Review: Nintendogs + cats = Strange, lovable and amazing

If you’re looking for a cartridge that includes Samus Cat, classical music, 3D dog poop, birds flying at your face, Elvis hairdos, RC helicopters and an entire house themed around Super Mario Brothers…boy, have I got a game for you!

Or, non-game, I should say. Though it contains excellent competition events, Nintendogs + cats’like its predecessor’is not really a game at all. It’s a strange, surreal, heart-tugging experience’a condensed, crazy mix of everything that’s cute and funny about owning a pet. And it’s 100% Nintendo, with all the detail, wackiness and ingenuity that implies.

Nintendogs + cats (N+c) is squarely aimed at two groups: Those who never played the DS original, and those who loved the original enough to play it all over again in 3D”¦with cats. If you happen to fall into a third group’perhaps hoping for a completely new experience or revolutionary cat-inspired gameplay (maybe bird mauling?)’well, keep walking.

Make no mistake, though: this is a top-notch, spectacular Nintendo release, and one with amazing depth, if not breadth. There are really only about ten things to do in this title, but those activities contain so much variation, randomness and surprise that the world feels astonishingly alive. No two sessions are ever exactly the same.

If you played the original, then only you can decide if another trip to puppyville (with cats) is worth forty clams. You might be wondering if the cats make it a whole new game. The answer is no. There’s a good reason the cats didn’t get their own title; they don’t do much except purr, eat, sleep, scheme and interact (hilariously) with the puppies. The cats are basically the game’s best purchasable accessory. They do, however take up one of your three pet slots, cutting into your potential competition income. Aw, what the heck, they’re too cute to ignore.

What’s New:

* Improved Puppies…plus cats!

Here we have, in a nutshell, the reason this franchise is so popular; Miyamoto and crew got it right. The animals in the original were amazing, and this 2.0 batch of furballs is even more so. Their behavior is so lifelike, varied and believable that you can have fun simply watching them go about their business. Nothing breaks the illusion of life during play; it really is an amazing accomplishment.

Picking out pups and kittens at the kennel is quite an experience this time around, as countless combinations of fur coloring, faces, body shapes and attitudes result in an amazing variety of possibilities within each breed. Be sure to try the “surprise me” option to see some occasional rare colorings you’d never find in the normal breed sub-categories.

There are three breeds of cat available (Standard, Longhair and Oriental), each with a ton of possible variations. Again, make sure to try clicking “surprise me.”

Voice recognition seems more responsive this time around, and they do react happily to familiar faces at the 3DS camera. They apparently bark and growl (and hiss) at strangers; I haven’t had a chance to test that feature. Oh’and this time they gain and lose weight depending on what you feed them.

* 3D

I’ve mentioned this before, but the 3D in N+c is amazing. In 2D, the game looks great. Switch on 3D, however, and suddenly the animals display real-looking fur while environments gain incredible depth. On walks, fireflies float out of your screen. Birds and dog spit hurtle straight toward your face’and yes, that is a plus.

* Better Walk Mode plus Miis and Streetpass

In a recent interview, Shigeru Miyamoto admitted the first Nintendog’s walking minigame felt like a chore. The new version is a vast improvement, offering first-person perspective, branching routes, obstacles, secret item shops to discover, populated streets and an overall feeling of exploration and fun. Unlike the original’s ghost town of invisible dog owners, the locales are now full of Miis and their pets. This goes a long way toward making the whole experience more colorful. Leaving the game on auto-pilot pedometer walk mode while carrying the 3DS around in real life will earn you special gifts and open up the Streetpass chance of bringing other players and their dogs into your game world.

* AR Card Support

It’s a small but awesome feature. You can use all six AR cards to take photos your pet (plain or in one of the five character card costumes) interacting with your surroundings, fully animated. In 3D, it’s truly eye-popping. The cards are also used for the Obedience Trials, which now take place on your own tabletop.

* Improved Disc Competition

The most fun event in the original becomes even better with the addition of special scoring rings, great camera angles, and’most importantly’all three competitors taking the field together, keeping the pressure up as you can see exactly how well (or terribly) you and your pup are doing as the clock ticks down.

* Lure Coursing

I miss the original’s obstacle course events, but the replacement Lure Coursing takes better advantage of 3D. You quickly crank a fishing reel (poor, poor touch screen) to pull a tethered dog toy along a twisting track, enticing your dog to chase it to the finish line ahead of two competitors.

* The Recycling Guy

Many items cannot be bought or found; you must get the Recycling Guy to build them for you from crud your puppy brings you in gift-wrapped boxes found on walks. Seriously, why would anyone gift wrap a chunk of ruined tire?

Nintendogs + cats, like its predecessor, is a huge, deep, surprise-filled non-game best played in short sessions over a period of months. The Disc competition is, again, the best part and is’again’limited to two entries per dog per day. As much performance art as it is videogame, N+c is not for everyone. As a relaxing, daily dose of gentle comedy, however, it’s a one-of-a-kind charmer that pulls off its illusion with such skill that imitators should simply throw in the towel and give up.

Have you bought or tried N+c? Do you dislike any of the changes from the DS version? Is it different enough? Has your kitten brought in a dead bird? Please post your reactions and thoughts!