Monday, October 17, 2005

Nintendogs Day 4

Nintendogs is a great game. As I noted in my earlier post, the game sold 200,000 units in its first week in North America, it sold a further 250,000 units in all of September, putting its cumulative total on September 31st at 450,000 units sold. In Japan the game’s sell through is fast approaching 700,000 units and the game did reasonably well in Europe after its late launch with 150,000 units sold.

I was lucky enough to not only be alive but mentally cogent and aware when Bandai’s Tamagotchi virtual pet craze swept through North America in the late 90s. Heck, I actually had one of those things, or it could have been a cheap knock off…well it doesn’t matter. The point is virtual pet games have been a mainstay for many years now.

It’s surprising that after all these years, virtual pet sims can still surprise us when many thought the fad had passed. I was never big on the virtual pet phenomenon the first time around and for me it was the simple reason of design. The first generation of virtual pets were dumb, stupid and got boring quickly. My Tamagotchi pet went uncared for after about two days, and the Dogs and Cats type PC virtual pet games looked interesting but were more like advanced versions of Tamagotchi games, only with prettier graphics.

This brings me back to my opening paragraph. Why all this interest in a dog/pet simulator now? The answer is quite simple. Nintendogs isn’t a cheap high margin $30 toy. Nor is it a half hearted one-sized fits all PC game that tries to shoehorn the concept of a virtual pet game into an existing platform.

Nintendogs is built for the Nintendo DS. The two native features on the DS, the touch screen and the microphone makes a world of difference. Players no longer need to learn complicated button combinations to access the right menu to play, pet or feed their pets. With Nintendogs, what you see is what you get. If I see the dog, I can reach out pet it with the stylus. Rather than accessing a command to call the dog to attention, players call out the dog’s name.

And the voice recognition aspect of the game the real deal sealer for me. While the voice recognition software is far from perfect, it works well. The dog will learn the user’s voice and learn its name after a few tries. A few days on, even the slightest call will get the dog to react to its name and it will leap happily towards me.

The harder part is getting it to recognize all the different commands for tricks and getting it to remember everything. This may be due in part to the built-in mic being place slightly off centre while the natural tendency of the player is to speak to the puppy face to face. The programmers at Nintendo also implemented a nice ‘real-life’ dilemma to players. Rather than having a robot dog for a pet where everything taught is learned and mirrored, the dogs in Nintendogs forget tricks, mix them up, and will sometimes stubbornly refuse to participate in training when they are tired or hungry.

For me, the greatest innovation with Nintendogs isn’t the idea of the virtual pet, but rather the idea of a virtual life living inside a bundle of chips, motherboards and electrons. This effect on the heart and brain is something the clunky Tamagotchi and the first generation virtual pet software never truly achieved. Nintendo had really nailed down the illusion of a real living pet with in this game, sans the physical touching, although the touch screen is a welcome substitute.

And for all the flack Nintendo get about how the DS is underpowered, Nintendogs is a great game to play and look at. The 3-D world is silky smooth, perfectly textured and dare I say beautiful. It is all seen through the dog’s eye view of course. The dogs are slightly stylized but look realistic and do not betray the real puppies they are based on. It is also clear Nintendo designers studied real dogs to capture how they play, sleep, react to toys and even how they go to the toilet. Everything is modeled with a kind of whimsy and realism that makes coming home to the game such a great thing. And finally, the game isn’t time consuming. Fifteen minutes here and there is enough to maintain a healthy dog and keep the dog trained for the game’s various competitions.

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