250,000 sold in its opening week in the US. Almost two million units shifted worldwide. A version featuring cats planned. Heck, even prominent displays in GAME. When it comes to Nintendogs, you sense another Nintendo behemoth rolling ominously this way, flattening all before it.
Except that, in this case, the astronomical sales are refreshingly justified - Nintendogs is a splendid title and one of the strongest DS creations yet. It's not just that the game is excellently presented, or that it possesses charm by the bucket load, or even that it's a title that cleverly taps in to our innate desire to care for creatures needier than ourselves (see also: The Sims, the Tamagotchi phenomenon). No, the greatest success of Nintendogs is simply that no other game has felt so perfectly mapped to the DS - the existence of the game on Nintendo's uniquely equipped handheld couldn't feel any more natural or harmonious.
The premise is simple. Armed with a DS stylus, players are tasked with raising a pup (six breeds are available at the start of play, though which breeds depends on which of the three versions of the game you pick up) and taking on all the duties that come with such a responsibility. Hence, you'll need to supply your new pet with food, water, baths and walkies, not to mention ample amounts of TLC, which can be granted simply by petting your pup with the stylus. It's endearing stuff alright, and the reactions of your dog to the strokes of your stylus (raising its head to let you stroke beneath its chin, whimpering when you tap at its paws, etc.) are likely to produce cooing sounds from even the most hardened of individuals. As with real-life pet ownership, a certain level of commitment is required, thus, neglecting your dog can lead to him/her contracting fleas, or even running away (in the Nintendogs world, death is not an option).
However, it's the deployment of some of the more underused features on the DS hardware that provides many of Nintendogs' highlights. The inclusion of voice recognition - despite some minor flaws in the implementation - is a small stroke of genius, allowing owners to teach their canine various tricks, ranging from 'sit' to 'play dead' to 'jump'. Admittedly, learning some commands can take time and patience, and the voice recognition can behave a tad erratically (I'm not quite sure why my dog seems to suddenly forget how to roll over after a week of effortlessly rolling over on command), but such problems are relatively uncommon and don't detract from the fact that Nintendogs employs the DS microphone to a more successful and convincing degree than any other game I've seen. I'll confess now that it's difficult to talk to your DS without, well, feeling like a bit of a nugget, so it's probably not a game for the bus ride to college or work.
The dogs themselves are cute little blighters - all eyes and eagerness, bouncing around your screen. They're skilfully drawn and animated as well, and Nintendo deserves considerable credit for the sheer variety of animation on display here. It says everything you need to know when your reviewer can pop along to the Nintendogs kennels, and simply watch three dogs play amongst themselves for a good ten minutes. In all honesty, it's the best 3D I've seen yet on Nintendo's handheld, and I suspect it's the visuals that go a long way towards making me care so much about my pixelated pups. Meanwhile, the dogs also sound thoroughly authentic, with different breeds producing different barks and a sizeable range of whimper and panting effects further adding to their appeal.
But whilst all is well on the technical front, I've got the odd whinge when it comes to parts of the title's design. For example, in what amounts to an effort to beef up the game, you're given the chance to indulge in an assortment of leisure activities, which vary somewhat in the levels of enjoyment they offer. The Frisbee contest is good fun for example, and provides a quick way of making money (and neatly, your dog improves the more times you enter). Equally, the obedience trials are also an enjoyable addition, though I could probably have done without the text commentary supplied by 'Ted' (who looks a bit like Fred Dinenage) and 'Archie' (who looks like a dustman).
Conversely, walking your dog couldn't feel more like a chore. In the several minutes you'll spend each day strolling with your hound (and the game insists it's a necessity, or your dog becomes unhappy), the level of interaction is enough to send you drifting gently to sleep. Occasionally, your dog will stop to chew on rubbish that's been left out on the street (a quick tug on the leash drags him away), whilst every now and again you'll stop to 'chat' to another owner, who simply dispenses generic dog-rearing tips. Oh, and your beloved mutt will also bring you gifts every now and again, ranging from sticks to ridiculous looking doggie hats. And, um, that really is it. It's unquestionably the weakest aspect of the title, though it's pushed close by the laborious agility trials that you can enter your dog in.
However, despite the odd quibble, there's something terribly alluring about Nintendogs. Whilst it's quite possible that not every prospective owner will react in the same way, I quickly found it became difficult to let a day pass without checking on my virtual pet. And in an age where so many games can barely hold our interest beyond the first few days, I reckon that's a damn fine achievement, not to mention a good reason to shout instructions at a handheld console. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a Welsh corgi to bathe.