Chibi-Robo Photo Finder review: Shutter bugged

The first Chibi-Robo on GameCube was an adventure game in miniature about a tiny, mute helper robot who sets out to improve the lives of every human, dog and animate toy within reach. It was pure magic.

Chibi-Robo Photo Finder is not that. It very closely resembles Chibi-Robo, but trades the human element and explorable house for, essentially, a mini-game collection that you undertake in service of a poorly executed gimmick. The magic is still there, but it's buried in a lot of busy work.

Chibi-Robo, the teensy titular robot, is hired by Mr. Curator (think Peter Molyneux through the lens of The Legend of Zelda: The Light of Courage) to collect "NostalJunk" for a new museum. Chibi-Robo does this by dipping back into the recent past – our present – and snapping pictures of things like toilet paper rolls, books, and pin badges.

But in order to undertake those photo hunts, Chibi-Robo needs to earn "Happy Points" to buy the "Silhouette Film" with which to take pictures. To earn those points he has to help people, either by cleaning up one of a few household environments or by taking part in mini-game missions.

Yeah, I know, mini-games, but these are actually the best part of Photo Finder. The appeal isn't entirely centered on the gameplay mechanics, which range from estimating a distance in inches to trapping monsters in holes, Lode Runner-style. The appeal lies in the characters you get to meet during these challenges – like Super Geotron X, the intense, dramatic toy robot on the other end of the tape measure. One mini-game has you selecting ingredients out of a refrigerator for Ketschburg and Mostardin, two ebullient French chefs/condiments who are as excited about one another's talent as they are about fine cuisine. "Oui, monsieur!" they exclaim in unison, leaning on one another, when you present them with a cut lemon.

I love those guys.

Between mini-games, you can pick a room to explore, finding spots to scrub, vacuum, or remove trash from, and you'll meet characters to work for later and discover hidden items. At first, Chibi-Robo doesn't have enough battery power to risk getting out of eyesight of his return teleporter, and thus you get to spend about a minute frantically accruing whatever Happy Points you can before returning and recharging or risking failure. Later, Chibi's battery is upgraded and there's finally time to explore, though I found myself running out of things to do in each session at this point.

Make no mistake, I was still deeply grateful to see the expansion of the gameplay loop, especially since developer Skip saw fit to have a character talk to you every time you teleport back home, and ask you about saving every single time you recharge. This happened over and over again as I repeatedly re-entered areas to grind for more Happy Points. The grinding irritated me enough, but seriously, shut up, Telly.

All of this is to get supplies for the main event, the photography, in which you use the 3DS' built-in camera to take photographs of real-world objects in the shape of an on-screen outline. You're judged on accuracy, and then send your new NostalJunk to an exhibit of the growing museum. This is by far the weakest part of Chibi-Robo: Photo Finder, mostly because it relies so much on the weakest part of the 3DS. Have you ever tried to take pictures with the 3DS? It's not pretty. The blurry, low-res camera is nearly incapable of picking up the level of detail the game demands. You could have a coffee cup on screen, perfectly within the outline of the Silhouette Film, and there's a good chance the game won't agree that it fits the 60-percent shape match requirement, or that it's a match at all. And sometimes – often – your real-life object won't exactly match the cartoon outline provided by the game. My t-shirts certainly didn't, nor did my toilet paper rolls, which had the temerity not to be perfectly round.

And unless you brought your portable photo studio with you, that sushi roll you're trying to photograph probably won't contrast enough to be picked up in the tasteful mood lighting of your favorite sushi place. The camera quality also means you're not exactly going to cherish the photographs you take, not to mention the in-game models textured with a muddy, off-center simulacrum of your household junk.

Mr. Curator believes in celebrating banal, everyday life by turning completely ordinary objects like t-shirts and loose CDs into museum objects, which is exactly what developer Skip has always done in the Chibi-Robo series. The tiny protagonist meticulously polishes, vacuums, and climbs around in an ostensibly normal suburban home, forcing the player to look really closely at all of it. Chibi-Robo: Photo Finder takes that a step further by putting the focus on the junk in your actual home.

It's a noble and sweet idea, held back by monotonous grinding and technical issues. And by "technical issues" I mean "the camera."

This review is based on an eShop download of Chibi-Robo Photo Finder, purchased by the reviewer.

JC Fletcher is a stay-at-home dad to twins. He runs the handheld gaming site Tiny Cartridge in his spare time. You may remember him from websites such as: this one.

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