Pet sims have been all the rage with the "yoof" for some time; especially on the Nintendo DS with scads of games having words ending with "Z" instead of the more grammatically correct "S."
Derby Dog for the Japanese WiiWare service is clearly designed to cash-in on this trend, however instead of simply raising a happy pet to feed and play with Tamagotchi-style, you take on the role of a dog handler who races them. Now before you go phoning PETA it's worth noting that this isn't about greyhound racing and the associated tales of abuse and neglect. No, instead you're racing dogs like dachshunds, chihuahuas and shiba inus, which makes it all okay.
There's a lot of text and what appears to be an unnecessary amount of menus, but it's pretty easy to get the hang of things since you're not the "dog whisperer" and don't actually communicate with your charges. After selecting a name for yourself you choose a dog from one of three randomly presented. After choosing a dog he appears in your paddock complete with a house. Surrounding the centre of the paddock are several on-screen icons and gauges. There's a box with your dog's stats off to the right and a gauge in the lower right that seems to measure how happy your dog is with a meter underneath showing his stamina. There are three icons to the left including one to change your cursor to a hand for petting the dog (this fills up the happy gauge), another one that will change the cursor back to a pointer and then a paw print one that brings up a menu with choices to view WiFi rankings, edit dog/handler names, view more detailed dog stats (including measurements), back out to the title menu, register friend codes, view available dog houses or visit the "Hot Dog" shop to buy some DLC. There are two more icons in the top left and right corners of the screen that just exist to hide the icons and stats on the main screen. Considering you cannot control the camera in the paddock it's not clear why two different icons are required for this functionality or why you'd want to do this in the first place.
The top middle icon brings up a menu with two options: Race and Training. Training is something you'll do a lot of because your dog's initial stats are too low to win any races and winning races and getting rich is what this game is all about. There are a number of training events each with three different difficulties to choose from: disc catch, jumping rope, rabbit chasing, dog chasing and walking. Sadly there's no interactivity which seems a missed opportunity to have some mini games that would at least make you feel like the training had a variable outcome and you were influencing it somehow. Instead you watch an animation of the dog jumping for a disc that never even appears on the screen, jumping rope with other dogs whilst standing on hind legs (bizarre, but amusing), chasing a brown rabbit; chasing a dog (difficulty varies the size of the quarry) and simply walking. None of these last more than a few seconds and all are followed by a display of stats getting a barely perceptible increase before it's time to feed your dog.
You get a choice of three random items such as tinned or dry food, water or some other beverage and then more exotic treats like boiled eggs, rice bowls, steak, bones and of course a slice of battenberg cake. Your dog will indicate how much he enjoys his treat and his stamina gauge will be restored. If your dog is happy he gives a little yap after petting; if you're working him too hard he'll let you know with a whine which means it's time to lay off the jump rope and just take it easy by sending him for a walk.
Racing can be carried out online against up to 7 friends or random strangers - though this game suffers the usual problem experienced by games with less than chart-busting sales: lack of a persistent online community. As a result you're better off racing against the CPU. Controls are pretty straightforward: press to command your dog to "GO!" or to command your dog to "JUMP!" (a "handler voice" will emit from the remote speaker announcing the command) which will result in your dog running faster or jumping. The is used to move the camera around the dog and zoom in and out so you can see the competition. Your dog's size seems to have no bearing on his ability to win a race, but you must be careful not to use up all his energy too early. The race is a single lap with the top three places winning big money prizes (accompanied by the hilarious exclamation "Oh my dog!" which brings to mind the infamous bonus level in Capcom's Final Fight) and everyone else going home with their tails between their legs. There are initially 6 tracks to choose from and your dog has a rating in stars (maximum is unknown) so there's the possibility there are more tracks or more challenging races to be had by increasing the star rating over time.
That's the bulk of the game right there, but you can have multiple dogs in your scuderia at once and best of all breed them to make a new potential racing champion. To spice things up you can go to the shop to buy extras for 100pts each; most of which are dog houses with different colours and patterns, though confusingly it's not apparent if you can swap out your doghouse or not. You can choose an option from the paw print menu which allows you to review 8 included dog house designs in a grid with room for a further three, but it's not clear what the point is since you cannot choose to replace the one you see on screen (nor can you zoom the camera in to view it better anyway). There are items in the shop other than houses, but there's no images so unless you can read kanji there's no way to know what's really on offer without buying blind. It could be that there's additional dog breeds, tracks, handler voices or food items - who knows?
The game feels like it's short of what it could be. The sim aspect is okay and the racing is sort of fun, but it feels like there could be more happening here to involve you in the game. For only 500 points it's an interesting novelty and noteworthy for including full online play and leaderboards at that price.