Oddly enough, the big thing that My Horse & Me has going against it is that it’s not a pet sim.
Once relegated to the doldrums of Game and Watch-style keychains and known only by the simultaneously cute and impenetrable name “Tamagotchi”, pet sims have found a home on the console and portable systems of the current generation. Tapping a market that to date had only been touched upon by the major game publishers (that is, kids generally too young for action games and parents looking for something benign for their kids to play), pet sims have utterly exploded in recent days. From Nintendo’s Nintendogs to Ubisoft’s ‘z’ series (which started as Dogz and Catz but has recently expanded to things like Dolphinz), these games never fail to move tons of copies, delighting youngsters everywhere with their cute visuals and that wonderful sense of “ownership” that you can turn off.
Given that particular genre’s recent popularity, a game called My Horse & Me, as released by Atari, feels like it has the potential to be a slam dunk. For one thing, every little girl has, at some point, wanted a pony, right? For another, it’s on the Wii, which should mean that we can really feel like we’re, say, petting the pony with lifelike motions.
Unfortunately, while it’s true that you do get some of the aspects of a pet sim, like the ability to customize the colors and accessories of your horse, and yes, you do get to wash and groom the horse, the pet-like aspects of the game actually take a backseat to riding the horse. This isn’t just taking it for a stroll around the local park or anything either; we’re talking full-on equestrian events, on a pile of different courses.
Despite the fact that one of the in-game “tips” suggests that we groom our horses before every event, the grooming and the care really means absolutely nothing in terms of how the horse performs in the events, so there is no real motivation to actually care for the horse. There’s no “happy meter” to tell you how much danger you’re in of your horse kicking you square across the jaw with its hind legs; you can pretty much race the thing into the ground without bothering to pet it, bathe it, or care for it in any way, and it doesn’t make a lick of difference. Those features are there, apparently, for those who enjoy fake-washing things. In a pet sim, you at least get chastised for neglecting your animal of choice. Other than in service of unlocking a couple of grooming-specific goodies, My Horse & Me fails to establish just what exactly the point of caring for your animal is.
There are indoor and outdoor courses to navigate.
Stop thinking of it as the pet sim that its outward appearance would indicate, however, and you’re left with a surprisingly absorbing little horse-riding sim.
The actual events can get repetitive, but it’s actually in a good way. Once you get the hang of the Wii controls, moving the horse around the various courses is intuitive and natural, and the control scheme actually benefits from the lack of a ‘jump’ function — run headlong toward the obstacles and your horse will know enough to jump over them. Given that the target of the game is of an age that might not be accustomed to twitch-fast gameplay and hardcore sim elements, the controls are just enough to be challenging but not frustrating. Winning events opens more customization options, like different colored jackets and saddles, as well as new events. There are a solid ten races in each tier of gameplay, from Beginner all the way up to Professional, and the challenge provided in those last couple of tiers is intimidating indeed. Those gamers for whom unlockable outfits provide sufficient motivation to progress will find themselves addicted in no time. If the gameplay is enough to hook you, it will hook you for a while.
This is how you wash your horse with a disembodied hose.
There are also a series of minigames, which is apparently a standard Wii requirement at this point. Do well enough at these and you’ll even garner some “achievements” — at least they didn’t beat around the bush and call them “trophies” or “objectives” or something similar. Apparently, Microsoft hasn’t found a way to trademark the word “achievement” yet.
Boys playing My Horse & Me may find themselves in an unusual situation: namely, they’ll find themselves in the rare position of playing a video game for which they are not the intended audience. Rather than the one or two token female characters that you might find in, say, a one-on-one fighting game or a beat-’em-up brawler, it’s the boys who seem severely underrepresented in this game. There are more customization options for girls than boys, more sensible clothes, and the whole aesthetic is punctuated with pink accents, frilly designs, teapots, and whatnot. Girls get at least a marginal sense of identity; boys get to choose whether they want to be the blond-haired white kid or the brown-haired white kid.
Really, though, any sort of lack of customization goes back to the fact that this is not a pet sim (or, for that matter, a person sim). Give up on that expectation, and My Horse & Me proves to simply be a surprisingly absorbing little horse-riding game. As long as that’s what you’re looking for, My Horse & Me is not too shabby at all.