One genre that absolutely feels underrepresented on the eShop is the pet sim. This is at least somewhat surprising, as the 3DS is not only portable, but it encourages gamers to take it with them everywhere, regardless of whether or not they intend to play anything. It accomplishes this through puzzle and Mii sharing, Play Coins, and an entire library of games with ongoing StreetPass functionality. In short, it's a perfect vessel for the pet sim: your digital pup or kitten (or, uh...dinosaur) can nap in your pocket as you go about your day, and you can check in on it briefly whenever you have time.
Yet, oddly, precious few pet sims have even attempted to find a home on the system, and even fewer are available on the eShop. Enter Riding Stables 3D, which may not quite be the shining example it could have been, but it at least proves that somebody's thinking about potential.
At heart, Riding Stables 3D is a simple enough pet sim. In this case, it's a horse for which you'll be responsible, and you can customise your new pet from a variety of options. In theory at least this is great, but in practice the game's limited graphical capabilities mean that nearly all horses will look alike, colour notwithstanding. It's a shame that there's not more variety — or better graphics to spotlight that variety — but you do at least get some say in what the horse looks like, so it's a decent start.
Where the game really struggles, however, is with its myriad loading times. The icons on the touch screen aren't always as clear as they could be as to what they do, and so when your horse is hungry or tired, for instance, you may find yourself tapping multiple icons in order to locate the appropriate action.
The problem is that about every icon you tap will have a tedious loading time attached to it, during which you'll be taken to an intermission screen that breaks up the interaction with your horse so much that it's pretty much impossible to form any kind of connection with your digital pet. When nearly everything you do interrupts the action for an extended pause away from your animal, it's a lot more like watching a series of unrelated horse videos than it is like caring for an individual pet. When the gameplay is completely centred around tapping icons, and there's nothing to really hope for from the game apart from a bond with your digital horse, this is a big problem.
The controls themselves are at least decent, with a variety of training minigames that are only tangentially related to horse care. You'll be tapping in rhythm and flicking your stylus around the touch screen in order to approximate tricks and games of fetch. It's a bit too simple to be engrossing on its own, but, again, it does at least control well.
Riding Stables 3D really demonstrates potential in two unexpected areas though: the storyline, and the StreetPass features.
It's not that the story is anything revolutionary — and describing it too much here will give away what small twists there are — but it's nice that there's a reason you're caring for this horse, and that the characters with whom you'll interact at the stables have ambitions and agendas of their own. It's a small touch, and one that doesn't encroach on the simple and open approach to the core pet sim experience, but it's nice to see an added level of depth being attempted here.
The StreetPass features see your horse competing against the horses of anyone you pass who owns the game, with the winner receiving unlockable items for use in their own game. It's another simple but effective touch that shines a light on where this genre can go on a console like the 3DS, but like everything else here it feels a bit underdeveloped.
Riding Stables 3D absolutely could have been a worse game, but the frustrating thing is that it could also have been so much better. We're definitely fans of the more interesting gambles this game took, but with the core experience so flawed and bloated with loading screens it's difficult to connect at all to your horse. And without that, there's really no reason to stick around.
Riding Stables 3D definitely has the best of intentions — the StreetPass features, the passively unfolding storyline, and the variety of mini-games — but ultimately it's just not that impressive. The graphics are underwhelming, the sound is aimless and dull, and the frequent load times break any connection you might have otherwise had to your horse. As it stands it feels like the foundation of a much better game, but unfortunately this is the one we got.