Nintendogs Hands-On

We take the dogs for a walk in Nintendo's "aww"-inspiring puppy simulator.

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Nintendo's sometimes slightly skewed vision of what games should be is no more evident than in the upcoming Nintendogs for the Nintendo DS. The game, most easily described as a "puppy simulator," relies both on the inherent "cute" factor of the subject matter and controls that take advantage of the DS's wide spectrum of features. We had a chance to take the dogs out for a romp at this week's Game Developers Conference to see how the game, slated for release in America later this year, is shaping up.

The basic idea of Nintendogs is simple: You start out with a small amount of money to purchase your first puppy, which you can feed, name, interact with, and eventually train into your own personal best-in-show candidate. As you build up your cash reserves, you'll be able to buy up to three dogs total, all of whom will display individual characteristics and unique personalities.

It's impossible to spend any time with Nintendogs and not be at least a little touched by the puppy models, which look great and animate in amazingly lifelike and varied ways. The demo version of the game we played featured three puppies in a virtual living room, which is where you'll spend the majority of your time interacting with and training your pups. Watching as the dogs bounded around the room, leaped around one another, and wrestled for balls or Frisbees never failed to elicit a smile. While Nintendo said a wide variety of breeds will be available, most will be of similar size, so you won't find any Saint Bernard or mastiff puppies for sale. Instead, terriers, small hounds, and toy breeds will most likely make up the biggest portion of the lineup. In addition, the entire doggie roster found in the soon-to-be-released Japanese version of the game will find its way to the American game, though some breeds will be unlockable here.

You'll have a number of ways for interacting with your pets in Nintendogs, including both the touch screen/stylus combination and the built-in microphone. The DS's two-screen setup displays menus and inventory items in the upper screen, while the puppies and environments are displayed in the lower touch screen. To get your pet to look your way, you tap the screen with the stylus, and to get him or her to come to you, you tap the screen several times. Petting your dog is as easy as rubbing the stylus on top of your dog's head or on his belly, for example. While the dogs will enthusiastically lean into your pats, not all of them like their noses touched, for example, and will shrink away in protest. Finally, you won't have the ability to give your pet a swat, because only positive reinforcement will work here.

The other, more interesting method for communication is with your own voice via the DS's built-in microphone. Not only will you be able to name your dog, but also you'll teach it a host of voice commands, such as sit, fetch, and shake. Here's how it works: Say your dog sits down at random while you're watching the screen. Once he plops down, a small microphone icon will appear onscreen, during which you'll have a limited time to record the command of your choice, such as "sit," for example. Once the dog gets the command, a light bulb icon will appear over his head, and you'll be able to get your dog to squat down on his hindquarters on command. It may take a few times for your dog to associate the command with the action, depending on his personality, but with enough repetition--and with enough treats, we suspect--the dog will soon be performing more-complex strings of tricks (such as sitting and then shaking hands in sequence). While a final number of tricks have not been decided upon, Nintendo reps told us the game will probably include more than 15 individual commands.

Of course, training your dogs is only part of the fun. You'll also be able to take your dog for walks around the neighborhood, as well as to the park, for some playtime outdoors. You can also enter your pet in competitions, such as Frisbee-fetching, to compete for prize money that you can use to stock up on new toys, such as tennis balls and jump ropes; doggie accessories, like collars, sunglasses, and Afro wigs; and even brand-new canines altogether. All the items found in the Japanese version of the game will make their ways to the American version of the game, in addition to a load of unspecified new items.

Nintendo assured us that each dog you own will have unique personalities, though whether these personalities are representative of typical breed traits remains to be seen. Some dogs will be playful and gregarious, and some will be mischievous and stubborn. Some may be friendly with other pups they meet, while others may be a bit aggressive or dominating. Even the less seemly side of pet ownership--which usually involves pooper-scoopers, lifted legs, and shampoo bottles--will find its way into Nintendogs as well.

The game will also take advantage of the Nintendo DS's wireless multiplayer features, letting you meet up with a friend in the virtual park to toss the Frisbee around. Your dogs can even play, too. Interestingly, your personal pet will not respond to the sound of his or her name when called by your playing partner, as the game's audio technology ties your pet not only to the name you give him, but also to the specific modulation of your voice. This means your pet will be very much your own. An especially cute feature will be the barking sound emitted from your DS when it recognizes a running instance of Nintendogs via the handheld's wireless feature.

With Nintendogs, Nintendo is counting on the cuteness of the game to go a long way toward selling it. We're curious to check out some of the multiplayer aspects of the game, which sadly weren't being shown at GDC. While it's uncertain how much longevity Nintendogs will offer, it's hard to deny the game's "aww"-inspiring look.

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