Japanese imports have a mixed record of success in the United States. Sure, Americans love karaoke and Hello Kitty. Sumo wrestling and fugu, not so much.
So while Nintendo has made a fortune selling Mario, Pokemon and dozens of other video-game heroes to us, not everything makes it safely across the Pacific. “Tomodachi Life” (Nintendo, for the 3DS, $39.99) has been a huge hit in Japan since its release last year - but something got lost in translation.
“Tomodachi” (which means “friend”) is a simplified version of a “life simulator” like Electronic Arts’ “The Sims.” All your Miis - cartoon avatars that represent yourself, friends and family members in the Nintendo universe - live in an apartment building on a festive island.
You can build new islanders from scratch and give them a handful of personality quirks. You can trade Miis with pals and download celebrities like Christina Aguilera and Shaquille O’Neal. The Miis can play games, go on dates, even get married and have children, although some U.S. players have protested the inability to build same-sex relationships.
You don’t have any direct control of your virtual friends. They may ask you for advice on, say, whether to ask a friendly neighbor out on a date. Occasionally they’ll invite you to take simple quizzes or solve rudimentary puzzles.
Usually, they just want you to buy them stuff, generally clothes, hats, food or furniture. These Miis are a shallow bunch indeed, and they don’t show much ambition beyond acquiring new goodies. You can teach them songs and catchphrases, but most of the time it’s “gimme, gimme, gimme.”
In that regard, it’s a lot like Nintendo’s own “Animal Crossing,” whose quirky critters are just as acquisitive. But somehow it’s less charming when other people, rather than monkeys and penguins and elephants, are sponging off you. Perhaps talking ducks and hippos are just inherently funnier, but I found the people in “Tomodachi” relatively dull.
“Tomodachi” is also bereft of activities like fishing, gardening and bug collecting that kept you occupied in “Animal Crossing” when you weren’t running errands for your neighbors. Overall, the “Tomodachi” island feels suffocating, probably because everyone lives in the same drab apartment complex.
There are occasional bursts of weirdness. You can view your inhabitants’ dreams, for example, and most of them involve some kind of abstract torture, like being turned into a stick figure. And you may find it strange to see some of your friends pursuing relationships that don’t synch up with reality. If you don’t want to attend exes’ weddings, don’t put them in the game.
“Tomodachi Life” is only meant to be played for 10 minutes or so a day, but even then I found myself not caring enough to turn on my 3DS regularly. If you found “Animal Crossing” boring, stay far away from this. One-and-a-half stars out of four.
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