Thunderbolt logo


Think back to the last time you held a puppy. Now, try and recall your emotions during that moment. If you are having trouble remembering, let me jog your memory for you. You were happy. A huge grin split your face from ear to ear. You might have even giggled like schoolgirl. If the puppy peed in your lap, your smile may have wavered for a few seconds, but it came back. How do I know this? — Because puppies have that effect on people. All people. Rumor has it that even Phil, our Webmaster and Editor-in-Chief, allowed his plans for global domination to be put aside for the few brief moments he held a puppy. This universal “puppy effect” is what Nintendo hopes to capitalize on with their recent release of Nintendogs for the game-starved DS system, and, for the most part, they succeeded.

It’s nice to see there are at least SOME Luigi fans out there

First things first: Nintendogs is not a game. Nor is it a puppy sim. In fact, I have a hard time placing it comfortably in any preexisting category. At its core, the “game” offers you a chance for some fairly limited interaction with virtual puppies, and that’s about the extent of the Nintendogs experience. There are a few Pokemon-style collection elements, such as the way you can unlock more dog breeds, toys, accessories and houses over time, and trade much of what you acquire with friends via the DS system’s wireless link. But, Nintendogs is focused mainly on the gamer’s interaction with virtual puppies, whether it be petting, speaking or playing with them.

If there’s one thing better than a pirate, it’s a pirate dog

Nintendogs starts, as you might expect, by offering up just enough cash to buy your first puppy. Depending on which of three versions of the title you have, the initial six breeds available to purchase varies (though all can be unlocked eventually). After weighing factors such as personality type, gender and physical appearance, you take your cute little puppy home and get to work teaching it its name. This introduces one of the most fundamental aspects of Nintendogs – using the mic to interact verbally with your puppies. Over time, you will be able to teach your virtual pet up to fifteen tricks by simply observing the puppy’s actions and “assigning” a word or phrase to the mannerisms you want repeated. In my experience, the mic’s responsiveness has been flawless in deciphering my own voice, though, much to the chagrin of my girlfriend, anyone else often has trouble getting my puppies to respond to their commands. Another major concern with this aspect of the gameplay is that any male gamer over the age of 13 will likely be too self-conscious to “talk” to their virtual pets in public, lest they sacrifice a little bit of their manhood in the process. However, when it’s just you and the DS in the comfort of your own home, this verbal communication works smoothly and without embarrassment.

Besides interacting with your puppies within the confines of your virtual home, you are also able to walk each of the dogs once every 30 minutes – a process that can net you new items by the way of presents lying on the sidewalk and tips from fellow trainers you meet in passing. These virtual walks are a bit tedious, however, because you are forced to move in a linear path throughout the neighborhood, without being able to explore at your own pace. Because of this, walking your puppy feels more like a chore than an enjoyable experience; though, some may argue that’s the way it is with walking real dogs as well.

Here we see “Zack” using l33t speak, and we bleakly note that someday today’s youth will be running our country

The only real “game” aspect of Nintendogs is the ability to enter in three types of contests order to earn money (used to buy food, pet shampoo, new toys, etc) and Trainer Points (the more you get the more items, like new breeds and houses, are unlocked). One of these contests simply requires you to verbally order your puppy to do various tricks, but the other two, disc catching and agility trials, actually require some level of hand-eye coordination on the gamer’s part. These contests offer up a nice break from just playing around with your pets, and it’s fun to see your puppies become more skilled in each event with practice. However, there is a snag – the announcers for these contents constantly utter jokes that are appallingly unfunny. Even worse, these awful dialogs, which extend before and after every contest, cannot be skipped.

Nintendo included plenty of small diversions in an attempt to extend the longevity of the game, but they all seem rather superfluous when compared to most enrapturing aspect of Nintendogs – the simple interaction between you and your puppies. Whether you’re tossing them rubber bones or “bouncy” balls, petting their bellies with the stylus, or teaching them tricks such as “shake your booty,” playing around with your virtual pets is always a relaxing, pleasurable experience. I find that after a stressful day at college, playing with my puppies, even for just a few minutes, tends to bring a smile to my face and relieve a bit of the stress that has built up; Nintendogs is definitely at its best when experienced in short spurts on a once-a-day basis.

In the perfect world of Nintendogs, dogs don’t bite each other’s noses off over the food bowl

One area of the game that Nintendo absolutely nailed is the visuals. Power-wise, the DS is supposedly equivalent to the N64, but I have a hard time believing that dogs, or any animals for that matter, could have ever been modeled this realistically on that retro console. They pounce, tug on each other’s ears, yap, dig, pee, close their eyes rapturously when petted, and do pretty much everything else that real puppies do. The important thing is the dogs look believable when they perform said actions; if they didn’t, I guarantee Nintendogs would have been a failure. But, because you really feel like you are interacting with living, breathing puppies, the game manages establish that universal puppy appeal in a virtual environment.

Audio-wise, Nintendogs is fairly unspectacular, though the various yapping, whining, and sniffing sound effects for the puppies are believable enough to aid in the suspension of the gamer’s disbelief. It’s obvious that Nintendo studied the different barks for the various dog breeds included, because in the game Chihuahuas sound like Chihuahuas and Labs sound like Labs. The music is inoffensive, and that is an admirable thing to declare about any game, though it would have been nice if the soundtrack warranted a more glowing description.

No, this dog does NOT think your drunken antics are funny

Nintendogs is more like one of those squishy stress balls than an actual game. Both are tools to ease some of the strain of everyday life, and both are at peak effectiveness when used in short bursts. If you purchase Nintendogs with the expectation of getting a game like Pokemon that can be played for hours and hours on end, you will be disappointed. If you want something that will allow you to spend time with very realistic (but still virtual) puppies, then you will probably love Nintendogs.

8 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in May 2003. Get in touch on Twitter @Joshua_Luke.

Gentle persuasion

You should check out our podcast.