Version tested: 3DS
In times of stress, I often turn to videos of kittens on the internet to make myself feel better. As such, Nintendogs + Cats provides a valuable service for me. You don't feel quite so bad about the state of the world after you've opened up a 3DS and tickled a puppy or a kitten for a few minutes. Purely as stress relief, this might actually be the most effective game I've ever played – it's way better than shooting at 12-year-olds over the Internet.
If you're of a similar disposition, Nintendogs + Cats will melt you into a puddle the first time you see it. The puppies are terribly, terribly sweet, and there's a big enough selection of breeds on each version to ensure that there are at least a few that will tickle your individual cute sensors into helpless submission. They are hyper-adorable versions of their real-life inspiration, with big, sparkling eyes and playful, obedient dispositions.
Upon first loading the game, you're prompted to pick one puppy to take home to your cream-and-beige, tastefully plain, very new-age-Nintendo house. Each breed comes in all sorts of different colours – I opted for a brown-eyed black, white and brown Pomerian. You're gently guided through the basics of pet care, teaching the pup to remember its name (Albert, obviously) then stroking it with the stylus to calm it down. Nintendogs are not demanding virtual pets. They need the odd bowl of water or food, but when the game's off, they don't wither away without you.
The puppies look, if possible, even more disarming with the 3D slider turned up. The animation is wonderful and subtly realistic – the fur looks soft, the eyes lively and mischievous. The 3D effect is especially impressive in Nintendogs + Cats, mostly because there's not much to do except look at your pet. Suspend your disbelief and it really does look like there is a tiny animal living inside the 3DS. When they jump up to the screen to lick your face or bark for attention, it's like their paws are up against an invisible barrier a few inches from your face.
After those first 10 minutes of gentle instruction you're left entirely to your own devices, free to play with the small selection of toys already in your inventory, go for a walk or head out to the shop to buy more with your small reserve of starting cash. Unlike, say, Kinectimals, there's no hand-holding and no slow, grinding process of unlocking new things to do.
Teaching tricks is a matter of making stylus gestures or using a treat to get the dog to sit up, lie down, beg, jump or sneeze, and then repeating a command three times into the microphone. Each trick comes with its own tutorial telling you how to make your dog perform it, and the voice recognition appears to be excellent – not once have I had a problem telling Albert what to do, or getting him to respond when he's called.
Dogs can learn three tricks per day, and you can enter them in three different mini-game competitions to earn cash for new accessories and toys. The best by far is the Obedience Contest, which uses the camera and the Augmented Reality cards that come bundled with the 3DS to make your puppy come to life on your living room carpet. It's a simple tricks contest, over in less then three minutes – you give the dog commands and get points when it responds promptly.
Lure Coursing, meanwhile, is a basic mini-game where you wind a lure with the stylus to tempt your pup across an obstacle course, and there's also a self-explanatory frisbee competition. They start off simple, but there are five difficulty levels that will take at least a couple of weeks to get through. Working your way through them is the only way to earn money for more stuff, so you'll need to practice fetch in the park or head to the gym for agility training whilst out on walks.
After a while you'll be able to afford a second pet – you can have up to three at a time – at which point you finally have the option to own a cat. The bad news for cat people is that the kittens in Nintendogs + Cats are strictly a sideshow. You can't teach them tricks, or take them out on walks, or enter them in competitions. They don't even bother responding to their names. I spent days saving up Albert's meagre competition winnings to afford a kitten, and then she basically ignored me, inevitably choosing to sun herself on the windowsill rather than play with any of the things I tempted her with. (This is, of course, entirely realistic.)
There's no sense of obligation to Nintendogs, which is definitely a good thing, but then there's no sense of purpose either. You can only enter each competition twice per day, which means that you can only really play for about 40 minutes a day before you run out of things to do. It's obviously not a game designed for intensive hours-long sessions, but it doesn't do quite enough to sustain your interest beyond the first week or so.
In previous Nintendogs games, for instance, you could find random presents whilst out on walks. These remain in Nintendogs + Cats, but instead of new items you get junk like sticks and plastic bottles, which can eventually be traded in for toys. It's much less immediately rewarding. Without that element of random chance, Nintendogs + Cats doesn't have the Animal Crossing-esque collector's compulsiveness of its predecessor.
It does have some super comedy hats and wigs, though. And as someone who was once a nine-year-old girl, I understand that there's a large section of Nintendogs' audience for whom the slim entertainment pickings on offer will be entirely sufficient. Who cares if it doesn't really go anywhere when it's this lovable right from the off?
Nintendogs + Cats is gentle, sweet, calming and very, very slight. It does what it sets out to do with perfect efficiency, targeting the brain's fragile cuteness receptors with merciless precision. It is a game constructed of gentle routine punctuated by organic, unexpected moments, never demanding much from you in return for its simple, innocent pleasures. It's exactly what you expect, then – but that's certainly no bad thing.
7 / 10