing Chibi-Robo’s size. To solve this problem, they introduced the snack collectibles.
For the first time human beings were not present in a Chibi-Robo game. They served no purpose this time and the constant changing location made it even more hard to include any. This meant that the team found it hard to express just how small Chibi-Robo was. In order to solve this problem they began by thinking of what real world items could be relatable to the player. At the same time, the team were also thinking of adding more collectibles into each level and wanted to use something that could be found in real life. They originally decided on using real-world monuments like the Statue of Liberty and the Pyramids but the sheer size of them made it impossible to reference accurately Chibi-Robo’s size. It was then that assistant Producers and Chief Director Risa Tabata thought of the idea of using real world snacks. In an interview with Nintendo World Report, she said:
“And that’s when I thought ‘What’s something that’s around us all the time, and makes people happy to see’ or to find in game? I personally also love snacks too, so I thought this is a great idea to implement in the game so that people will be really familiar with, and it’s also something accessible for you if you would like to see it in real life.”
The big challenge with incorporating real-world snacks into Chibi-Robo: Zip-Lash! was getting as many companies to agree to the idea. Another challenge was not just including Japanese snacks as the game would be localized across multiple regions. In the end it was decided to let each region deal with getting the rights to each snack and so, in summer of 2014, Tabata traveled to over 30 different Japanese snack companies to get their permission to use their branding.
One other way to show off Chibi-Robo’s size and increase the brand awareness was to make an amiibo out of him. The team found it difficult to persuade Nintendo’s higher-ups to make an amiibo of such a niche character but, after showing off a prototype, they eventually got permission and began brainstorming features. According to Tanabe, the team kept three key features in mind when coming up with ideas: what would be an exciting feature for an action game; how can the amiibo actually appear in-game; and finally letting the player create their own personal Chibi-Robo by writing data to it.
The team working on this new Chibi-Robo title was the same as in Photo-finder, with Eto returning as the game’s director. Oink games also returned to lend a helping hand although not zan-studios. With the way development was heading, it appears that early on it was decided that this game would be a physical release and not a download like the previous games. However, this is the first physical title that the majority of this team had worked on and it was doubtful that they could pull it off alone and so outside developers were brought in.
Like Photo-Finder, Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash had outside developers come in to lend a hand. Alongside the previously mentioned Oink Games was Witch Craft Inc. who made all of the wearable costumes for Chibi-Robo;E-Smile Co,. Ltd. who made the models for the snacks; and the most prominent developer to assist was Vanpool Inc. who co-developed the game in multiple departments including director. Alongside skip’s Eto was Jun Tsuda of Vanpool Inc. who co-directed the game. Vanpool had previously made the Tingle and Dillon series of games (explaining both characters getting an outfit in the game) and also helped Intelligent Systems when making Paper Mario: Sticker Star. According to Tanabe, they were brought onto to Paper Mario because that game was not going to meet its schedule. Fearing the same thing happening here, Tanabe asked the co-founder of Vanpool, Inc., Taro Kudou, for assistance. Kudou had previously worked at Square and Love-de-Lic with skip Ltd.’s founders and so agreed to come in and help.
Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash was announced at E3 2015 as a part of Nintendo’s Micro-Direct before the show. It was announced alongside the amiibo, with a western release confirmed the next day. Zip Lash launched in Japan on October 8th 2015 and a day later for the US. Europe and Australia eventually got the game and Amiibo a month later. Zip Lash had a lot of pressure on it too succeed so the question now is, did it?
A profitable future?
“To be honest, this might be the last chance for us,” – Kensuke Tanabe, Lead Producer of the Chibi-Robo series.
It was this quote that struck deep among Chibi-Robo fans just a few months ago. The Chibi-Robo franchise has never been a best-selling series and with the decline of skip Ltd. it began to look like a series that would never make it. That was a big motivation behind the jump in genre from previous Chibi-Robo titles to Zip Lash. Tanabe and the rest of the team needed Zip Lash to sell well, to finally give Chibi-Robo some moderate success and make the brand more well known. If Zip Lash failed it seemed very likely that it would take the franchise down with it. Unfortunately, this may end up being the case.
Chibi-Robo did very poorly in it’s 1st week of release in japan coming 9th place with 14,000 copies being sold. This is not even half of what every other Chibi-Robo game has sold in their first week (excluding The New Play Control Chibi-robo on Wii). Even with the Amiibo acting as incentive to buy the game, Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash is currently not succeeding. The game itself was hit with fairly mediocre reviews, currently having a 59 on metacritic which is still higher than Photo Finder’s 49 but much lower than all of the previous main Chibi-Robo games. Many critics called the game a ‘cliche’ doing very little to stand out from Nintendo’s other plethora of 2D platformers. It seemed to be agreed that Zip Lash had just lost the charm present in it’s previous games.
As of the 21st of November 2015, Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash has sold 0.11 million copies in total (Warning: This data comes from VGChartz and may not be 100% accurate). This is only 0.02 million copies less than Okaeri! Chibi-Robo! got in it’s lifetime however the game only sold in Japan and not world-wide like Zip Lash has. The game has only been out for 2 months at the time of writing this and so I cannot say with 100% accuracy if this game will succeed or not however, if it continues this trend then this may be the last Chibi-Robo game we ever see.
Concerning the future of Chibi-Robo, outside of its required number of sales, Tanabe has made a few statements to what direction the series might head towards. Tanabe has stated that he would like to take Chibi-Robo back his adventure roots on a HD machine. When asked about the possibility of Chibi-Robo on the Wii U he claimed that he would want the graphics to be beautiful, on par with something like Pikmin 3. Chibi-Robo himself would have to be very shiny. Speaking of Pikmin, in his interview with Nintendo World Report, Tanabe stated that he would like to collaborate with Shigeru Miyamoto on having a Pikmin/Chibi-Robo crossover. He believes that the similar height and sense of perspective in both game would make them a natural fit. With Miyamoto originally being one of the lead producers on the franchise, and responsible for Nintendo picking it up in the first place, it is quite possible he may be interested to some capacity, even if it is just a cameo in Pikmin 4.
To end our lessons on Chibi-Robo i am going to give my view on the little robots future but just keep in mind that this is all just my speculation. Despite Tanabe’s wishes, all signs point to Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash failing to be a commercial success. This makes the possibility of a new, major, adventure title in the series low. With that said, I do not think it is Chibi-Robo’s time just yet. The future of Chibi-Robo is unavoidably tied to the future of skip Ltd. If they fall through and close down then I would not expect anymore Chibi-Robo titles ever. I do believe skip Ltd. will move onto another franchise for now, maybe bring back the ArtStyle games or make a quirky new IP. Whatever they do it will be a download only title, I don’t think we will see anymore attempts at a major game until they can get back up onto their feet. What I am most curious about is how successful the Chibi-Robo amiibo was on his own. If brand awareness for the franchise is high, thanks to the amiibo, then I do not see Nintendo killing off the series just yet. I honestly think the mobile market is the place to look towards for Chibi-Robo’s next appearance. It will not be a significant game but something smaller, like a sequel to Photo Finder, would work very well on mobile phones and may increase brand awareness even more. That will be Nintendo’s aim right now and if Chibi-Robo still cannot find his legs then we can start giving our condolences.
With that, we come to an end of the first series of Nintendo History 101. I hope you enjoyed what you read and if you are still looking for more Chibi-Robo then do not worry. I have not finished exposing the little guy on Source Gaming just yet. Why not check back next week, for my smashing Christmas gift to you all. OK, class dismissed!
IGN: CHIBI-ROBO: PHOTO FINDER GETS WESTERN RELEASE DATE, December 18th 2013 [retrieved: 6/12/2015]
Japancommercials4U2: Chibi-Robo!: Photo Finder Playthrough Part 13 (FINALE), January 18th 2014 [retrieved: 6/12/2015]
Lovedelic Life: Chibi-Robo is quite literally in the house, July 3rd 2013 [retrieved: 6/12/2015]
Metacritic: Chibi-Robo! Photo Finder, January 9th 2014 [retrieved: 6/12/2015]
Metacritic: Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash, October 9th 2015 [retrieved: 6/12/2015
Nintendo World Report: Vanpool Teaming Up With Skip for Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash, June 26 2015 [retrieved: 6/12/2015]
Nintendo World Report: Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash Interview with Risa Tabata and Kensuke Tanabe, June 29th 2015 [retrieved 6/12/2015]
Siliconera: The Origins Of Nintendo’s Loveable Robot, Chibi-Robo, And How He Turned Into An Action Star, July 22nd 2015 [retrieved 6/12/2015]
skip. Ltd: Staff, May 18th 2008 [retrieved 6/12/2015 via WayBack Machine]
skip. Ltd: Staff, July 16th 2011 [retrieved 6/12/2015 via WayBack Machine]
skip. Ltd: About Us, October 8th 2015 [retrieved 6/12/2015]
The Verge: Nintendo’s cutest mascot has one last chance to be a star, September 30th 2015 [retrieved 6/12/2015]
US Gamer: Lashing Out: A Chibi-Robo Zip Lash Q&A, September 30th 2015 [retrieved 6/12/2015]
VGchartz: Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash, November 28th 2015 [retrieved 6/12/2015]
XCage Games: Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash – Final BOSS & Ending – Gameplay Walkthrough Part 22 – 3DS 60FPS, October 8th 2015 [retrieved 6/12/2015]
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