This review originally appeared in E151, July 2005.
It's hard to imagine a less appropriate face for a 'killer' app: all limpid eyes and fluffy tummies, Nintendogs has proven that you can sell hardware, not with the crash and bang of most system sellers, but with a whimper. DS sales quintupled on its release in Japan, and there's good reason to believe that jump with be echoed – if not equalled – when the game reaches the US and Europe.
Not a bad track record for something that's only a few steps beyond the old, tired rudiments of pet-rearing software. Pick your pup, give him a name, and then feed, walk, water and dress him. A modest selection of toys, bowties and tiaras add a whisker of variety to your fun. The only aspect of the experience which constitutes a game are the competitions you can enter your dog in (see 'Paws screen'), but there are only three of these, and they soon become repetitive. Your pups never change or age. Nintendogs is not a game with depth.
Depth, of course, is not the point. Nintendogs was designed to be the proof of Nintendo's pudding. Iwata said touch and voice would revolutionise gaming's demographic and this game has proved him right. Bolstered by some very fine animation, interacting with your pup is immediate, instinctive and rewarding. It's impossible to resist scratching him under the chin until he staggers a few squint steps to the side, woozy with doggy delirium, duping him into chasing his own tail or playing tug of war hard enough to spin him off his feet. Nintendogs may have limited horizons, but it fills them with lively, captivating warmth.
It also has a sound understanding of how non-gamers want to play. Despite its Tamagotchi roots, Nintendogs has none of that genre's tyranny. Neglect your dog for weeks at a time and all he'll suffer is a few flea-bites and an attack of the grumps that five minutes of playtime will cure. Other than a limitation on how many competitions each dog can enter a day, there's no attempt to impose a clumsy game structure on top of the experience. The full pleasure of Nintendogs is on tap, unrationed, almost from the moment you start the game.
There are problems, however. The voice recognition, which lets you teach your dog a series of increasingly sophisticated tricks, is unpredictable, even allowing for the moodiness of your pet. The frustration of the 'Etc' items – picture frames, boxes of tissues and the like – which can be tossed uselessly on to the floor rather than integrated into your house seems to point to a level of customisation which Nintendogs simply can't provide. And the magical animation, while brilliantly capturing the spirit of floppy puppy exuberance, can't always capture its actual mechanics: watching two dogs make friends can be as unsettling as it is entertaining.
Ultimately, while Nintendogs might be the perfect piece of DS software – the perfect way to reach out to the demographic Nintendo is so determined to woo – it's not a perfect game. There's more to be got out of this new kind of play than Nintendo has found this time around, and some of it could be better implemented. But, for now, it offers an experience which can't be matched. It's not so much a glorified Tamagotchi as a glorious one: no risk, all reward.