game reviews and playing tips: Nintendo DS games Read our review of the Nintendo DS here!
Review posted Janurary 2006 by Alex Lifschitz
Release Date: August, 2005
ESRB Rating: "E" for Everyone
It has been proposed that the presence of a puppy or equally cute organism can decrease one’s IQ tenfold, at least to explain the all too common fits of mental instability characterized by slurred speech, odd vocal tones, and the insistence on using ridiculous names such as “Mr. Fwuffykins”. Either way, pets are fun to have around, at least for the companionship. Nintendogs has aimed to simulate the experience of owning a dog, at least for a target audience. In Japan, many people simply do not have the space to raise a dog, so the addition of Nintendogs to the DS library was relatively exciting. But can this game truly reproduce the experience of canine ownership, at least on a cognitive level in the US? The answer is a resounding yes according to the record number of copies sold. But is it just as fun as owning a real dog? Does it stay fresh? Well, you’ll have to decide for yourself.
As soon as turn on your DS, you are greeted with the warm barks of puppies looking for an owner, at which point you are greeted by a cuddly… Wooden door. Well, once you knock on it, you are introduced to the game. You have $1000 to blow, and you must purchase one of many breeds of dogs as a starter. Each copy of the game – Chihuahua, Dachshund, Labrador, and Best Friends – has its own unique combination of starter dogs. You can unlock more breeds by hooking up with friends who have other dogs, or simply gaining enough trainer points to earn the new breeds. Either way, your initial selection of breed presents you with the option to select the sex, appearance, and temperament of your dog. Then, finally, you can take your bundle of joy home and begin a new life with your dog.
You can do all the things that you would do in real life with a dog. You can teach it to come when you call it using the microphone, teach it tricks, pat it, and play with it, the whole nine yards. When you walk the dog, you are brought to a map where you can use the touch screen to plot your route, and you can then pick up presents, meet other dogs, or go to a discount shop for necessities, or even head to the park to play Frisbee and engage other dogs. There is also an agility arena that you can use to train your dog for agility trials. Walks are the primary source of items for your pet, such as toys, records, or accessories, including cool toys with Nintendo themes, such as Mario/Bowser/Peach karts, though some items are unique to certain games. Getting cool collars, bows, hats and wigs for your dog is half of the game.
But in order to survive in this dog-eat-dog world (hackneyed puns aside), you need to get the cash flow to support yourself and your puppy. You can do this by walking your dog, picking up items and selling them at the secondhand shop, but this method is painfully slow. The preferred method to get more cash, as well as trainer points, is to enter your dog in trials. There are a total of three trials that your can enter up to three times a day. The first is the disc trial, where your dog must catch a Frisbee that you throw as far and as quickly as possible for the most points. The agility trial, which is much easier, has you using the stylus to guide your dog along an obstacle course with the least amount time and faults as possible. The last and hardest trial is the obedience trial, which has your dog performing tricks that judges call out. Each trial has different levels of difficulty, capping off at the Championship class. With every increase in difficulty, you will have to contend with harder canine opponents, more obstacles, and harder tricks. The agility trial is probably the easiest thanks to the control you have over your dog, and the championship fetches a handsome thousand clams for each victory. The obedience trial, though, is extraordinarily difficult. The championship nets a whopping $3000 per win, but the voice recognition is frankly not that good, and the only way your dog can perform tricks is at your command using the microphone. If you haven’t trained your dog in a quiet room and with a clear voice, your dog will often flub his moves and cost you the championship, and you also need to make sure your dog is clean and presentable prior to entering it. Thankfully, the other trials are simple enough to help you accumulate a good chunk of change, but be warned – If you neglect your dog, it will not perform well in any of the trials. It has to love you before it fully cooperates.
This brings us to the first problem. Early on in the game, it can be fun to have a dog, but if you are the kind of person who grows attached to your virtual dog, get ready for a chore. The game, in time, will feel like a glorified tech demo used to show of the DS’s capabilities and nothing more. There is no way to put all your dogs in the dog hotel at once, nor is there a hibernation mode. The game plays all the time, even while you are asleep, and if you neglect your dog, it will grow to hate you, or even run away, only to return later in hopes of getting you to love it again. This is the double-edged sword of Nintendogs. I must admit that cognitively, the game replicated the feeling of owning a real dog, and as a real dog owner, I can attest to its authenticity. But this means that you may grow attached to your dog, even to the point of feeling guilty when you make your dog wear a ridiculous hat. I must give kudos to Nintendo for creating this kind of authentic atmosphere, right down to giving each dog an individual personality, but I must also lambaste them for not allowing a cognitive reprieve from the dog, as you may quickly feel like you are married to your pooch, not allowed to neglect it in any way. I got tired of the game after a while, but I couldn’t bear to let my dog starve. I purchased a second dog to give some sense of relief, and generally to give my dog a playmate, but it was yet another reason to begrudgingly turn my DS on and walk, feed, and train my dogs. If not for the sentimental reasons, you may want to keep your dog in ship shape in case you bump into somebody and want to go into bark mode with them.
Bark mode is the multiplayer aspect of Nintendogs, wherein you send your dog into bark mode with an optional gift, and you can then interact with any other Nintendogs owner who is in bark mode. Well, interact is a loose term; once the DS has detected another dog, that’s the extent of real-time interaction. Their dog is sent to your DS, and vice versa, and from there, the dogs are in their own little world, though if either of the dogs brought a gift, they will give it to the other DS owner, as well as unlock new houses and breeds. You cannot see the DS owner interact on your own screen, and for all they care, they could set your dog on fire (no, you can’t do that in the game), and it wouldn’t matter; Their interaction with your dog will have no effect on your game whatsoever. You can, however, get each other listed in your friends list, where you can view their name, birthday, motto, rank, dogs at home, and you can even record a message to send to the other DS owner. Even better, you can turn on Bark Mode and close the DS, and it will still keep searching. If you happen to walk by another person in bark mode, an hour later, when you open the DS, you can still interact with that dog. But this gives way to another problem with the game, albeit a human error. Though it is one of the best selling DS games, unless you live in a bustling metropolis, you will usually not find many people with whom to take advantage of this innovative feature.
All the controlling is done via the touch screen, with a few exceptions, such as using face buttons to select dogs to interact with, or using the control pad to rotate the camera. Aside from that, the controls are actually quite innovative. You can use the touch screen to guide your dogs during agility trials, throw Frisbees, scrub and brush your dog, holding the leash on walks to stop your dogs to pick up gifts (or yank them away from harmful, edible trash), play with a pull rope, throw tennis balls, pat your dog, etc. The only time the touch screen can be imprecise is during the agility trials, where two obstacles placed close together might throw off your stylus and cause your dog to screw up a jump. Other than that, I am surprised at how many ways Nintendo found to utilize the touch screen for the purpose of raising your virtual pets.
It is somewhat hard to critique the graphics in a game that is, in essence, a glorified Tamagotchi, but the graphical quality is stunning for a system with pre-N64 capabilities. Each of the dog breeds is rendered with incredible detail, down to the facial expressions and mannerisms of the dogs. They react realistically to any kind of stimulation, and each individual dog breed of dog has a unique and identifiable appearance. Even the environments in the house look first-class, lending to a real sense of accomplishment when you gain enough money to buy a new house. However, some textures, usually outside, can be a blurry, but it is one of the only faults I can find with the game. Colors are bright and vivid (especially in the seaside house), and the sheer multitude of accessories for your dogs is mind-boggling. The graphics may be the true high point of this title.
Sound, though, can be better. Yes, the sounds are quite clear, and each individual dog has its own distinct bark. There are a decent number of records to get for ambient sound, and sound effects outside, such as fire trucks going by, are quite realistic. The problem is that some of the soundtracks can get irritating after a while. When you have to interact with your dog every day, you learn to hate some of the soundtracks, and while original, they get old fairly quickly. For the most part, though, the sounds are evocative of their surroundings. The walking theme has a vaguely Parisian feel, while the trial music has a competitive flair, but nothing that truly makes it noteworthy. A good job on the music, but you grow to associate it with their sections, which become a chore later on in the game.
If you were one of those kids who missed a family event because your Tamagotchi defecated all over the screen, then this game is for you. If you can commit to a virtual relationship, then this game is for you. Hell, if you love dogs, this game is for you. But if you are a casual gamer, someone who doesn’t like to play every day, or if you are the kind of person who would grow attached to a stuffed animal, you may want to steer clear of this game, or it might enslave you in a labor of love. But then again, who can resist those cute little puppy dog eyes? Aww.
Playing Hints and Tips
- More trainer points means more dogs and houses. Trials are the fastest way to accumulate them.
- One way to get items on walks repeatedly without having to wait another 30 minutes to walk them again is to get the items, go to a park, equip another accessory, and then turn off the game. Since it saves when you change accessories, you will start back home, able to walk your dog immediately, but you will have all the items you got on the walk.
- There are two breeds that can only be unlocked with bark mode or by finding items. The Jack Russell Terrier can only be unlocked by finding the Jack Russell Book, and the Dalmatian can only be unlocked by finding the Fireman’s hat.
- The #1 question I was asked while playing with this game was if you could kill the dog. NO. YOU CANNOT KILL THE DOG. You can starve it, or throw items at it, but the game will become much harder, and the most it will do is run away for a while. Oh, and you can’t mate them.
Ratings (scale of 1 to 5):
The graphical detail is incredible, especially for a system with as little graphical horsepower as the DS.
Sound effects are spot-on, but the soundtracks can get old. Voice recognition is also not all that it’s cracked up to be, which can be frustrating.
Sure, playing with the dogs can be fun for a while, but it quickly proves to be a gimmick, and the lack of any reprieve will keep those who grow attached to it playing the game, albeit begrudgingly. If you can bear the thought of your puppy starving, getting filthy, and hating you, then it isn’t much of a problem.
There were simply times where I wanted to just stop playing, but I couldn’t bring myself not to. It’s kind of a compulsion, although not as pleasurable as I would have liked. Either way, collecting items and houses could keep you hooked for a respectable amount of time, as well as experimenting with the multiple breeds.