It’s actually kind of a coincidence that the words “Tamagotchi” and “Tomodachi” are so similar. The ubiquitous digital pet keychains of the 1990s actually take their name from a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “egg” and “watch”. But it seems nearly impossible that they would not immediately spring to mind when anyone that spent time with them in their heyday first heard of the new 3DS title, Tomodachi Life. But “Tomodachi” is the Japanese word for “friend”, and the title is about as apt as it can be for something this strange and unique. Although there are some aspects of care and management common to virtual pet titles, as well as elements reminiscint of titles like The Sims and Animal Crossing, Tomodachi Life is something all its own.
A sequel to the 2009 Japan-only DS release Tomodachi Collection, Tomodachi Life is less a game than a virtual aquarium (or perhaps sitcom set) populated by Miis. Although they’ve been around since the original Wii, Mii avatars have always felt like little more than a silly diversion. Sure, it was fun to create caricatures of yourself, friends and family, and random celebrities, but to what end? There was no real way for them to express personality, and although there was something kind of fun about having your avatar surrounded by a bunch of familiar Miis at the bowling lanes of Wii Sports, there never seemed to be much more to them than that.
Tomodachi Life presents the player with an uninhabited island and allows them to either create Miis from scratch, import them from their existing collection, or scan them from QR codes. A basic set of options is available from which to craft both a personality and a (surprisingly charming) digital voice. The avatar is then free to roam around and do whatever they want. They’ll request (though not technically require) intervention from the player when they’re hungry or want an opinion on something. Interaction with them freqently takes the form of bizarre minigames. But these characters are far more self-sufficient than is the norm for most sentient creature management games. Leaving them be won’t incur any meaningful penalty. But despite the relative autonomy of the characters, the game isn’t without incentives to interact with them. Fullfilling their desires will raise their happiness level and reward you with currency, unlocking both items for the island dwellers and new locations on the island.
When Nintendo receives praise, it’s almost always with respect to the overall quality and polish of their first party titles. But one aspect of some of their most successful games that doesn’t gain nearly as much attention is their sense of humor. When they’re trying to elicit a laugh, Nintendo tends to be bizarre, slapsticky and self-referential. Tomodachi Life hits those notes as well, whether it’s from some of the downright strange minigames to the ludicrous musical numbers, it’s a game designed to put both a smile and a look of puzzlement on its player’s faces. Tomodachi Life comes from the same internal development division as the equally crazy, though perhaps more chaotic, WarioWare series, and after a little time with the title, it’s easy to see their common DNA.
Tomodachi Life is structured to encourage short bursts of daily play over the long haul. There’s no real incentive for long play sessions, but the desire to check in to see what the inhabitants of your island are up to can border on compulsion. During any given play session, you’ll check in with your inhabitants, see if they need or want anything, and then see what they’ve been up to. This daily routine is certainly reminiscent of any given Animal Crossing title. But with Tomodachi Life, you don’t directly control the Miis, so much as respond to their desires, and then observe their responses.
Tomodachi Life exists in a gray area. It’s not quite a game in the traditional sense, but it’s much more interactive than a book or television show. There’s no direct control over the characters in the game, but you influence their actions more than in a typical “god” game. It is as much a digital pet as it is a farcical soap opera. At first blush, there’s a lot of things to do and see. But like many sim games, after a while, the actual experience of playing the game can feel somewhat repetitive.
While Tomodachi Life will not appeal to every kind of player, it is such a unique, absurd, and overall enjoyable experience that it’s difficult not to recommend that every 3DS owner at least give it a try, if for no other reason than to understand how fun experiencing its absurdity is. With all the criticism Nintendo takes for recycling its core franchises with nominal changes to mechanics every few years, titles like Tomodachi Life prove that the company can still be wildly creative when it wants to be.