The 8-Year Journey to Solve an Obscure 'Chibi-Robo' Fan Theory

Why a 'Chibi-Robo' fan spent hours mashing a nearly impossible button combination, not knowing if it'd do anything at all.
April 27, 2021, 1:00pm
Artwork from the video game Chibi-Robo
Artwork courtesy of Nintendo

The above tweet appears to be nonsense. A robotic video game character inches forward at a snail's pace—we're talking literal pixels every few seconds—and it eventually results in the character...entering another room. Outside of the moving slowly part, this is something that happens in games all the time! Yet, entering that room prompts someone to scream: "I'm in!" 

Something has happened, and it's a big deal. The player exits the room and asks "What happens now?" As they return to where they came, a louder scream erupts and multiple people begin laughing and emoting. What's not clear in the video is how this moment is the culmination of eight years of patient and often pointless experimentation (and five hours of painful finger inputs by one dedicated player) for the Chibi-Robo speedrunning community.

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Chibi-Robo came out for the GameCube in 2005, the definition of a cult classic. It's beloved by the small but devoted audience that's come into contact with it, and relegated to "oh yeah, I remember that game...I think?" for everyone else. The niche appeal is also a hindrance for its speedrunning potential, because it limits the amount of people who will happily knock their heads against a game's mysterious game code, hoping a speedrunning exploit falls out.

A big reason there's a headline every few months about some new discovery in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or the breaking of a seemingly impossible speedrunning time in Super Mario Bros. is because those games are incredibly popular. There are entire little industries built around playing and dissecting those games. Chibi-Robo doesn't have that.

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Last summer, Chibi-Robo speedrunner Kobazco posted on the popular /r/speedrun forum.

"I'm one of the like 3 people who are currently active in the Chibi-Robo speedrunning community," said Kobazco. "For a very long time, we have theorized a major skip that has never come to be."

That "major skip" they'd been theorizing had been dubbed "upstairs early," a way of jumping further into the game by sequence skipping the requirement to build a ladder that lets players access the game's upstairs area. It could bring speedruns down by as much as 15 minutes, breaking the two-hour barrier. All players need to do is climb some stairs, but Chibi-Robo doesn't have a jump button. Instead, you walk up to objects and Chibi-Robo (the character) climbs up onto them. In this case, a hidden piece of geometry is missing, meaning it's impossible for Chibi-Robo to make it up the stairs, ensuring you play the game properly.

Kobazco then linked to a video he'd made showing and explaining various Chibi-Robo Speedrun strategies, with a plea for help in making progress on this "upstairs early" skip. 

Kobazco was willing to chip in $100 for anyone who had ideas that could help.

"I hope more people come around to the amazingness that is Chibi-Robo!" wrote Kobazco.

The post netted a small number of upvotes on Reddit—just 17—and a single comment that was completely unrelated to the concept of speedrunning Chibi-Robo or "upstairs early."  

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"I'm just a lurker here but thank you so fucking much for accidentally letting me know what that game is called," wrote one person in response. "It's been my white whale for years. I couldn't remember enough details about it to search for it, I just remember renting it from gamefly (lol) as a kid and since then it's just been a distant memory on the tip of my tongue."

Interesting, perhaps, but not especially helpful. And so nothing happened, which is to be expected. Chibi-Robo is a game where new speedrun records can be measured in years.

"Cracking this game open is super satisfying as glitch hunters and speedrunners because Chibi-Robo as a game is very stable compared to most games of its era," said Jaxler, who fell into speedrunning Chibi-Robo in 2014 after searching online for glitches in the game. "For the longest time this game had a bit of a reputation of being ‘unbreakable’ to a degree."

Fans like Jaxler were able to find ways of messing around and breaking Chibi-Robo, but it was often impractical to the point of useless or did not rise to the rank of "breakthrough" the way it can often feel with the games that get splashy headlines about their new exploits. 

One theory folks like Jaxler and others settled on was mostly a joke, aka "upstairs early."

"Finding a convenient method for getting upstairs was appealing back then because the resource requirements necessary to build the ladder [to gain] access for upstairs introduced lots of randomness into the speedrun," said Jaxler. 

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Reliability is important. If a glitch or exploit can't be relied upon during a run, it's just another way the run can go wrong, and so a lot of the creative process for speedrunners and tinkerers is trying to smooth things out and ensure a trick can be done over and over.

At one point, a Chibi-Robo player wedged themselves underneath a stair and forced the game to start climbing the stairs without building the ladder. It showed promise, but it didn't pan out. However, it led to another important discovery: clipping into the game's geometry. This proved a lot more exciting for the community than figuring out the ladder, and so for the next few years, most of the Chibi-Robo community threw their time and energy into clipping.

Still, Jaxler said "researching a method for this skip was still in the back of everyone's mind." 

Which brings us back to the lonely reddit post and Chibi-Robo speedrunner Kobazco.

"For some unknown reason about three years ago though, I said to myself 'hey, I really love Chibi-Robo! It'd be cool to speedrun that,'" said Kobazco. "What I didn't realize was that it was about a three-hour long speedrun with about half that time being cutscenes."

To curb this, the Chibi-Robo community actually programmed a mod that skips the lengthy cutscenes. It makes playing through the game, even a "speed" run, a lot more enjoyable.

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Back in October, Kobazco returned to reddit and made another plea for someone to help unravel the potential of "upstairs early." The community even pooled together $250 for it.

"I for one think this game could really do with a fresh pair of eyes, and we always want more people to enjoy this really fun (but cutscene heavy) speedgame," wrote Kobazco.

Thirty-seven upvotes this time, but no one responded. $250 wasn't enough to move the needle.

And then suddenly everything changed, as often happens with speedrunning, by accident. 

"A lot of games don't even have a small community for the speedrun, so I'm more than happy to have found friends who also play Chibi-Robo in the same way I do."

Last week, Kobazco was screwing around with a mini-game in Chibi-Robo and fell off a rail. Normally, falling off means exiting the mini-game, but Kobazco relied on a separate glitch to force a text box to appear. With a little bit of experimentation, it was discovered that it was, in fact, possible to force Chibi-Robo to move a few pixels at a time by executing a specific set of inputs within a one-frame window. Crucially, it was something that could be repeated. 

This opened the door to moving into locations deemed off limits. Upstairs, perhaps?

A one-frame window is ridiculous, requiring what is called "frame perfect" input. Sometimes being "frame perfect" means it requires precise and difficult timing, other times it literally means nailing the timing during an exact frame or else the trick cannot happen. Per ggn00b

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"Being frame-perfect means connecting your button press on the exact frame that’s necessary to pull off a particular feat. Essentially, if the game being played is running at 60FPS, you’re doing something perfectly within 1/60th of a second."

Requiring a frame perfect input is unreliable for a speedrunner, and it's why some speedruns are called tool-assisted speedruns (TAS) because they rely on computers to execute inputs the human hand would be incapable of, or the possibility of pulling it off is nearly impossible.

It took Kobazco five hours to move from one side of a room to another using this trick, a process that becomes a little less than four minutes when speed up by 1000% in a video. [CW, Photosensitivity: It’s extremely glitchy, with a lot of rapid flickers and flashes.]

I presumed this five hours was Kobazco writing a script that made the computer take care of everything. The reality was much worse: Kobazco did all the frame perfect inputs by hand.

"Unfortunately for me and my wrist, it was me trying to make those frame perfect inputs for five hours," said Kobazco.

Try. That's important. Kobazco couldn't pull off the frame perfect input every single time, so instead, he'd get one to work, move a few pixels across the screen, save his game inside the emulator, and try again. If he failed, he loaded an old save. Rinse, repeat. For five hours.

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"Once I had gotten the hang of it [the exploit] and saw how little he had actually traveled via the inputs I started losing it," said Jaxler. "Even at thousands of percent faster speeds it's still tedious as hell to watch and incredibly funny."

Kobazco attempted to train a computer to do the work, but couldn't figure it out. And if someone was able to do every frame perfect input without error, it'd still take a whole hour.

This helps explain all the screaming at the top. They—Kobazco especially—were screaming because the game didn't break. It would have been entirely normal for Kobazco to have spent all this time coming up with a way to do the impossible and discover the game code flipped out in response. All of that thinking and testing resulting in, essentially, nothing.

The weird part is that for all the hoopla and yelling, it's not clear what all this even means just yet. It opens the door for speedrunners to continue experimenting, as they always do. There is no "end" to speedrunning because there's always an opportunity to find something new, such as using a hot plate and ice packs to manipulate the temperature of a game console.

Right now, the only way to pull off what Kobazco discovered is by spending hours patiently grinding through frame perfect inputs. That's ridiculous. It's why Kobazco is still offering $250 for someone who can use this information and transform it into something more tangible

"At the very least, knowing that it's possible at all is a major breakthrough for us," he said. "Hundreds of frame perfect inputs or not, this is something that's been theorized for about eight years now."

It's also possible it goes nowhere. The Chibi-Robo speedrunning community is a small one.

"A lot of games don't even have a small community for the speedrun," said Kobazco, "so I'm more than happy to have found friends who also play Chibi-Robo in the same way I do."

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561)