“Finally, somebody made a new Nintendogs!” rejoices every preview, news article and comments section about Little Friends: Dogs & Cats on the internet. And they’re not wrong – from the moment you start Imagineer’s pet simulator and choose one of six dog breeds (Shiba Inu, Chihuahua, Toy Poodle, Labrador Retriever, French Bulldog and German Shepherd) from a line-up outside a quaint cottage, you’ll find yourself re-treading the familiar adoption and settling in process that propelled the original Nintendogs to mass market fame 14 years ago.
Unfortunately, Little Friends’ commitment to that Nintendogs formula goes a little too far, with it failing to bring any new ideas of its own, even when trying a new approach is all but essential because of the fundamental hardware differences between the Switch and Nintendo DS.
The loss of a microphone, a camera or guaranteed access to a touchscreen are the main issues here, and the result is an already minimal format stripped bare. It is perhaps the case that many will not miss speaking to their digital doggies through the DS line’s tiny, temperamental microphone. Nonetheless, this was arguably part of the charm for younger players and the absence of voice commands leaves several holes in the experience.
For example, your Little Friends pets can learn tricks, but without the possibility of voice commands there is no Obedience Trial equivalent to actually use them in. By contrast, when Nintendo made Nintendogs + Cats it acknowledged the shortcomings of the microphone and found a way to improve the content (AR cards, though these are similarly inaccessible in the Camera-less Switch) rather than just omitting the idea entirely.
Little Friends also lacks an equivalent to an agility trial or lure coursing game. These mini-games relied on the DS touchscreen to guide the dogs around obstacle courses. With the Switch, you would perhaps be subject to the occasional imprecision of the Joy-Con in docked mode – not that this prevented the inclusion of a disc throwing/catching game, nor precludes the creation of some kind of new idea to help make things feel more substantial.
Instead, the disc catching game cuts a lonely figure in the game’s ‘Going Out’ menu – you can practice for a tournament (essential for improving a dog’s hidden catching stat), or play a beginner, amateur, semi-pro, pro or master variation. In handheld mode you throw discs with a combination of the sticks and a throwing button – motion control takes the place of the stick in TV mode (with some occasional unresponsiveness). It’s not exactly heart pounding stuff, but it’s functional and fun content in a game with too little.
The only other ‘going out’ options are to visit the Friends Plaza or take dogs for a walk. The Friends Plaza allows you to acquire more dogs and cats once your first dog reaches level 15 – once you acquire any more than three total, you’ll have to start placing your pets into the euphemistically named “Friends Hotel” for later retrieval – let’s not think too hard about the animal welfare implications there.
Dog walking sees you take a stroll around a full-3D park, with a quota for distance, reward digging and territory marking for your dog to fill before you return. This walk is a fixed circuit that you’ll have seen all of on your third trip, and it is therefore less free-form and honestly not as interesting as the Nintendogs template. There is, for instance, no way of deviating from the fixed route and there are no encounters with other dog-walkers (in typical Little Friends’ style, the function of this element is replaced by flashing up a “misbehaviour” icon that you dismiss with the ‘A’ button).
Back indoors, you can give your pets food, water and a good brushing to keep them happy, as well as petting them and throwing various toys for them to play with. This is the best the game has to offer – most of the dogs look sufficiently cute and respond adorably to being petted and played with. The cats, are generally less well realised: there’s fewer ways to interact with them overall and none of the three breeds available are great to look at – most have gigantic soulless eyes, unusually polygonal bodies and ugly mouths that flap about sinisterly as you pet them.
There is no consequence as such for neglecting your pets – they won’t run away or die if you don’t log in every day. This will be a relief for parents worried that their children may be distraught by a potential loss or even guilt-tripped into playing regularly. Instead, feeding and playing with your pets increases your friendship level with each pet.
Increasing your friendship level allows you to purchase better quality food, toys and clothes for your pets, or furniture and room styles for your digital living room – provided you are also earning enough vouchers in the disc throwing competition, by walking your dog and randomly through other aspects of play. There’s just about enough variety among these purchasables considering the questionable long-term appeal of the rest of the game (you’ll be throwing a whole lot of discs to get every colour variation of every dress-up item). But hey, you can put a Shiba Inu in a pair of dungarees.
It would be easy to dismiss the pleasant but shallow interactions available in Little Friends as ‘good enough’ for an audience of young children, but the reality is that there is so little here that there’s a very real chance that Little Friends won’t stay on their minds for long. Furthermore, the control scheme’s heavily situational use of more intuitive touchscreen and motion controls may actually make this a difficult game to enjoy for those who are newer to playing with sticks and buttons.
At best Little Friends works as a simple, low commitment app that players can boot up to pet some cute puppies and occasionally frightening kittens every once in a blue moon – but this is a mode of play it defaults to by offering nothing else, and at launch it isn’t currently priced for that purpose.
Little Friends: Dogs & Cats invites comparisons with the Nintendogs series with its structure and overall presentation. However, once you’ve enjoyed petting your fill of digital 'good bois', you’ll be left marvelling at how little there is to do even compared to that most lightweight (though fondly remembered) of Nintendo offerings.