The original Chibi-Robo! featured a recurring trope from Japanese comedy—a washpan falling on the lead character’s head for no particular reason. While this superfluous little gag has disappeared from the series’ later entries, it would’ve been a perfect fit for Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash, a new entry that sees the developers throwing everything but the kitchen sink at our tiny robot friend. Were this done with a sense of ambition, an attempt to get as much mileage out of the tiny swashbuckling robot as possible, that cavalier design sense might have been admirable. Instead, it’s a game that feels like it never decides what it wants to be and suffers for that indecision.
This fourth Chibi-Robo adventure (fifth in Japan) is the greatest departure in form for the series. Past games primarily focused on exploring messy domestic environments from the perspective of a six-inch-tall robot, like Honey, I Shrunk The Kids with more household cleaning. Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash, though, is a more traditional platformer with linear obstacle courses rather than sprawling backyards and mountainous living rooms. While past games opened with domestic concerns and gradually revealed alien menaces to foil, Zip Lash starts off with an extraterrestrial invasion and never introduces any human element. As a result, the game focuses more on action than heart, which would be fine for a new series, but taking this approach with the established Chibi-Robo is akin to making a Zelda game that fixates on playing music over talking to villagers and exploring dungeons. Chibi fights aliens much in the way Link always seems to play music, but that’s never really been the central theme.
The real problem with Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash is that it tries to do too many things without ever nailing any one of them. Most of the game plays out as a sort of all-ages spin on Bionic Commando—a grappling-hook-centric side-scroller that’s all whipping and swinging but without any Nazis. Chibi’s power cord can be swung, thrown, and bounced off walls to reach faraway objects and grappling points. This is often used for rudimentary problem-solving—crossing pits of quicksand or bouncing between several switches to open a door—though hardly ever in a manner that surprises. The plug-as-grappling-hook has surprisingly few gimmicks, and they’re all exhausted fairly early in the game. Most of the adventure is an exercise in repeating the same rope tricks with greater frequency rather than creating more elaborate puzzles or obstacles to overcome.
As a break from the monotony, at least one level per world is dedicated to vehicular challenges. Strapping Chibi-Robo to a skateboard, water skis, balloons, or a submarine seems like it would add excitement and variety, but all it does is remove what little thrill the game gets out of its running and jumping, as each vehicle controls sluggishly at best. Worse yet, players transition from one level to the next by spinning a roulette wheel to see how many spaces on the board game-like map they will move. This would be fine if the goal were simply to get to the end of the map like in most board games, but each world’s boss will not appear until players have completed all six levels on the map. If you spin any value greater than one, it guarantees that’s you’ll have to go back around the map and likely repeat levels before moving on to the climactic fight.
This awkward and needless design decision is at least partially excused by the fact that the levels are meant to be revisited. Each stage features a number of collectibles to hunt down, and most include a special challenge that only appears on repeat playthroughs. Most of them drag on too long for their own good, though, and the general lack of unexpected twists makes it unenticing to replay any stages too soon. Chibi doesn’t acquire new skills that make exploring easier, like in Metroid or Castlevania. Rather, certain elements simply don’t appear the first time through. After visiting later worlds, even the most tedious of early stages benefits from fresh eyes, but being forced to revisit them so soon—merely because you have yet to unlock the boss—becomes a chore.
Zip Lash feels most like past Chibi games when it actively disrupts the action to force moments of whimsy. Collecting real-life snack foods like PEZ, Mentos, and Pocky helps to reestablish the robot’s context in the environment, both by demonstrating the sense of scale (Chibi’s head is roughly as wide as a Tootsie Roll Midgee) and reminding players that the action is set on Earth and not just a series of ambiguously themed platformer areas. This also sets up colorful, animated toys to make requests of Chibi—another series staple—soliloquizing on the virtues of each snack in manners that are simultaneously obstructive and charming.
Zip Lash is not a bad game but perhaps just an underdeveloped one. Every idea is the kernel of a concept that is potentially great but never fully realized. By attempting to steer the quirky and unconventional Chibi-Robo! series in a more formulaic direction, Nintendo has stripped away nearly all the previous games’ charm and wonder. What could have been the start of something new is more likely the end of a series that has been well-regarded but always existed under the radar. Chibi-Robo may no longer be getting hit with washpans every few minutes, but with Zip Lash, it seems the little guy might be all washed up.