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Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash Interview with Risa Tabata and Kensuke Tanabe

by Jonathan Metts and Neal Ronaghan - June 29, 2015, 8:44 am EDT
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We talk Chibi-Robo's origins, hash out the Chibi-Robo timeline, and brainstorm future Amiibo in this E3 2015 interview.

At E3 2015, we had the good fortune to sit down with Nintendo Producers Risa Tabata and Kensuke Tanabe to talk about Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash. Tabata has been at Nintendo since 2001, working as a producer on games including Donkey Kong Country Returns and Tropical Freeze, Captain Rainbow, and Game & Wario. Tanabe has been at Nintendo since the 1980s with his first project being Super Mario Bros. 2 USA. Since the early 2000s, Tanabe has been a producer on a variety of Nintendo games, primarily with Retro Studios and Next Level Games, as the head of SPD No. 3 group.

Nintendo World Report )NWR): Chibi-Robo has been in several different kinds of games over the years, and I think he's not known as an action star. What gave you the idea to put him in a 2D action game for the first time?

Risa Tabata (RT): When we started first thinking about this game, we were in discussion with the development company Skip, and they had this suggestion to have Chibi-Robo to, getting his cord and moving it over his head. And that was sort of our hint to focus on the action types of things - by using this motion we could come up with various ideas.

So for the previous Chibi-Robo games, we had more of the adventure aspect. And for those who are really big fans of Chibi-Robo, it was great. People loved it, but we couldn't quite say that it was widely known by a lot of people. So we wanted to branch out and explore more things.

Kensuke Tanabe (KT):: Especially in the US market, it would be a great place to expand that fanbase.

NWR: He's such a great character, I'm thinking back to the first Chibi-Robo game on GameCube, the theme of the game I think was cleaning and also taking care of the environment and making people happy, and helping a family solve their problems and come closer together.

RT: You know the game really well.

NWR: How are these ideas being used in the new game, and how is [Chibi-Robo’s] character being made real in this new kind of game?

RT: Not so much about carrying over the elements that we had before, we tried to look for a different perspective to start working on this game.

So as you pointed out, Chibi-Robo has this mission to be a helpful little robot and help people out. Before, while he was focused on the family, helping around the house and things. This time, it's on the larger scale. Basically he'll be helping people all over the world.

KT: Keep in mind he's a tiny robot that's like 10cm high. To give you a little more detail, there'll be some aliens that will come to the Earth and try to steal our resources.

First off, Chibi-Robo... everything starts in space. Chibi-Robo by accident finds these aliens heading on their way to Earth, and he thinks I've got to try to stop them. That's how things start, and that's how the story involves Chibi-Robo going around to different places on the Earth, just travelling all around. If you have a chance to have hands-on experience on the show floor, you'll be able to see that part I'm talking about.

RT: He's still sort of a cleaner, he helps around by picking up garbage around the courses too.

NWR: In the demo, there was a lot of product placement like Utz potato chips, and I think I might've seen Mentos as well. Are there different brands in Japan, and also what is the point of having this product placement or brand placement inside the game?

RT: As you pointed out, there are these great varieties of snacks in this game. You will also see Japanese snacks in the US version as well, so it's sort of a good mix.

Chibi-Robo is so tiny, we were trying to think of ways to express that, to give you a point of reference to show you how small he is in real life. Since this time, there's no people around, it's something we can give you to compare.

The first thing we thought of was placing things that you see in our real world so you're used to seeing those things, and by using that as a starting point of reference.

The second thing was we wanted to add more to the list of things you can collect in the stages, and so for that we felt it was a good idea to have these real life objects that are actually in the game for you to check out.

So because the game itself takes place around the world in various place, we thought coming up with different monuments that you see around the world, such as the Statue of Liberty or the pyramids, but that would be way too big to use as a reference for a tiny little robot. So that didn't work too well.

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.

NWR: Now I really regret, we were kind of joking this morning about going to buy a bag of Utz chips to bring and I regret not doing it.

KT: So one challenge was to get many companies to agree to our idea to present these snacks in game. So for the US version, Nintendo of America and Nintendo of Europe were the two groups in charge of handling that stuff here, but in Japan she was the sole contributor to this, going around the entire country and over...

RT: 30...

KT: ...speaking with 30 different companies or more than that. I'm not sure if you're aware, but around this time in Japan it's super hot and humid, and so she wearing her business attire, walking around the whole country, travelling to present this idea to all these people. I myself was sitting in the office, just chilling, thinking ‘She's going through such a hard labor.’ *laughs*

NWR: Please tell us everything about Toby the plane. *laughs* I love him already. I want my soft plush toy Toby (or Amiibo) I can give to my niece and nephew. They're very small.

KT: In Chibi-Robo, there are many different of these characters that'll show up. Here, you only saw Toby.

RT: With these characters, that are toys that are around us, they are being set in a way that when people aren't around these NPC characters move around. Toby's actually a toy that appears in this game as well. Maybe you want a plush, or maybe a tin can?

NWR: No, a soft toy.

RT: As an Amiibo?

NWR: Maybe. He's so cute, and I like how his mouth moves when he talks, and he dances... he's great.

RT: Skip, the development company is the one who comes up with a lot of good ideas for this, the setting behind the characteristic as a very energetic little boy. There are other characters that will appear, and we'd love to discuss them with you, but that's something you should experience through hands-on with the game.

NWR: Are they all cute?

KT: Not just simply cute, but rather unique as well.

Translator: To clarify, did you mean a toy? Not just in game?

NWR: I'm fantasizing, but yes, he looks like a toy because he's so small, he's bigger than Chibi-Robo but he's a very tiny plane, when I saw him he looks very soft in the game, and I love how his mouth moves and how he dances and he just has a great face and I thought ‘I wish I had a real one I could play with.’

KT: You know, when Chibi-Robo becomes very very popular here and there are many more fans like you, which is great, that's our best shot at getting more products out there. Thank you for your comment.

RT: I mentioned Skip as the development company, but there's also another one that's called Vanpool, and these two companies are working together to develop this game. Vanpool was known for creating the past two games based on Tingle...

NWR: And Dillon's Rolling Western. Have they helped out with the Paper Mario series?

KT: So for the Sticker Star game, it was developed by Intelligent Systems. From Vanpool, he knew the president [Taro Kudou], he asked for his help to get some support with that game.

We've done some business with Mr Kudou prior to that on the game for SNES, Mario RPG, so because of that we have that relationship built up already. We knew it was kind of a difficult thing to get someone from a different company to help you out on that project, but he was kind enough to help us out. Back to the main topic...

NWR: Talking about the developers, I noticed out on the show floor there was the little copyright for Skip and there was a copyright for Bandai Namco. What's their involvement with the game?

KT: Before the game for the GameCube came out, we were working with Skip and Bandai. That's what their name was, but the project was put on hold. Around that time, I don't quite remember what the situation was, but Mr Miyamoto had a chance to take a look at the character Chibi-Robo, and he really liked it and said ‘Why don't we make a game based on this character?’ And that's how that project started.

RT: Not for the game itself, but when the character Chibi-Robo was created, that's when Bandai was also involved.

NWR: Was that early Gamecube era?

KT: We don't recall if it was early GameCube, not exactly sure on the timeline but it was at the end of it.

NWR: Outside of the actual game development timeline, is there any kind of cohesive story from game to game with the Chibi-Robo games? If there is, where does Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash fall on that timeline? I think in the demo Toby mentions he knows Chibi-Robo from TV. It made me wonder, I felt there was maybe a part of the Chibi-Robo story I don't know because I didn't play the DS games, one of them didn't come to America and one was very hard to find here. Is Chibi-Robo famous in this game? Why do other people know who he is?

KT: There's not anything clear in terms of timeline. As you've probably heard, there's the Orange Corp, the company who creates these robots, and they distribute the robots to people. In that sense, timewise, it's in the near future.

If you see the art style for the GameCube, it's sort of the 1960s. So the second one mentioned Chibi-Robo Park Patrol,the Japanese is Okaidi: Chibi-Robo. Park Patrol was around the same time as the one for GameCube, the first one.

In the GameCube version, you see that there's girl Jenny who is 8 years old, later she'll appear as a single mother. So that's about 20 years or so down the road when she comes up again.

RT: This title we have an idea that it's a little after that, if you consider that there are snacks you see now in our time, that gives you an idea that it might be close to the present.

The reason why Toby is mentioning that he already knows Chibi-Robo is that it's widely known that Orange Corp is the one who creates the robot and distributes it to the world.

NWR: So they're advertising him.

RT: So that's why he acknowledges the existence of Chibi-Robo.

I know Nintendo has another character who's also very small and who encounters real life products and much larger creations, and I was wondering if Chibi-Robo might ever encounter Capt Olimar and the Pikmin since they're rougly the same size?

KT: To be honest, there's nothing set in stone for that. That's an interesting idea, and something I could speak to Mr Miyamoto about a collaboration.

NWR: Are there any ideas from games that you've produced, such as Metroid Prime or Donkey Kong Country or other projects you've worked on with Skip, that have made their way into Zip Lash?

KT: Taking the example of platform games in general that we've worked on, such as the Donkey Kong, there's a lot in terms of gameplay experience we've used as reference to bring it up, to look into the terrain and judge what can be easy or difficult to get through in one stage, to get a good balance and give the players a good feeling as they get through everything. In that aspect, there's some things we took into account to work on this game.

There's something we wanted to work on to differentiate Chibi-Robo from the other platform games.

RT: Other games, like Mario games, typical side scrolling games, there's the jumping aspect. We didn't want to have that as the main thing, so we focused on how to make good use of Chibi-Robo's plug and cord to get the actions involved around that.

Not only that, we also included the feature to have the cord be extendable, and have it bounce around the walls to get to higher places.

NWR: I like it a lot.

RT: Thank you.

So ever since we worked on titles like Donkey Kong, the typical side scrolling games, we wanted to play around with the camera a little bit more, to see if there was any surprise we could present to the player as they went through the stage.

In Donkey Kong Returns, you have the characters moving back in forth in two different platforms, in Tropical Freese, you have this camera following around Donkey Kong in interesting ways.

I'm not sure if you saw the Treehouse Live segment where we presented Chibi-Robo, but there's a portion where the camera would turn 90 degrees to show a completely different angle on where Chibi-Robo was going to go. It's one of the things we included in the game to sort of get that little surprise that you get as you get through the stage, looking at the stage from a different perspective.

(Nintendo’s PR rep let us known our time was up at this point)

NWR: Thank you. We're very happy to have Chibi-Robo back in America. I know you also worked on Capt Rainbow, right?

RT: Yes! You know Capt Rainbow!

NWR: I'd love to see it and Giftpia in English, I tried to play Captain Rainbow in Japanese...

Thanks to Nintendo of America and Golin for setting up the interview!

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