- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Man’s best friend becomes part of the hand-held gaming world in a simulation that takes animal care to technologically eye-popping levels.

Nintendogs from Nintendo for Nintendo DS, rated E: content suitable for ages 6 and older, $29.99.

The virtual pet is not a new concept, going back to the mid-1990s with the LCD presentations of Tamagotchi, Digimon and Neopets. However, when twinned with the Nintendo DC, which features a touch screen and microphone, the experience becomes an instantly addictive and immersive classic.

The fun begins when owners, holding $1,000, visit a kennel and use about $500 to purchase a new buddy from a bunch of yipping, cute-as-a-button fur balls. Three versions of the game are available, offering a variety of breeds. The player quickly can choose from six breeds (eventually, 18 breeds can be unlocked) ranging from a Chihuahua to Pembroke Welsh corgi to Shih Tzu. Each will vary in color, gender and, most important, personality.

Once the little fellow gets to a virtual home, owners are responsible for all parts of his care. First, and most important, the pup must be given a name. The player must speak the name clearly and consistently into the DS microphone until the puppy recognizes the moniker.

Caring for the canine also includes using the stylus pen to touch, brush, feed and play. The pet eventually can learn 14 commands reinforced with the pen and voice, such as “sit,” in which the player touches the dog’s snout and speaks the command until the pooch plants himself.

The simulation further requires owners to walk their dogs around the neighborhood by drawing a route (not too far, so the dogs don’t get exhausted — a tiny stamina meter is displayed in the corner of the screen), visit the pet store for supplies and train the pups to enter contests to earn money. Yes, after buying a dog, dry food, water bottles, a collar, ribbons, brushes, shampoo (dogs must be bathed) and rubber bones, funds can get low very quickly.

Money especially becomes important when taking care of multiple dogs; a player can have up to three on-screen at a time. The rewarding chance to enter obedience trials or Frisbee-catching contests not only adds to the pocketbook but also provides a fresh level of action to the care elements along with lessons in responsible training and economics.

The dogs’ cuteness factor will amaze constantly. Nuances such as ruffling their bellies to get a happy pant, watching multiple dogs play together, taking a pup for a walk in the park, and tossing him a ball and trying to pull it back from his mouth will melt even the Grinch’s heart. The little fellow also relieves himself while outdoors, but, luckily, owners are not responsible for cleanup, as the mess just melts away.

The dog animations are strikingly lifelike, and ignoring the pet for even a day can lead to a very thirsty, hungry pooch. The virtual pet will never die, but a neglectful owner will have to work extra hard to get back in the dog’s good graces.

A solo adventure with Nintendogs certainly would suffice for the average pet fan, but developers have added a multiowner option that harnesses the DS’ wireless potential. Any Nintendog owner who turns on the Bark Mode can run into another DS Nintendog owner and introduce the pets to one another.

A pleasant message and bark lets owners know they have found a virtual kindred spirit. Each can deliver an audio snippet to the other’s DS (using a slick phonograph recorder) as well as bring along a present that becomes part of the other owner’s inventory of items. The meeting continues as dogs cross screens and can be played with by either owner.

Overall, the Nintendog experience should greatly satisfy gamers who are not already hooked on traditional high-speed, third-person action games. It will be interesting to see if younger players will get bored with their virtual pet as quickly as they get bored with taking care of real animals.

Considering that the price point of the versatile DS has dropped to $129, Nintendogs with the hand-held could be a great holiday gaming package for the family, especially when compared against the cost of other comparable systems and often much more brutal games.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail ([email protected]).

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