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Nintendogs: Chihuahua and Friends

And they call it puppy love.

Who wouldn't want to own a real live puppy? They're cute, they're cuddly, they're always pleased to see you, and in the event of a nuclear holocaust you could always use them for food before starting on the corpses of your family.

Problem is, real live puppies just aren't an option for some people, either for practical or financial reasons or because their boyfriends say it wouldn't be fair on the dog because you'd be too lazy to walk it every day and the flat's too small and the hairs would get everywhere and the landlady probably wouldn't allow it anyway and besides he's a "cat person" (which means hasn't seen Curse of the Cat People because if he had he'd probably be keeping very quiet about such a fact frankly).

Anyway, yes, a real live puppy isn't always an option, so hurrah for good old Nintendo for coming up with an alternative that costs less money, requires less energy and is much less likely to try and "get friendly" with your leg. And what's more, it actively encourages you to poke it with a stick and won't get you in trouble with the RSPCA for doing so.

The Nintendogs concept will be instantly familiar to anyone who's ever had anything to do with a Tamagotchi or one of those Petz games for PC - you're responsible for a virtual pet, and must offer regular food, exercise and entertainment if you want to keep it happy.

But Nintendogs has so much more to offer than those earlier pet sims - it's more complex, more involving, and altogether a lot more fun than they ever were, as we'll explain.

The Japanese version comes in three flavours - Chihuahua and Friends, Shiba and Friends and Miniature Dachshund and friends. Each features a different selection of breeds and whichever you opt for there are plenty of dogs to choose from, such as poodles, pinschers, corgis, German shepherds, Yorkshire terriers and Shetland sheepdogs, to name but a few.

We opted for Chihuahua and Friends - it may be the least popular edition in Japan, but it seemed to feature the best choice of decent-sized, normal-looking dogs as opposed to those weird rat things that Hollywood celebrities like to adopt because there's just about room for them in their handbags alongside all the bars of gold and bags of cocaine.

It all kicks off at the pet shop, where you're shown a selection of puppies and given a rundown of their different personalities. If your Japanese is anything like as good as ours it's at this point you'll start to realise that Nintendogs is somewhat text-heavy, and that a rough grasp of what the kanji characters for "Yes" and "No" look like isn't going to get you very far.

Still, some useful translation guides are available on Gamefaqs, and with their help it's not impossible to work out what the deal is.

Once you've bought your puppy and brought him (in our case) home, it's time to teach your dog some new tricks, which is where the DS's microphone and voice recognition capabilities come in, and where things start to get interesting.

First off, your puppy must learn to respond to his name. We had some trouble getting ours to respond to 'Guttenberg', and so plumped for 'Lucky' instead - more obvious, yes, but with one less syllable to confuse the poor pup.

All you need to do is record yourself saying the name, and then practice calling your puppy. Each time he responds, a quick pat on the head will produce a shower of sparkles to show that your dog has understood and is feeling rather pleased with himself.

The same basic formula applies for teaching him other tricks, except you also use the stylus to demonstrate what you want the dog to do - draw a straight line in a downwards direction to get him to sit, for example. It's fun to work out what stylus movements encourage which tricks, though we're still trying to find the "juggle" move.

Feeding and watering your puppy is simple enough - buy the appropriate items from the shop, which also sells doggy shampoo, brushes, toys and a wide range of fetching collars, and touch the item on the 'Home' screen to use it. Job done.

Just like real live ones, your puppy will need walking at least once a day if he's going to stay alert and happy. To do this, touch the relevant icon and you're shown a map of your home town, complete with the location of your house, the pet store, local parks and so on.

You'll also see a number of question mark icons - this means your dog will either come across a 'present' (usually something fairly useless which you can sell at the shop, but occasionally something cool like a pair of doggy shades), or another puppy to interact with.

Then it's a matter of drawing your chosen route on the map - ensuring that your dog's stamina, shown in a bar on the left of the screen, won't run out before you make it back home.

The actual walking can be a bit of a chore, quite honestly. There's not much to look at apart from simply-drawn houses and parkland, and you spend a lot of time watching your dog sniffing other dogs' arses to decide whether they're friend or foe, or waiting for him to finish doing a piss (which leaves a blue circle on the map in a strangely satisfying manner). And you mustn't forget to clean up his doggy plops, which is simply done by touching them with the stylus.

Each time you exercise your puppy he gains a bit more stamina, which means longer - and, well, more boring - walks. You can also take him up the park, meet other doggies and play a bit of frisbee, but it all wears a bit thin rather quickly.

At least it's realistic, though - anyone who's ever owned a real dog will be familiar with such tedium. And anyone who's girlfriend wants a real dog will use the fact that she even gets bored of walking a pretend one as further evidence that it would be a bad idea, incidentally.

That's basically all there is to the game to start off with. Your dog can only learn three or four new tricks per day, but once there are enough in its back catalogue, you can start entering competitions and winning prize money - which is where the game becomes more than a technologically-advanced pet sim.

As your winnings grow, so does the range of breeds available to you. You also get more items to choose from, and even buy a new apartment if you're feeling particularly flush. Although you can only keep three dogs in your apartment at a time, there's a 'doggy hotel' where you can send pups for a break.

We haven't been able to try out the wireless multiplayer mode yet, but it sounds really rather good. Not only do you get to introduce your pup to your friends' doggies and watch them play together, but if you put your DS into sleep mode and come within WiFi range of another player who's done the same, you'll be alerted by a loud bark - then you can just open up the consoles to start playing. We can't say we see ourselves spending hours playing with a stranger's puppies on a train platform, to be honest, but it's a neat touch.

It's not just the incentive to buy new dogs and collect more stuff that makes Nintendogs such a playable game. The puppies are so well designed - they move realistically, they respond consistently and they look cuter than cute can be - that you really do find yourself wanting to care for them and keep them happy.

Which brings with it a whole bunch of guilt, we have to say. Unless you look after your puppy every day, it'll become miserable and listless. It won't die since unlike Tamagotchi, Nintendogs live forever, but that doesn't mean you won't feel a wave of shame when you realise your puppy's got fleas because you forgot to brush it for four days.

Because Nintendogs does such a good job of making you care for your doggy friends, you do feel obligated to look after them, even on days when you might not have the time or particular inclination to play the game. We've even been known to have conversations of the "You do it," "No, it's your turn" variety round these parts. But again, it's just like real life... And although walking can be a chore, there's so much else going on in the game that we've found it impossible to put it down. Har.

However, as much as we love Nintendogs, we can't really recommend buying a Japanese import unless you have a basic grasp of the language, as it's too much hassle to work out how your puppy's feeling or what you're supposed to do sometimes. All in all, it's probably worth waiting for the US version, due out in August, or the European release in October.

Both will feature exclusive breeds not available in the Japanese game, too, so we'll certainly be buying the first English language version we can get our hands on. And, providing you don't have an active and deep-seated hatred of puppies, pet sims and general cuteness, we'd recommend you do the same.

Nintendogs is due out in Europe this October.

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