Dalmatian and Friends gets taken for a walk, and you'll love this puppy as much as all the others.
Nintendogs is a game that I'd heard a lot of good things about, but I always hesitated when it came to buying it. After all, I figured, it's just a glorified virtual pet right? Yeah, you raise puppies, pet them, walk them, and play with them, I get it. It uses the microphone and touch screen, which is all very neat, but isn't it all a gimmick? When I volunteered to review the new Dalmatian version, I had the following (paraphrased) AIM exchange with PGC Director Jonathan Metts:
Jon: Man, my girlfriend is going to think Nintendogs is ADORABLE
Jonathan: Who are you kidding, you're going to think it's ADORABLE
Little did I know how right he was. There are several certainties in this world: death, taxes, and the fact that puppy dogs are adorable. This occurred to me as soon as I booted up my DS and chose a Dalmatian puppy to call my own. While its game experience may be short and limited in scope, Nintendogs: Dalmatian and Friends is a thoroughly engrossing showpiece for the unique capabilities of the DS hardware. I highly recommend it to anybody looking for something a little different.
The game begins with you adopting a puppy from the kennel. There are six breeds initially available: Yorkshire Terrier, Beagle, Golden Retriever, Boxer, German Shepherd, and of course Dalmatian (an unlockable bonus in the other four versions of the game). You choose a female or male dog, name it, and you're off to the races.
Much like Animal Crossing, there's no particular end goal in Nintendogs. Instead, the focus is on caring for your new puppy, training it, and interacting with it. Think of it as a Tamagotchi taken to the next level. I never saw the appeal of virtual pets because they were always too abstract for me, but Nintendogs solves that problem nicely. Even the most stone-hearted, cold-blooded bastard will fall in love with his cuddly critter thanks to the degree of realistic interaction afforded by the DS touch screen and microphone.
The touch screen is very intuitively used to pet your dog and teach him tricks. The stylus controls a hand icon that you move back and forth on the dog's body, resulting in some amusing and lifelike reactions depending on where and how you scratch. There are preset stylus motions that correspond to tricks your dog can learn, which is where the microphone comes in to play.
Nintendogs features voice recognition techology that saves a soundbite and maps it to an action your dog can perform. Rub your puppy the right way (no Johnny Gill jokes, please) and a light bulb icon appears, indicating that it has just performed a "trick" that it can learn. Tap the light bulb and a microphone icon briefly appears, prompting you to speak into the DS microphone and name the trick. Repeat this process a few times and your puppy will learn the trick and perform it on verbal command. Say the word "Sit" into your DS, and your dog will do exactly that.
While impressive, the voice recognition isn't perfect. For example, you can call your dog over by either calling its name or tapping on the touch screen. Tapping the touch screen is 100% reliable (unless your dog is misbehaving, of course), whereas calling your dog's name works maybe half the time. Naming tricks is more accurate, but you must still be sure to speak clearly and not get too close to the microphone, or the recording will be poor and your dog won't understand you. To its credit, the game does recognize the same command spoken by a different voice, even if the recorded voice is male and the commanding voice is female.
Training your pooch is central to Nintendogs, but there's plenty of other stuff to do as well. You can play with your puppy in your living room, bouncing tennis balls off the walls or throwing around a Frisbee. You can buy food and water, new toys, and even treat yourself to some new décor for your house. You can also shampoo and brush your puppy, getting rid of the fleas it may get if you don’t play the game for a couple of days. But most importantly, you can take your pet for a walk, and enter it in contests.
Taking your dog for a walk adds an element of exploration. Players trace their path on an area map and can stop by the park to play with their pup, work on its agility at the local gym, or investigate question-mark icons. The question-marks trigger events like your dog bringing you a gift or meeting other dogs and their owners. Walking is also good for your dog’s health, extending its stamina and in turn enabling it to take longer walks. Going for walks allows you to practice for the competitive aspect of the game: the dog contests.
There are three dog contests you can enter: Disc Competition, Agility Trial, and Obedience Trial. Disc Competition is a Frisbee tossing contest, in which you get points for your puppy catching a flying disc you toss with the stylus. The further away from you that your dog makes the catch, the more points you’re awarded, and you get extra points when your dog makes a mid-air catch. Agility Trial is an obstacle course that has your dog jumping hurdles, running through tunnels, and walking over see-saws. There’s a time limit and point total, with points deducted for missing obstacles. Obedience Trial puts your puppy’s trick knowledge to the test, having it perform tricks in a predetermined order to be judged on how well it follows your voice commands. There are several difficulty levels in each of these competitions, and it’s great fun to work through them all.
Nintendogs lacks an online component, being originally designed well before Nintendo’s Wi-Fi Connection went live. In its place is Bark Mode, a search function that lets you close your DS, carry it around with you, and download the dog and trainer information of nearby players that have Bark Mode enabled as well. Other trainers get added to your Friends List, allowing your dogs to play together. It’s a cool feature, but when you see what developers are now doing with DS online play (voice chat during gameplay, for example), it really makes you yearn to take your puppy online.
While not a graphically-intensive design, it’s obvious that the effectiveness of Nintendogs hinges on how accurately the behavior of your puppy compares to the real thing. To this end, it sports some incredible puppy models that spring to life with convincing animation and adorable behavior. It’s the small touches - like the look on your puppy’s face when you pet it - that really draw you into your pet’s world. Sound effects are also spot-on; when you first hear your dog yawn you can’t help but say, “Awww, that sounds like a real puppy." Overall, Nintendogs does exactly what it has to: make you feel like there’s a real living creature inside your DS.
The downside to Nintendogs is that it’s fairly limited in scope. While it’s not meant to be played for hours at a time (in fact, if you train your dog for an hour or so it will eventually get “tired" of being taught and you’ll be told to try again tomorrow), it doesn’t take long to experience everything the game has to offer. Once you’ve trained your puppy and completed all the levels of the competitions, there isn’t much else to do unless you want to start over with a new dog.
Still, what Nintendogs does, it does very well. It’s a brilliant design that’s instantly appealing, and it truly can’t be done on any platform but the Nintendo DS. The trick-teaching portion of the game is excellent fun, and while the voice recognition is slightly flawed, it works well enough to not distract from the game experience. Each puppy model looks great and features incredibly lifelike behavior. The contests are very entertaining, and it’s especially satisfying to win the Obedience Trial with tricks that you’ve taught your dog from scratch. Nintendogs: Dalmatian and Friends is a great package, and while it’s a little short, I highly recommend it for dog lovers and any gamers looking for an entertaining change of pace.