Owning a pet can be a joyous experience, but it's also a serious responsibility. No game can substitute for the real deal, but the lovable animals in Nintendogs + Cats convey about as much of the delight of owning a pet as you can reasonably expect, and you don't have to worry about them ruining your furniture. The game does away with one of the more interesting features of its predecessor, and the introduction of cats brings surprisingly little to the experience, but these charming virtual pets are sure to captivate players of all ages.
Nintendogs + Cats eases you into your new role as a pet owner. When you fire up the game for the first time, you find yourself at a kennel, presented with dogs from a range of breeds. (The nine breeds that are available to you initially depend on which version of the game you're playing, but over time, all 27 breeds can be unlocked in any version.) After selecting a breed you'd like to look at, you're asked to choose from categories within that breed. Select Labrador, for instance, and you're then asked to specify whether you'd like to see yellow, black, or chocolate Labs, and after selecting a variety, you meet three different dogs who meet that description. It's hard not to form an immediate sense of attachment to the adorable pups that seem so happy to see you.
When you find one you think you might like to take home, you can learn more about him or her. The brief blurbs might inform you that the dog you're looking at is a "well-behaved male" who "wags for both friends and strangers," or it might caution you that "this girl is a bit stubborn, so she requires persistent training." Cat lovers should note that felines aren't available when you first visit the kennel. Your first pet must be a dog, and because purchasing that dog will leave you too short on cash to immediately buy a cat, it'll take at least a few real-time days of competing and earning money with your dog before you can get a cat. Anyone who prefers felines to canines and hopes to ignore the dogs and play exclusively with cats is out of luck.
Dogs and cats! Living together! Mass hysteria! (Credit: Nintendo)
When you do get around to buying a feline, you find that cat owning is much less involved than dog owning. Unlike dogs, you can't teach cats tricks, take them for walks or enter them in competitions. But it's a lot of fun to play with these lifelike kittens and watch them climb up onto windowsills and bookshelves, as well as frolic with (or hiss at) your dogs. You can have up to three pets at home at any time, and you can leave up to three in the care of a pet hotel. You can also spend your hard-earned cash on new furniture or interior styles, decorating your home however you like.
So, dogs are the star of the show. After bringing your puppy back to your spacious, sparsely furnished home, the dog (in our case, a female) will at first seem a bit anxious in her new surroundings. Showering the dog with attention and affection, however, helps calm her down, and the way she pants happily when you pet her may melt your heart. Soon, you're prompted to name your new pet, which you do by speaking her name into the microphone a few times. At this point, you can begin teaching your dog voice commands, beginning with the most basic: sitting down. Straightforward tutorials clearly explain how to teach your dog tricks, which include classics like sitting up and playing dead, as well as more unusual tricks like the ability to sneeze on command. Your dog can learn up to three tricks a day, and positive reinforcement through petting and the awarding of treats helps make your dog more obedient and responsive to your commands.
Teaching your dog these tricks is a rewarding way to bond with her, but it's not just for fun. It's also a way to earn some cold, hard cash. You can compete in obedience trials where you're awarded points based on how well your dog responds to specific commands. These competitions use the 3D camera and the AR cards that come with the handheld to make it appear as if the dog is in your real-world environment. (The effect is a bit jittery and unconvincing, but the feature is good for taking still photos of your virtual pets in your actual kitchen or living room.) In addition to the obedience trial, you can enter your dog in lure-coursing races and in flying-disc competitions. In lure-coursing, your goal is to wind a lure on a string at a brisk, steady pace and lead your dog down a track. Go too fast and your dog will lose interest and stop racing after the lure. Go too slow and your dog will pounce on the lure and cost you valuable seconds. In the flying-disc competition, you earn points based on how far your dog runs before catching the disc, scoring bonus points for jumping catches.
Earning first place in one level of a competition gives you access to the next, more challenging level. Later disc competitions introduce hazards like sand pits, and lure courses get more complicated with intersections that force you to decide on the fly whether to speed ahead and risk a time-wasting collision with another dog or slow down to let other dogs go ahead. It's encouraging to see your dog get better at these events, growing from a timid competitor to a proud champion. You can only enter each type of competition twice per day, though, which feels like an arbitrary limitation designed to extend the experience. Because of this restriction, earning the big bucks you need to buy a cat, another dog, or expensive furniture or home interiors takes some time.
When people ask you why you're wandering the streets with your closed 3DS, tell them you're walking the dog. (Credit: Nintendo)
If you want your dog to do well in competitions (and if you want your conscience to let you sleep at night), you need to take good care of her, feeding her and giving her water frequently, as well as giving her baths when needed. Your dog needs love, too; if you come back to the game after the better part of a day or more away, she will be starved not just for food but also for affection, though this is easily remedied by spending a bit of time petting or playing with your dog. The most involved aspect of caring for your dog is taking her for walks. Those who played the original Nintendogs may have fond memories of the way walking worked in that game, where you plotted your own course around town and were able to go a bit farther on each walk than you were before. Sadly, the sense of exploration that came with determining your own path around town is gone here.
Instead, you walk along straight pathways through different areas, including downtown, the mountains and the seaside. Before long, you're given the option to follow signposts from one area to another, but that's the extent of your control over where your walks take you. On these walks, you clean up after your dog, tapping poop to put it in a bag for disposal. You also try to train your dog to stop engaging in bad behaviours like playing in puddles and getting her coat all dirty by giving the leash quick tugs and reinforcing good behaviour with treats. Additionally, your dog finds presents to bring you as you stroll down the path. These nicely wrapped packages often contain goods like rubber and metal bolts, which, when you've collected enough, you can trade in at the second-hand store for new toys.
Each area has places where you can stop and play with your dog or give her special treats. There's a gym where you can practice lure-coursing, a pleasant seaside park that's great for throwing the flying disc around in and a cafe in town that makes delicacies just for dogs, to name a few. The most pleasant aspect of walking your dog is the frequent encounters with other dog owners. These friendly folks are happy to share tips about taking care of your dog or more effectively training her for competitions. And if your dog and the other dog hit it off, you might get the option to let the dogs go on a playdate at the park together. These encounters make you feel like part of a friendly community of dog owners.
By selecting the pedometer option from an in-game menu, you can also take your dog for walks while the 3DS is closed. With this option activated, the game keeps track of how many steps you've taken; the farther you've walked, the happier your dog will be and the more presents she will have collected for you when you open the 3DS again. Additionally, Nintendogs + Cats makes good use of the 3DS's StreetPass functionality. If your 3DS communicates with a friend or stranger's 3DS, you'll receive a present from the other dog owner's collection of stuff, and you can have a playdate at the park with the other dog.
The life-like behaviour and the adorable appearance of the animals in Nintendogs + Cats is essential to making this such a sweet and endearing game. The game also benefits from 3D visuals, which give a sense of depth and space to your home, the park, and the other environments, as well as create the illusion that you can reach right into the screen to touch your pets. If you're in the market for a furry bundle of love that won't jump on the bed and lick your face at 3:00 in the morning, or if you know a young person who wants a pet but might not quite be ready for the responsibility of the real thing, you won't find more adorable virtual animals than those in Nintendogs + Cats.