[12 July 2011]
Nintendo’s take on the digital pet phenomenon, Nintendogs, came in 2005 for the Nintendo DS. The touchscreen added some flair to the pet sim genre, and the title contained the characteristic Nintendo polish and charm. Nintendogs quickly became regarded as a successful property, and with the relative dearth of launch titles for the 3DS its sequel, Nintendogs + Cats, is one of the higher profile releases for the system to date. Among the system’s launch titles, Nintendogs + Cats is clearly the one most directly marketed to kids. It doesn’t do too much differently than its predecessor, but it’s sure to serve as an interesting diversion, appealing to children of all ages.
Technically speaking, Nintendogs + Cats looks much sharper than its predecessor, taking advantage of the beefier specs of the 3DS. The animation is better, and the animals themselves look much more realistic than before. While the 3D effects work well, they don’t add that much to the experience, and its not hard to believe that most players will opt to disable them completely. The pedometer of the 3DS means that it is possible to more realistically “take your dog for a walk”, which is a nice touch. The StreetPass functionality allows for interaction with the virtual pets of others. Further, the AR cards allow you to project your pet into the real world, which has its own unique charm.
Though, as the title suggests, Nintendogs + Cats adds felines to the mix, the cats are simply not as much fun to interact with in the game. Given the large number of dogs available, cat breeds are woefully underrepresented. However, it can be argued that it wouldn’t make sense to give cats their own game either, given that much of the fun in Nintendogs stems from teaching your pet tricks, interacting with them vocally and taking them for walks. Cats can be adorable pets and make for great companions, but the relationships and interactions between cats and their owners are as much on the terms of the felines as of the humans. When pet ownership is represented virtually, then, it makes a good deal of sense that the relationship of dog and master would be much easier to represent in broad strokes.
While there’s a decent amount to do in Nintendogs + Cats, it doesn’t foster a compunction to visit it for a few minutes day after day, the way that games like Animal Crossing or Brain Age do. There isn’t the same obsessive need to either collect everything or periodically demonstrate progress. In that way, it’s less of a game than either of those two, though that’s certainly not a negative. It’s almost more a stress-relieving diversion than anything else, and in that sense it actually has more in common with titles like Electroplankton.
Digital pets occupy something of a bizarre space in multimedia. There is a long history of games that allow players to somewhat realistically experience things for which the barrier for entry in real life is relatively high. Flight and racing sims come to mind rather easily when considering these kinds of titles. But those are still certainly games with clearly defined goals. Although pet sims have long been popular, articulating the reasons why is somewhat difficult.
While some titles, like the Pokémon series, have minor pet rearing aspects wrapped in other recognizable genres of game, others, like Nintendogs + Cats, are simply about the simulation experience of owning and raising a pet. In essence, these entertainment experiences are about attempting to make responsibility fun, by virtualizing and reducing both tasks and consequences. Games like The Sims that fit into the virtual doll house or god-game subgenres engender connections to the characters by making their reactions to player generated stimuli interesting to observe and, at its heart, Nintendogs + Cats is no different. It could be argued that the nature of the interaction with the pets in Nintendogs + Cats gives them the illusion of personality, which fosters affection.
Nintendogs + Cats is likely to be enjoyed by either fans of the original or children of any age. It’s arguable that the most pleasure will be derived by those new to the series, given how similar the title is to its predecessor. That said, anyone with an affection for cute pets will find something to like about it for a while, but its longevity as a title is questionable.
Nintendogs + Cats was the first piece of software for the 3DS that broke one million sales worldwide, so it’s undoubtedly been a financial success for Nintendo. But the pet sim genre seems to have built in creative boundaries, and as such it seems unlikely to be a franchise they can revisit as much as the main Nintendo pantheon.