So it was with trepidation that I approached Nintendogs, the cuddly dog-rearing sim for Nintendo DS. A million and a half people have already adopted virtual pooches, making the game a smash hit and stirring queasy memories of Tamagotchi fever.
It would take more than designer doggie sweaters to crack my emotional carapace. In my mind, there were only two relevant questions: Would I have to scoop poop? And would my pup go for the throat in a fight?
The first order of business was selecting from among the 6 available breeds (18 can eventually be unlocked). Each dog has its own temperament, ranging from timid to stubborn. I opted for a playful Siberian husky with a gray and white coat and blue steel in his eyes. He was a born champion. I called him Attila.
Before we bonded, Attila had to learn his name. Here's where Nintendogs' inventiveness began to impress. The DS has a built-in microphone. The technology isn't perfect, but it makes the game highly interactive. Attila quickly learned my special commands for shake ("Straight left!"), spin ("Frenzy!"), and jump ("Windpipe!"). Note: Bellowing these commands on the bus ride home is not recommended.
The Nintendogs experience revolves around feeding, bathing, walking, and playing with your puppy. Scratch your dog on his belly with the DS' stylus to make his eyes close and his tongue loll blissfully from his mouth. Take your dog to the park, and he frolics with other dogs and wrestles for toys (the best is a bubble blower that works only if you blow into the mic). Your puppy gets hungry. He gets tired. And, yes, he poops.
Your dog never ages or dies, but if you neglect him, he may get fleas or run away. He'll come crawling back later with a present -- a virtual guilt trip that'll have you contemplating a real-life donation to PETA.
As the game progresses, your dog builds stamina and develops skills. Imagine my pride, the first time Attila soared high and snatched a Frisbee from the jaws of the greedy Poofle, the spaniel queen of the West Side park. "Windpipe!" I roared. "Windpipe!"
I soon entered my mighty pooch in a Frisbee competition, one of the three available challenges. While fun, the minigames expose Nintendogs' biggest limitation: lack of content. You can only enter three challenges a day. Since Nintendogs runs on real time, you're left twiddling your thumbs for long stretches. You'll play for a half-hour a day, max.
Although obsessive gamers will lose interest overnight, the game's offbeat simplicity and relaxed pace will appeal to dilettantes and young kids, especially puppyless ones. And there's something to be said for Nintendo's effort to create a kinder, gentler way to play videogames. In "bark mode," the DS even allows you to connect wirelessly with other Nintendogs owners, the idea being to create a virtual dog run.
As it turns out, the game never let me enter Attila in an underground dogfight, but that was for the best. He was too much of a softie. The Nintendogs store didn't carry the weighted collars and raw bear flesh I needed to make him a true killer.
Besides, I've sort of become fond of the little guy. The way his tail wags when he sees me. He's so fuzzy. My fuzzy little buddy. My widdle doggie.