Cuteness Without Commitment
In some ways, the original 2006 nintendogs is one of the most diabolical pieces of software ever conceived, perfectly encapsulating the 21st century obsession with total convenience and minimal effort. All the cuteness of a puppy, for all eternity, without ever having to take it to the vet, watch it grow into a full grown dog and ultimately die of old age. It’s the distillation of a generation’s dreams of perfection with an easy push of the button. Now it’s back, in 3D, with the addition of cats, and the appeal is just as strong as it ever was.
Adoption Made Easy
Being a pet simulation, there’s no story of any sort of nintendogs + cats except for whatever scenario users create in their own head. Players are immediately greeted with a kennel from which a series of puppies of various breeds are available and they have enough money to pick one puppy to bring home. From there, they return to their virtual home to care for and interact with their virtual pet, and possibly add a few more in the future. That’s the basic “plot” of the game.
Graphically, the latest iteration of the series looks quite impressive. The graphics are improved from the 2006 version, and are comparable to the animals rendered on the Wii. The increased power of the 3DS has made the fur much more realistic, and even manages to hold its own when compared to Microsoft’s own virtual pet software, Kinectimals, with a variety of breeds of dogs and cats that are all varied in appearance and realistically animated. Aesthetically, there’s a bizarre visual mish-mash going on, as cartoony Miis are used to represent all humans in the game, though the animals themselves are rendered in a much more realistic style. The sound effects are decently represented as well, with a variety of yelps, barks, meows and hisses from the different puppies and kittens, of course, allowances have to be made for the fact that these sounds are either coming out of tiny speakers on the 3DS itself, or else being piped through earphones that are likely not top of the line PC gaming headsets, but there’s a variety of sound effects from the animals, though the overall sound-scape of the game is fairly minimal.
Fundamentally, nintendogs+cats hasn’t really changed much from its predecessor. There are tweaks, certainly that add new elements, but the core idea and basic mechanics remain the same. It should be noted however that prospective pet owners can’t select a kitten as a pet immediately. Kittens are only available after the first visit and can only be acquired after some “grinding” since the first visit will take enough away from the initial starting allowance that more money will need to be made for additional pet purchases.
When you bring the virtual puppy home, the changes to the game thanks to the power of the 3DS are obvious. Of course, right from the start, the game works in 3D, and the more slow paced gameplay gives users time to appreciate the depth at work, particularly when puppies do things like move right up to the screen in an attempt to lick the player. There’s no actual gameplay element that’s dependent on the 3D, so it’s more a benign enhancement than anything else, but it’s there for people want to see it in action.
After a short period of breaking in the new pet, players can then give their new puppy a name, which is both keyed in via stylus as well as recorded, so the puppy can respond by name. Thanks to the camera built into the 3DS, the animals also recognize faces, eventually approaching if users move themselves close to the lens.
With the pet named, a new option is now available to train puppies to do tricks. The voice recognition seems to be generally improved from the first game, with puppies usually understanding the orders provided the same speed and intonation is used. This also opens up options to take the puppy out for a walk, enter three different kinds of competitions, or use the StreetPass and pedometer functions of the 3DS to go out for a real world walk that rewards users with new gifts depending on how many steps were taken, or allows other nintendogs+cats owners to “migrate” over to your own virtual neighbourhood thanks to the passive StreetPass exchange system while the 3DS is carried around in sleep mode. There’s even an augmented reality feature, used both in the obedience competition and accessible at any time as a tool, that places a real world card on a surface, or even held in the hand, while the puppy appears standing on top of it. The competitions themselves consist of the aforementioned obedience, a Frisbee throwing competition, and a new “lure course” that replaces the obstacle course of the previous game. This is where the money is made in the game, as players win competitions and move up a pyramid of greater cash prizes, but this is also restricted to only two competitions per day per category, meaning players only have 6 opportunities on a daily basis, a firm way to dissuade “grinders” and “power gamers,” who are not the target audience. It’s a good choice, since the game itself is meant to played in short, daily bursts, not the prolonged marathon sessions of a typical hardcore gamer.
If there is one major disappointment, it’s the cats. Whether it’s a matter of time constraints, or a deliberate design decision, having a virtual kitten in this game is not as robust as having a virtual puppy. Like puppies, kittens can be named and taught to recognize their owner, requiring feeding and attention, but that’s where the similarities end. Cats can’t be taught tricks, can’t be taken out for walks, or entered into competitions. They’re fairly ancillary to the experience despite the mention on the packaging and product description. If you’re considering getting the game for a full featured, feline companion simulation, you might want to hold off on that purchase after all.
At its heart, nintendogs+cats is still one of the best virtual pet simulators available, providing more realism and charm than the Sony or Microsoft counterparts on the consoles. It hasn’t changed much, fundamentally, but the new 3DS features add some new interactive options, the puppies and kittens look more realistic and more appealing, and the game still provides a sense of pet ownership without any of the commitment. It’s great for kids, or even just the curious, but don’t expect it to train a child for the responsibility of real pet ownership.