Review - "Chibi Robo!: Zip Lash"

Chibi Robo's had a bit of a hard time fitting into the gaming world, despite being as cute as a button. His first game was printed in small quantities and sold pretty badly, thus making it a bit of a collector's item these days. There was a Wal-Mart-exclusive DS follow-up about parks, and a 3DS AR game on top of that, but neither really struck the right chord with the general populace. The open-world housecleaning simulators have fared better in Japan, but not by much.

And now we're here. A 3DS side-scrolling action platformer, which is very telling of Nintendo's desperation to make the little guy relevant in some way, shape, or form. Thing is, despite seeming to be a very bog-standard platforming game on the surface, skip ltd. managed to throw in a heaping helping of its signature quirkiness... for better or worse.
 
Chibi-Robo!: Zip Lash
Developer: skip ltd.
Publisher: Nintendo
Available On: Nintendo 3DS
Rated: E
MSRP: $29.99 ($39.99)

Chibi-Robo!: Zip Lash finds the titular robot in outer space, polishing a spaceship with a toothbrush, when aliens suddenly invade Earth and start messing things up. Luckily, they're around the same size as the little duder, so he can toe-to-toe with them pretty easily. Plus, he's got a sick new power in the form of his plug, which can be grown to long lengths and used as a whip, grappling hook, and general projectile. Along with the help of a talking TV buddy, he'll go through six different worlds, trying to stop the aliens from doing alien stuff. Oh, and from stealing all the world's snacks. That's pretty rude, you know.

As you've probably guessed, Zip-Lash's focus isn't really on the plot, and that's totally fine. You're a little robot and you've got a job to do. Really, what more do you need to know? If that hasn't sold you on the premise, then nothing else here is likely to sway you.

As with most platformers, the real draw here is the gameplay, and from a mechanical standpoint, Zip Lash is quite an impressive little romp. Aside from the usual "jump on a thing, jump over a thing, don't fall don't a pit to your death" shenanigans, there are novel tweaks that come in the form of Chibi Robo's plug. The mechanics thrown in here can only really be described as a weird mix between Bionic Commando and Castlevania, with their own little flourishes added in for good measure.

Players will find themselves whipping the plug in classic Belmontesque fashion to knock enemies out of their way and to topple bosses, then using it to grapple up to ledges and swing across chasms. Then, once the cord is grown a bit, it can be thrown and ricocheted off of walls, usually to hit switches, solve puzzles or grab hidden items. It's a neat little trick that I haven't really seen in a game before. All things considered, all the mechanics work how they should and how one would want them to, which leads to one of the smoother Nintendo platformer outings in recent memory, not to mention one of the most original.

If only, then, the package as a whole was a bit more conducive to enjoying the mechanics, as opposed to bogging players down with pointless gimmicks that only seem to serve the purpose of extending gameplay length. As mentioned above, there are six worlds, and within them, six levels plus a boss. But instead of just, you know, actually going to those levels, players are forced to spin a wheel determining how many spaces they will go on a circular map, which determines what level they'll go to.

"But wait," you say, "what happens if I land on a level I've already gone through?" And therein lies Zip Lash's most glaringly obnoxious flaw: you have to play through the same level again. There's no skip option. There's no way to pass over. And you only get a limited number of spins on the wheel. As the game progresses, the levels get a bit longer and more involved, so the prospect of being forced to go through them again is more than a bit annoying.

While, yes, it's totally possible to use in-game currency to "buy" the numbers you need, then manually put them on the wheel, the fact that it's even a mechanic in the first place is a bit confusing. What exactly is the purpose? I get wanting players to go back through levels again and finding more stuff, because there are definitely reasons to do that in Zip Lash. But gently forcing us? That almost makes me not want to, if only out of spite.

Other aspects are confusingly delivered as well. For example, this game's been touting amiibo integration, and even comes bundled with one, which is really cute and probably my favorite yet. But as far as actual utilization, it's fairly weak. Once a day, you can tap a Chibi-Robo amiibo to your 3DS (or NFC reader,) and then presto, you've got access to Super Chibi-Robo... for one level. Then you have to wait to the next day, a la Kirby and the Rainbow Curse. Other amiibo can be used, but only to get extra coins for a capsule machine, which lets you unlock in-game toys. Which, yeah, is better than nothing, but in the wake of the great integration found in, say, Super Mario Maker, it just feels a bit unsubstantial and pithy.

While, yes, the overall structure that houses the gameplay is a bit faulty, the trimmings are least pretty nice. That is to say, the visuals and music are both pretty stellar. Most impressive to me is the expressiveness present in the animations and worlds. Everything is vibrant and colorful, friends and foes alike have fluid, bouncy motion, and the backgrounds have a very distinct, sort-of blocky look to them. When combined with the steady framerate, the visuals are a winner. The music is also great, all of it perky, happy, and fitting the mood of wherever the player is and whatever they happen to be doing.

Despite my initial impressions of this being an insubstantial, derivative platformer, Chibi-Robo!: Zip Lash is, all told, a pretty good time, and one of the more interesting titles to come out of the Big N in a while. It takes a lot of invigorating risks, and while there are some annoying setbacks that make it hard to recommend to a more casual audience, platforming enthusiasts and lovers of quirky, fun, different things will find a great deal to love here.






Pros:
- Original, novel gameplay.
- Big levels with lots to do.
- A quirky, Katamari-esque vibe.
- Nice visuals and audio.
- Fills that Bionic Commando void a bit.

Cons:
- Baffling progression system.
- A bit oblique for a casual audience.
- Lackluster amiibo integration
- A collectathon at heart, which some may not like.


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