I had a dog, once upon a time. He was a cocker spaniel and he was called Jasper, and when he was a puppy he was friendly, loved to meet new people and was full of life. As he got older he grew into a cantankerous, arthritic old bastard, attacking anybody he didn’t know at first, then eventually turning on those he did know until only my mother could control him. Eventually, he was put to sleep.
A heart-warming child’s tale that. Fortunately, Nintendogs doesn’t suffer from these issues. Your puppy here will never grow old, never suffer from a debilitating bone disease and never attack you just because you’re trying to drag the stupid bastard out for a walk. All the fun of a real puppy without the smells, excrement and tail-docking.
Nintendogs is one of those games that Nintendo sneak out every now and then to remind us all who is the king. Arguably largely responsible for the boom in sales of the DS, it isn’t actually a game at all — not in the traditional sense, anyway. There’s no goal or progression, there is just you and up to three puppies that all need walking, exercising, feeding, watering and cleaning.
I suppose the closest you get to having a goal in this is entering your puppies into the various tournaments — disc competition, agility trial and obedience — but these are straightforward and easy to master and are made worse by having to sit through the dozen or so tedious and humourless stock phrases from the tournament commentators Ted Rumsworth and Archie Hubbs every time. That said, there’s a touch of emotional investment in these tournaments because you do have to train your dog first, so there’s a feeling of pride when the puppy does well, and an urge to thwack it with a rolled-up newspaper every time it does badly.
Ted and Archie are obviously sleeping together.
Like Animal Crossing, this is a game you’ll pick up for perhaps half an hour every day rather than devote hours to it. At least, in terms of interaction — feeding and walking and such — you’ll devote perhaps half an hour a day, but for at least the first couple of weeks there’s considerable milage in just watching the puppies play together with a tennis ball or Frisbee; their movements and reactions are impressively realistic and disgustingly cute.
Everything else in the game is secondary to the puppies, and what struck me most about the game is how half-finished it feels sometimes. That’s not to say it isn’t good — despite having a stack of other DS and GBA games on my shelves at the moment, Nintendogs has been the only thing I’ve played since I got it — but there’s a lot of unexploited potential in there. There’s very little in the way of customisation; you can change the decoration in your home between several stock sets, but each of these designs is just background material that can’t be interacted with.
You can collect a wide variety of items as you go on walks but most are useless (a box of tissues, a broken disposable camera, a globe, etc.) and all you can do with them is take them out (only one at a time) and put them on the floor, or more accurately you drop them on the floor where they lie, ignored, until you pick them up again. I suppose that this is all to ensure the focus remains upon the puppies — you’re supposed to be playing with them, not arranging your furniture — but I wouldn’t be surprised if a sequel (an Amores Perres edition, perhaps?) allowed for more customisation.
This is a problem living in a shared house.
There are parts of the game I’ve not tried yet, and these mostly centre around the voice control. You can teach your puppy to respond to its name, and you can teach it tricks like ‘sit’ and ‘play dead’ and ‘catch Bird Flu’, but I’ve not tried these because, honestly, I don’t want the people I live with to hear me shut in my room saying ‘lie down’, sternly and repeatedly. I feel they might get the wrong idea.
Then there’s the ‘bark mode’, which is a nice idea — you put your DS into sleep mode but have it searching via WiFi for other DSs running the game in this mode, and in the event that one DS picks up another, both start barking to alert you. I’m told that when this happens you can discover magical things, but despite making a point of carrying it around with me whenever out in Oxford I’ve yet to find anyone else doing the same. I’m actually quite glad of this; while I’m sure the feature is very popular in the Far East, I have this feeling that the first person I meet in the UK this way will either be some sort of autistic teenager who plays Ikaruga blindfolded every morning (getting a perfect score, natch) or a 9 year old girl with parents visibly concerned at the sight of a grown man wanting to play with their child’s virtual puppy. Still, I’ll report the event here nonetheless if it ever takes place.