Among the legions of gamers bent on consuming all of the cookie-cutter FPS escapades of Sgt. Brock Hardpunch and Co., there exists a small, fiercely loyal faction devoted to those relatively unhyped games—a PaRappa the Rapper, say, or Katamari Damacy—that basically outstrange all other competition. Chibi-Robo, an almost overpoweringly adorable game that just gets weirder and weirder with each button-press, may very well claim the freako throne, with its cartoony surface camouflaging a severely disturbed underneath. Exposed kids will likely sail through with delight, and without incident. Unprepared adults, on the other hand, might be forced to write only in crayon for a few days afterward.
Utilizing a clean-edged graphic scheme and vocal gibberish that recall The Sims, the scenario follows a three-inch-tall helper robot enlisted to clean the house of a severely slobbish family. Through tasks such as disposing of cookie crumbs in the wastebasket and scrubbing out carpet stains with a borrowed toothbrush, "happy points" are earned, which allow you to go longer without needing a battery recharge. The sight of the pocket-rocket-sized protagonist shimmying up lamp cords, exhaustedly scaling bottle caps, or tripping over his own attached power cord is so addictively twee, and the various acts of vicarious cleaning so strangely satisfying (each action is accompanied by a different musical note), that it likely attains cult status on mechanics alone.
What launch the game into the loony stratosphere, however, are the interactions with the other members of the household, who sport dysfunctions that recall David Lynch at his most velvety. The father, for starters, is a fat load who plays with action figures, the mother spends all day and night trying vainly to balance the checkbook, and the preteen daughter refuses to wear anything but a frog costume. Even the Teddy Bear turns out to be addicted to flower nectar, to the point of mauling the other cowering toys while going through manic withdrawal.
The unsettling factor is only compounded by the nature of the in-game tasks, which often seem to make an already grim situation even worse. One of the early missions, for example, has you narc on the father by uncovering a hidden receipt, which results in the mother locking herself in the bedroom, dad sleeping on the couch, and the daughter crying in the hallway. During all of this, the happy music never ceases.
I'm at a loss to go into further detail about this sincerely effed-up, somehow-Nintendo-patented combo platter of megacutesy and unsavory, mostly because I want to get back to playing it in order to see what the hell happens next. Case in point: When finally presented with a rare variety of nectar, the aforementioned jonesing Teddy Bear is so overcome with joy that he leaves a wet spot on the carpet. A spot, not incidentally, which you are then given happy points to clean up.