Fetching for compliments.
Close your eyes and picture a puppy. It's cute, right? Big eyes, soft, smooth coat, little tail wagging to and fro? It's all licks, yips and head tilts, a stuffed animal with a heartbeat and a working brain. It's what Teddy Ruxpin wishes he could be, were it not for that pesky tape deck glued to his butt.
Anyone who actually owns a puppy, however, knows the dark, unscratchable underbelly of man's soon-to-be best friend. The barking. The biting. The total disregard for the human voice. The fascinating desire to poop everywhere except the right place. For all their awesome, cuddly, toilet-tissue commercial pizzazz, puppies are also a handful, and occasionally, a headache.
Never one to shy away from turning cute headaches into interesting software (yeah, I'm looking at you, Pikmin), Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's resident developing diva, decided to digitize doggies and toss "em into a video game, if that's an accurate descriptor for Nintendogs. You might also call it a tamogotchi, or a puppy sim, or perhaps another cute headache. Whatever the moniker, this DS experiment does its subject matter proud by doing all kinds of things right, all kinds of things wrong, and somehow managing to be adorable the whole way through.
Nintendogs begins with a visit to the kennel where you drop some cash for a companion. There are currently three versions of the game available at retail, each featuring a specific collection of dogs available from the outset. Regardless, you can eventually unlock all eighteen breeds, from classics like the German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Labrador and Chihuahua to curiosities like the Shiba Inu and Pug. Though you can only buy one from the start, you can ultimately own up to three at a time, with more kept in a handy dog hotel. While you can choose from an assortment of basic fur patterns and colors, there isn't much in the way of customizing your doggy. No green-eyed purple wiener dogs allowed, sadly.
After naming your new pet, you take it home and start dealing with it. This initially involves teaching it basic commands, the first of which is getting it to recognize its name. Using the DS' mic, you'll shout "Magicpants!" into your handheld over and over again until at last the little guy figures it out. From there you'll advance to "sit," "lie down," "shake," and "roll over," although it's really up to you.
With its combination of voice and stylus, the training system is clever and actually works well enough. You'll use the stylus to get it to move around a bit, and if it happens to be in a position to learn something, a little light bulb will pop up in the corner. You'll have a short amount of time to clearly say the command to accompany the move, and if you do this enough times correctly, your puppy will forever perform the trick on command. Beyond the basics, you might teach your pint-sized Pinscher to do all sorts of weird things, including breakdance. Awesome. Though the voice recognition isn't always spot-on, it's a fair shake better than past games like Seaman and should hold up under scrutiny by all but the strictest linguists.
So now that Magicpants the roughneck Chihuahua knows how to sit, what do you do with him? Well, you do normal puppy things, naturally: take him on walks, scratch him mercilessly, throw toys at him and above all else, keep him alive. You'll have somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 after buying your first dog, which should keep you knee deep in food, water, toys, shampoo and brushes for quite some time. But provided you treat your fake animal humanely (feeding it, watering it, cleaning it), you will eventually have to earn more bread by entering it in competitions and raking in the cash. Here's to puppy labor!
There are three competition types, all of which play distinctly. Disc Competition lets you play Frisbee for points, Obedience rewards your puppy for following voiced commands, and Agility lets you tap your way through a timed obstacle course. Thanks to a cool control scheme, the Disc Competition is the most fun, although you earn decent dough for placing in the top three in any competition.
While kinda fun, the competitions will run you into this puppy's biggest hang-up: it doesn't have much stamina. You can only enter three competitions a day, so if you screw up and don't do well, you'll literally have to wait until the date changes before you can try again. That's at least 15 minutes of real time, yo.
Your pup can only learn so many tricks in a day, too, and it can only be walked once every half-hour. In other words, Nintendogs tries to emulate real-world circumstances by not allowing you to endlessly run your dog through the paces in order to "level" it up, despite the fact that PETA has no laws against doing so to fake dogs. That might make the kennel club happy, but it spells boredom for would-be owners who find out they can't really do much with their virtual dog. The result is a game that must be played in ten minute bursts, not hour-long sessions, and it maxes out at about thirty minutes per day.
Even so, there's just a paucity (pawcity?) of gameplay overall. Your puppy doesn't age, so there's no real end goal, and there's simply not enough to do with it to keep most gamers entertained. How about developing my puppy into a hunting dog, seeing eye dog or junkyard dog? Hotdog? Playing with your puppy can be fun and make you feel like a proud papa, but it's also quite repetitive and grows thin after a few days, especially when you're mostly just waiting for your dog to be rested enough to play back. Considering that a real puppy takes up, like, all your time, what exactly is this emulating?
If you trigger Bark mode, it's emulating Star Trek, I think. With this turned on, you can wander the world with your DS in your pocket and be instantly notified if other Nintendogs owners are within barking distance. At this point you'll be able to interact with the new puppy, even able to control it a little using voice commands. Of course, stumbling upon another Nintendogs owner who also happens to be in Bark mode right as you're passing them in traffic is the kind of preposterous coincidence that might be commonplace in Japan, but pretty much never happens in the U.S. outside of a grade school or some froofy dot com office.
Both of which, by the way, might be the target audiences: thirty-something non-gamers with pop culture lust living in apartments too tiny for real pets, and little kids too doggy crazy to care about big words like gameplay depth. It's perfect for the 10 year-old HR manager in your life.
Young and old alike will also agree that Nintendogs really captures the puppies in startling detail. Pups behave just like real dogs thanks to all kinds of incredibly lifelike animations, some canned, some incidental. They'll randomly play fight, roll over and get cute, or even lick themselves for a while, moving and reacting quite realistically for fake dogs. They're sweet little buggers, truly.
The rest of the game is not such a graphical treat, though. The environments are pretty bland, particularly the neighborhood in which you take your pup for walks. Regardless of the route you choose, you just wander from left to right past faded, non-descript buildings. Places like the park and the competitive arenas are equally dull. Maybe dogs see in black and white after all.
Other than the cute grunts and barks, there's not much to the sound. The music tracks are repetitive, especially the looping ditty cued up every time you take a stroll.
As a final test of the game's competency (and as a sort of Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla experiment), I handed the reigns to my own real-world cute headache, an 8 month-old Chihuahua/Terrier named Loulou. After nibbling on the stylus, Lou barked twice at Magicpants, tried to hump the touch screen, clearly got fed up and proceeded to stare at me as if to say, "Seriously...THIS?"
In the end, I agree with the mutt. Nintendogs captures the essence of puppydom in its adorable stars and genuine charm, but focuses so much on being a cutie that it forgets to be a game. DS owners thirsting for companionship will certainly find some here, although it's really just a virtual pet without enough interesting gameplay enhancements. Guess you can't teach an old dog new tricks after all.