During the many hours you can potentially spend lost within Tomodachi Life, you'll find yourself wondering if this new 3DS outing can actually be called a game in the traditional sense. It's certainly addictive and almost universally appealing thanks to its savvy combination of humour, social sharing and Mii-related activities, but is it a game? Or, perhaps more importantly, does it really matter if it's a game when it presents such a compelling and enthralling experience?
Simply put, Tomodachi Life is a life simulation which allows you to imbue your previously dull Mii characters with a distinct sense of personality. Your first act in the game is to pick a Mii which closely represents yourself — whenever you are directly addressed in the game by another Mii, you are branded a "lookalike". The process of importing a character comes complete with a very small selection of attribute selections which ultimately determine what kind of temperament your Mii will have. You can also select the tone of their voice, as well as fill in other pertinent info - such as their date of birth, which is used later on in the game to determine suitability for pairing off with other Miis.
With your core character created, the sky is literally the limit — you can add a small selection of supporting Miis or go overboard and totally fill out the apartments on your island. It's a good idea to take things slowly at first, as every Mii you place into the game requires your attention if they are to flourish as planned. Just like real people, they have demands — such as the need for food, clothing and stimulation — as well as dreams and desires. They will often appeal to you for advice on how to proceed with a relationship, be it simple friendship or something more romantic. In this respect, you are pivotal in deciding how your little community develops and interacts; characters won't embark on any kind of alliance without your encouragement.
Each Mii has a happiness gauge, and when this fills completely they advance a level, allowing you to give them some kind of reward — such as a catchphrase, special item, song or new interior for their domicile. Filling the gauge is simple; almost every interaction with a Mii will increase it, and finding the item which provides the biggest boost for each Mii is all part of the challenge; for example, each character has different preferences when it comes to items of food. Some consumables will cause them to retch and offer no happiness boost, while at the other end of the scale there are foods which result in them flying into space (literally) in sheer, unbridled delight. Experimentation is the key here; there are food items to find — ranging across full meals, snacks, sweets and drinks — and additional ones are drip-fed as you spend more time with the game.
Occasionally, your acts of kindness will result in your Miis giving you gifts in return, which can then be used to placate other characters. For example, bath sets are handed out with impressive regularity, which is fortunate as one of the most common demands you'll hear is the desire to have a quick dip. You can also use reward items to send characters on holidays, morph them into children (and back again) and hypnotise them in order to experience various trippy dreams. All of these processes involve an often humorous cutscene, and while you'll see these several times over during your time with Tomodachi Life, they're so charming that they rarely threaten to outstay their welcome. Besides, you can skip them if you wish.
At other times, your role is that of a peacemaker. Miis will often clash with one another and become despondent as a result; you can calm them down by offering their preferred dish, and they will usually see the error of their ways and attempt to reconcile with the offended party. Whether or not the apology will be accepted is left to chance, lending the game a sense of unpredictability and realism.
Much of what exists in Tomodachi Life is geared towards helping you increase the happiness of your population. Clothing stores provide a change of style, while an interior showroom means you can give each character a change of scenery. These all come with a price tag, but money is thankfully in constant supply — as well as bolstering happiness, all of your actions earn you cash, and your growing population will gratefully contribute money each day during a special "donation" event which takes place in the middle of the island. You can also sell special items for cold, hard cash at the island's pawn shop.
As you add more Miis and fulfil various objectives, other areas of your island become available. These include a concert hall where your characters can perform songs, a funfair where various games and rides are available (including an turn-based Final Fantasy parody which has your Miis facing off against various inanimate objects, including a SNES Super Scope) and a cafe where gossip is exchanged that gives you a fascinating insight into the burgeoning relationships that exist between your denizens. Another location is regularly updated with various tests and reports which give you a better understanding of how things are progressing; one test shows how compatible characters are with one another — vital info when it comes to encouraging potential nuptials — while another shows who is the most popular Mii on the island, or which Mii you've spent the most cash on. There's also an image sharing location, which allows you to post screenshots to Tumblr, Twitter or Facebook. Capturing screens is easy — it's just a matter of tapping the X (top screen) or Y (bottom screen) button at any time during play.
One aspect of Tomodachi Life which is perhaps deserving of being a release in its own right is based around the various songs you can award to your characters. A selection of genres is available — including rock, pop, opera and rap — and while there's only one song per genre, you can edit the lyrics and craft your own unique chart-topping smash-hit. The dance routines that accompany these songs are downright hilarious, as is the result of you stopping the song mid-performance, Simon Cowell-style — all of the assembled Miis freeze in position, their eyes wide open while a deathly hush falls over the audience.
While Tomodachi Life offers a dazzling amount of content, humour is perhaps its biggest driving force. It's packed with amusing situations and superbly-penned dialogue, and much of the hilarity comes from putting familiar faces — family members, friends or celebrities — into funny situations. Although the Miis follow your direction in certain situations, there are many events which occur totally without your input, and it's these happenings which lend the experience a much-needed element of surprise. There's no getting around the fact that much of Tomodachi Life is based on repetition — characters need feeding, playing with, clothing and more — but all of these activities, while hardly irksome, can become overly-familiar over time. Of course, given the practically unlimited potential of Mii creation, you could conceivably keep adding new characters forever and watching as totally unique relationships grow and mature each time, but there is a limit to the number of situations and events which can occur; that ceiling may be a little too low for some players.
It's for this reason that Tomodachi Life is best experienced in small doses, rather than mammoth gaming sessions. As a portable release, this style of play is perfectly possible; with your 3DS on your person all day, it's quite easy to drop in and drop out of the game at will. In this regard, Tomodachi Life shares a lot in common with popular mobile titles like Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes — games which are designed for the long haul, but must be nibbled at rather than ravenously consumed in one sitting. In fact, this is perhaps the perfect "companion" title; it's the type of game which can be played alongside your current 3DS time-sink, allowing you to take a break and unwind with something a little different.
In some ways, you could argue that it would have made more sense for Nintendo to roll Tomodachi Life as a free update to all 3DS systems, as it really serves as a way of drastically augmenting your Miis and making them more lifelike and appealing; building this into each 3DS console would surely encourage even the most lapsed of owners to spend more time glued to those dual screens. However, that's perhaps unrealistic when you take into account the staggering amount of content on offer here.
Tomodachi Life is often compared to Nintendo's other surprise 3DS hit, Animal Crossing: New Leaf. It's a lazy contrast which undersells the uniqueness of both games; while they do indeed share some similarities, they are very different experiences when studied closely. However, it's easy to see this game appealing to the same people who played New Leaf for months on end; in fact, Tomodachi Life has the potential to be even more successful, thanks to its strong emphasis on social interactivity. There's a simple joy in turning your family and friends into virtual puppets and watching them get into amusing scrapes — and publishing those moments via the game's image sharing tool only serves to enhance that appeal.
The fact that it's almost impossible to cover every aspect of Tomodachi Life in a single review is perhaps testament to the vast scope of the game. There is so much going on here and so many months of potential enjoyment on offer that this would easily become your most-played 3DS title. But again, that thorny issue remains — is this really a game in the strictest sense? It's closer to being an expanded version of Bandai's famous '90s craze the Tamagotchi, with your main duty being the happiness of your Mii population, rather than any skill-based challenges. In fact, there's precious little skill involved at all — given enough time, you'll be able to see everything this has to offer regardless of how "good" you are at it. Of course, that doesn't make the process any less entertaining or rewarding, but it's worth keeping in mind if you prefer your games to be a little more demanding.
Despite concerns regarding its suitability for core gamers, Tomodachi Life is a title which has truly universal appeal; the barrier to entry which exists in many pieces of software — Animal Crossing: New Leaf included — is all but removed here, making this feel more like a casual mobile title. Some will see that as a negative, but under Nintendo's watchful eye, this cookie-cutter concept is expanded and improved almost beyond measure. Tomodachi Life is perhaps best described as the glorious culmination of the Mii concept that was heralded by the release of the Wii back in 2006, and at long last gives your virtual avatar a life of its own — as well as many humorous and entertaining escapades to enjoy.