Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash
Poor Chibi-Robo. The little mechanical helper has scooted from 3D platformer to garden sim to augmented reality, with the only consistent part of his life being his inability to fully get a handle on career stability. Whether Chibi-Robo’s scattershot approach or tiny mechanical claws are to blame, one thing’s certain: This hero needs a jolt of something. With Zip Lash, developer Skip Ltd. is yet again trying something different. Now Chibi-Robo is using his extension cord to whirl through 2.5D worlds, and hopefully plug into what audiences are looking for. I’m not entirely convinced he’s found solid footing here, but I’m glad to see the little guy again.
Chibi-Robo’s cord is a versatile little apparatus, allowing him to pick up distant objects or latch onto special panels, grappling-hook style. Press a button, and he whips it forward or above him at a 45-degree angle. Hold down another button, and he uses a charged line – the titular Zip Lash – which can be aimed more precisely. Chibi may only be a few inches tall, but collecting balls that are scattered throughout the levels adds more slack to his line. Max it out, and you have a line that bounces off walls, careening down tunnels in a nifty zig-zag effect, smashing enemies and sucking up any collectibles that cross its winding path. There’s a nice balance between the two moves, and dialing in the perfect bank shot can be tense, particularly in auto-scrolling sections or when an unstoppable enemy is bearing down on you.
On a surface level, it’s reminiscent of Capcom’s old game Bionic Commando, though Chibi is otherwise unarmed and he’s able to jump. Even without a machine gun, enemies don’t stand much of a chance when they’re knocked in their mechanical noggins with Chibi’s plug. They’re part of an alien invasion force, though I don’t think humanity has much to worry about considering their size and their habit of moving in simple, predictable patterns.
Chibi is fun to control, and I had a great time using his plug attack. Unfortunately, he’s the star of a fairly uninspired show. The levels are either cleanly designed or simply plain, depending on how charitably you want to describe them. One of the most compelling things about the character is his height, and how it affects his perspective on the world; when you’re that small, getting onto a couch is a challenge. That’s something that’s not ever explored in any interesting way, which is a waste. Aside from seeing how big he is next to a sardine tin or soda can, I never got a sense of his role in the world or how he stacks up. Levels are so abstracted that scale isn’t communicated effectively.
Aside from one notable exception, levels are also quite linear. Chibi needs to collect a variety of objects along his journey, so exploration is clearly part of the game. Unfortunately, secrets are so obviously telegraphed that they don’t qualify as being secret. If you see a gap in the ceiling, I can say with certainty that you will find something if you fire your Zip Lash up. Walk to the left of your starting position, and you will find something in about 75 percent of the stages. The only reason I wasn’t able to find everything the first run through was because one variety of collectible only appears after a level is completed.
Chibi doesn’t just grab things to make his cord longer. He can find Robo-Tots, which return from Photo Finder. These tiny guys are super cute, but they can be hard to grab, thanks to their habit of running away. Chibi can also pick up trash, which is used in his home base’s generator and converted into watts to keep Chibi’s batteries topped off. You can also find a host of real-world snacks, including Tootsie Pops, Pocky, and Mentos. Chibi can give these to special friends who are seeking specific foods, and players get what amounts to a sales pitch as a reward. It’s kind of funny and weird, and it’s interesting to learn about snacks from around the world if you’re into that sort of thing.
Players are strong armed into replaying levels thanks to one of the weirdest level-select systems I can recall. Each of the six worlds is split into six stages, which are arranged in a loop. Complete a stage, and you get to spin a spinner, which tells you how many spaces you need to move on the loop. If things go well, you spin a one and proceed to the next stage. Mess up, and you have to replay stages until the numbers align in your favor. Since the stages are designed to be played in a fairly methodical style, you can’t zip through a stage – even a familiar one – in 30 seconds. You can use in-game currency to “buy” the numbers you want on the spinner, which only reinforced my thought that it’s not a super-great idea.
And woe to those who are forced to replay the stages that are based on Chibi’s vehicles. He has access to a variety of rides, including a little skateboard, submarine, balloon thing, waterski, and more. They’re uniformly sluggish and boring, and they drag on for far too long. The submarine is the absolute worst of the worst, which is impressive because the balloon is so dreadful. Both feature exaggerated momentum and inputs that don’t seem to register until you’re careening toward a mine or sharp-beaked bird. I wanted to pull the plug on the game during several of these frustrating sections, but I thought I’d leave that up to Mr. Robo.
There are a lot of aggravating things about the game, but it’s also a lot of fun at times. The boss fights are cleverly designed and implemented, and they make great use of the hardware’s 3D effects. Even though Chibi-Robo doesn’t gain any permanent new combat abilities during his world tour, the big battles manage to provide novel challenges.
I’ve championed the character since I was introduced to the first Chibi-Robo game on GameCube. I think his helpful nature and simple design are appealing, and it’s been disappointing to see him flounder from release to release. Zip Lash isn’t the game that’s ultimately going to convert people into being Chibi-Robo fans; it’s a competent platformer, but it sticks too close to the genre manual and is missing a much-needed spark.
I’m not entirely convinced he’s found solid footing here, but I’m glad to see the little guy again.