The original Nintendogs blew many away upon its release way back in 2006 – here was a game designed to show off the DS in full, with voice recognition, plenty of touchscreen functions and even a communication feature called Bark Mode that let consoles exchange data automatically. Fast forward five years and we've got Nintendogs + Cats, hoping to impress even more than its pet predecessor all those years ago.
The premise remains the same: you pick a dog (cats have to be unlocked) and teach it tricks, take it on walks and enter competitions. The three different versions available — French Bulldog, Golden Retriever and Toy Poodle — only differ in the dog breeds to choose from at the start, and it's worth noting that all the animals can be unlocked in any version through regular play and StreetPass usage.
There's a greater variety within the breeds than before, with different colours, markings and temperaments helping your dog feel more unique. If it's still not personal enough for you, you can accessorise your pet with hats, sunglasses, bows and more, with stacks to unlock and more promised through SpotPass updates in future.
You're encouraged to teach your pet tricks, a simple matter of performing specific touchscreen inputs (outlined in-game) and recording a voice command to go with it. The voice recognition is generally good, as long as you master the ability to repeat your commands at the same speed and pitch every time, but there are instances when your pet won't respond no matter how often you call his or her name. While real-life dog owners will recognise this as part of any pooch's personality, it'll still frustrate some players who want their mutt to be absolutely obedient all the time.
Outside of the home, there are several competitions to enter and hopefully win, with flying disc contests and obedience trials returning with new tweaks. The new lure coursing is an odd one: your dog must race other pooches around a set course, with the touchscreen becoming a fishing reel-style controller used to pull a squeaky mouse away from your racer. The key to success is maintaining a good rotating rhythm on the touchscreen, but you'll likely glean more fun from the other trials.
The flying disc contest puts your dog's Frisbee-catching abilities to the test: you fling the disc, your dog hopefully grabs it, and you score points based on how far the toy travelled as well as bonuses for jumping catches. It sounds basic — it is — but there's a reason owners love throwing things and dogs love bringing them back: it's fun, and it is here too, particularly as your practice pays off and you move up the ranks.
Lastly is the obedience trial, a mode that uses the console's packaged AR cards to place your dog in the real world. After pointing the 3DS cameras at the card, your best friend emerges, ready to show off his or her tricks with specific objectives required to pass. In all honesty, there's no real reason for this to use AR rather than in-game backgrounds, but it's an impressive trick that's sure to impress, particularly when using the character cards.
If you don't want to pressure your pet into performing, you could always just chill out and play with one of the many toys, and this can be just as much fun as any other part of the game. Throwing a boomerang in 3D is one of the coolest things we've done with the 3DS yet, and other toys make good use of the 3D, microphone and touchscreen. There's a real sense of satisfaction that comes with seeing your faithful hound chewing on a rubber bone.
Taking your pet out and about plays slightly differently to the previous title. Rather than planning a route on a top-down map, you leave your front door to walk down a straight street towards... your front door (how this works we'll never know.) You can still control your pet's pace with the lead, luring them towards presents and other pet owners and away from piles of rubbish. Along the way you might come across a gym or park, for practising lure coursing and flying disc respectively, or a café in which to sit down and enjoy a treat with your dog.
If you really want to stretch your legs, you can close your console and take it out in the pedometer mode. Passing certain milestones rewards you with toys and accessories, and with the wireless switch on you can still interact with other 3DS owners in StreetPass mode to exchange presents and messages. It's not much of a leap over the Bark Mode included in the original, but there's more chance of successful connections now that the need to have the game in the console has been removed. Nintendo is also pledging SpotPass updates to send out new items and potentially breeds, so it's worth keeping your wireless switch on.
But of course, it's not all pooch-walking in Nintendogs + Cats, with felines added to the roster due to popular demand. You'll have to win plenty of competitions with a dog first before being able to afford a cat, and even then there are only three specific breeds available to choose from, with some coat distinctions to mix things up a bit.
If you fall on the kitten side of the great pet debate, you'll be pleased to know they're recreated relatively realistically here, as they enjoy lying around, climbing on furniture and generally acting aloof. You can't do as much with the cats as the dogs, but you can at least dress them up in embarrassing outfits, which should please crazy ladies everywhere.
Regardless of your preference, you can immortalise any moment in your companion's life with a constant camera feature: press the icon or tap the shoulder button and you snap a photo, saved automatically to SD, even in 3D if the depth slider is turned up. It's a seemingly small addition, but it's one that lets you share your pet's quirks with anyone, helping to turn them into more than just a virtual pet.
Those who played Nintendogs on Nintendo DS are likely wondering if this new entry in the series is that big an improvement over its predecessor, and it's tough to say. Graphically it's far stronger, with better animation, modelling and fur effects, and the addition of 3D helps to round the animals out to give them some physical presence. Cats may be the title-grabbing enhancement, but they don't make for the most interesting gameplay subjects, and locking them away from the start will irritate some.
Most people who fell in love with their virtual pooch on the DS will happily start a new relationship on 3DS, even with the knowledge it's not made any huge advances in the five years since the first release. Nintendogs + Cats is most successful lovingly recreating the personalities of its animal stars, and even though isn't the quantum leap forward some will want, it'll likely be the pet simulator to beat over the 3DS's lifespan.