Spread the happiness or die.
Chibi-Robo is a tiny robot that does your chores for you, and he's become the latest fad. A particular Chibi-Robo was given to a particular eight year old girl in the Sanderson household on her birthday. The Sanderson family did not know how far-reaching the implications of his presence would be, and neither does any gamer out there right now. You can expect anything you want from Chibi-Robo, but it will invariably deliver something completely different.
But of course, this is a good thing! The game will catch you off your guard the moment you pop it in. Though it has a child's game look and feel, it stays just this side of shallow and is long enough to keep any aged gamer satisfied. The main purpose of the game is to make the Sandersons happy. Good deeds and housekeeping are rewarded with happy points, which act as a sort of currency. Gaining more happy points than any other Chibi-Robo on the planet will earn our hero status as Super Chibi-Robo. It's clear from the outset that his work won't be easy: Mr. Sanderson is unemployed, his wife wants to divorce him, and his daughter believes she is a frog. Being only four inches tall doesn't help either, but Chibi is resilient and resourceful.
Chibi gains happy points by scrubbing the stains on the Sanderson's floors, picking up their trash, and giving them gifts or things that they've lost. These activities never go away and make up roughly half of the gameplay. There are also more complex objectives that form the brunt of the story and involve interactions between the various characters in the house, the majority of whom are living toys. A lot of these objectives are simple minigames that have a surprising amount of difficulty, though often they entail progressing to a tough-to-reach area, finding a lost item, and giving the item to someone.
Chibi is controlled by an odd mix of Zelda and Mario play styles. Like Link, Chibi cannot jump but will hop on top of things when pushed against them. He will equip items from a menu and use them when necessary. Yet the game often has more action platforming a la Mario; due to Chibi's height, exploration is predominantly vertical. Chibi also has a battery that slowly ticks down as time passes and is used up much faster by performing any action, including walking. You can recharge at any outlet, but most rooms have only one or two. This does not so much present strategy as prevent you from venturing too far into the house until you gain larger batteries. By the last half of the game you won't need to worry about it much at all, giving you some breathing room for exploring.
Exploring is one of the thrills of Chibi-Robo – each room is slowly unlocked, Metroid style, by gaining new abilities. The rooms are all quite large, with secrets up to the ceiling. Only with inventive use of your tools will you get to these heights. Along the way there will be more stains to clean, trash to pick up, and a few items that will make the Sandersons and their toys happy. Though exploring is great, interacting with and helping the characters in Chibi-Robo is much of the game's fun. The dialogue is incredibly funny, and the situations presented are truly bizarre. Everyone's favorite character will be Space Hunter Drake Redcrest, a justice-obsessed toy who informs you that the first rule of being a Space Hunter is to greet everyone by yelling. Also memorable is the army of toy eggs at war with the family dog, the nectar-addicted teddy bear who promises to go straight after he gets one last fix, and the aliens in the backyard who greet you by saying, “Hi. We're aliens." At first it seems these humorous subquests are Chibi-Robo's only plot, but they slowly and surprisingly build to one main plot that is actually quite touching. By the end the game's family feels like your family, and that is an achievement.
Unfortunately, the balance of the game is just a little off. Halfway through the game you'll have unlocked every room in the house (which does not, oddly, include a bathroom). This dramatically alters the incentive to gain new abilities and happy points. Then, in the final third of the game, the plot-oriented objectives become more difficult, so you'll end up doing more cleaning than exploring, just to keep those happy points coming. I spent a few game days accomplishing nothing at all, and that was frustrating. Since this last third of the game is quite a bit longer than it should be, the excellent ending chapters come too late to redeem the faults. Some gamers might not make it past this portion. This is an unfortunate downside to an excellent game, one that could have been fixed by more rooms and objectives or a complete revamping of how the game plays in the last half (cleaning does get a little old).
Otherwise, I most heartily recommend Chibi-Robo to Nintendo gamers, meaning if you bought a GameCube just for Resident Evil 4, don't bother. On the other hand, those stalwart defenders of games like Pikmin, Nintendogs, and Animal Crossing need look no further for their next fix. Everyone else is encouraged to rent, particularly since these characters will soon become legendary, and you wouldn't want to be left out.