Nintendogs Chihuahua & Friends Import Hands-On
Nintendo brings man's best friend to the DS in one of the cutest games ever made. We start our canine journey with one unruly little Chihuahua.
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Leave it to Nintendo to exploit the unique properties of its DS better than just about any other developer. The company's creative minds have delivered another quirky, hard-to-classify game in the oddly titled Nintendogs, an import copy of which we just received and eagerly tore into. Well, we tore into a third of it, at least. Taking a page from its own book of Pokemon, Nintendo has released Nintendogs in three installments in Japan, each of which focuses on five distinct breeds of dog. Great devotees of gorditas and small lap dogs as we are, the only real choice for us was to start with the installment subtitled Chihuahua & Friends, which also contains the beagle, shih tzu, Labrador retriever, and Cavalier King Charles spaniel (whatever that is).
You can't even get past the title screen of Nintendogs without realizing this is one of the most disgustingly adorable games ever. The premise is as simple as it gets: Buy a new puppy, love it, care for it, teach it new tricks, and eventually enter it into talent competitions and dog shows to earn more money, which will let you buy new toys for your doggy and even add a couple more canines to your stable, when you've earned enough cash. The game has a definite virtual-life feel to it, a lot like the pocket tamagotchi toy craze of almost a decade ago. After only a few hours with the game, we're not sure exactly how much time and attention the virtual pooches of Nintendogs will demand, but it seems like the kind of game you'd have no problem firing up every day, even for just a few minutes.
As simple as the game is, starting out can be a little perplexing since you have to get used to the unique ways you interact and bond with your dog, as well as contend with a sizable volume of Japanese text. After you pick one of the five breeds of dog, you'll see three of them romping around in the grass, begging you to take them home. Pick one by petting it on the DS's touch screen and the next thing you know, you're at home with your new pet. The game will ask you to name the dog via the built-in microphone, and after repeating the name a couple of times, you'll be on your way. It's important to name your puppy something that you won't mind having to repeat often, because you'll be calling out to that disobedient pooch a lot during the early part of the game.
You interact with your puppy, and pretty much all of Nintendogs itself, using just the DS's touch screen and microphone; no button input is required. After you've named your dog, the game goes to an open format that can leave you wondering exactly what to do next. The answer is obvious: Play with your dog! You can pet the dog using the stylus (or your finger, of course) which will obviously make it happier. More importantly, you'll want to give your dog a good scratch when it does something worth rewarding, so as to reinforce the positive behavior. Besides, it's plenty amusing to just rub the pooch down and watch it wiggle around for the fun of it.
In the course of horsing around with your pooch, you'll see it do "tricks" you'd want it to repeat on command, such as sitting, shaking hands, rolling over--the standard litany of dog tricks, in other words. Whenever that happens, a small icon appears that indicates you can use the DS's mic to tell your dog what that trick was (and then you should pet it for good measure). Give the command and reinforce the behavior enough times, and your dog will finally learn that "sit!" actually means to sit down. So after a few hours, you can have it doing whatever you command. We got our dog to master the aforementioned tricks in our brief time with the game, and we imagine the more you play Nintendogs, the more cool stuff you'll be able to make your dog do.
In fact, we were able to notice an obvious improvement in some of our dog Lucky's skills as we played with her. You can buy all sorts of stuff for your dog as your funds increase, and we bought a red Frisbee for Lucky just for something new to do...and also so we could participate in a Frisbee-fetching contest the game lets you take part in. After buying the Frisbee, we wisely went straight to competition without even trying to practice first. Lucky didn't do so well. She didn't even place in the contest, actually. She seemed content to chase after the Frisbee, lie down in the field, and start chewing on it, which is not an effective way to win a tournament.
More Than a Pretty Snout
After our poor initial showing at the Frisbee contest, we then spent a lot of time back at home, tossing the Frisbee and having Lucky chase after it and bring it back (with a lot of petting in between). Our next time out at the competition was a different story: Lucky was able to chase the Frisbee faster and catch it more often, even making some midair catches we hadn't seen before (good dog!). We got a nifty sense of satisfaction from the simple process of playing with the dog to build up its skills and then seeing them put to the test and coming out on top. Third place isn't that bad for a second attempt, right?
Like the tamagotchi of old, your dog in Nintendogs has a wide array of, well, bodily functions that need to be addressed. But unlike that nearly forgotten progenitor of the virtual-life phenomenon, the dogs in this game don't seem all that vocal about informing you of their needs. Among the items you can buy for your mutt are drinking water and various kinds of food, and if your dog is hungry or thirsty, it'll eat or drink its fill when you set out the appropriate refreshments. We didn't notice any overt indication that the dog was hungry or thirsty, because no onscreen meters or even abnormal behavior gave that fact away.
For that matter, Lucky didn't make any particular signs that she needed to relieve herself until we decided to take her for a stroll around town. You'll get a simple overhead map of the streets surrounding your home, and you'll plot a route on this map before you start out on your walk. The map shows points of interest, like items or other dogs, as question marks, so you can plan some extracurricular encounters if you want. Once you start your walk, you'll get to hold your dog's leash on the touch screen, which gives you a little bit of control over where and how fast it walks. When you encounter another dog on the street, the two will tentatively start to sniff each other out, though you can use your leash to keep them separated if necessary. All our doggy introductions went smoothly, for what it's worth.
Though we only spent time training and playing with Lucky, eventually you'll be able to keep up to three dogs at the same time, once you've built up enough cash. But those second and third dogs won't come cheaply, because after purchasing Lucky and a few necessary supplies, we couldn't lay down anywhere near the amount of money required to take home that goofy dachshund that was running around in the yard. There are some other activities you can jump into right off the bat, which are similar to the previously mentioned Frisbee toss, though our luck was considerably worse when we tried to enter the dog show to put Lucky's good manners and superior poise to the test. This section has an announcer telling you what to have your dog do within a set number of seconds, though without ample knowledge of Japanese, this section was pretty much a wash. Luckily, we were able to recognize the command to sit, so we were able to get one right, and we (at least) figured out that, here, you'll have to verbally instruct your dog to perform tricks it's previously leared--in the proper sequence--to come in first. We'd hope that a successful day at the dog show will net quite a bit of cash to put toward new toys, food, or a second pooch.
Nintendogs isn't a graphical powerhouse in the traditional sense, since everything but the dogs is pretty average-looking. But those pooches themselves are really a sight to see, primarily because their animation is an awful lot like the movement of real dogs. The game's lovable mutts will sit, shake hands, roll over, and romp around with really impressive realism...certainly enough to elicit a pronounced "aww" from several members of our staff. The little buggers like to yap at you frequently, too, which also sounds as realistic as you'd expect. Nintendogs is going to be one game that appeals directly to kids, though it's cute and quirky enough that adults won't help but find it amusing, too.
This certainly seems like a game you have to spend a length of time with before you've seen everything it has to offer. What happens when your dog becomes tired, for instance? What about a month's worth of practicing with the Frisbee? What strange sorts of items can you buy for your dogs when you've amassed a fortune? Unfortunately, without a strong working knowledge of Japanese, you may have to wait a while to answer these questions, because the game is thick with text that instructs you on what to do in various situations, and unless you can read it, you'll have to stumble blindly through some of the more complicated scenarios. Nintendogs is almost assuredly coming to the US, though Nintendo hasn't released specifics regarding a date and/or content at this time. Nevertheless, we'll bring you more on this unique and endearing game in the coming months.