From DigiMon to Tamagotchi, there are dozens of choices for the virtual pet lover. The latest, "Nintendogs," ($30, rated E) debuts in the United States next week, exclusively for the Nintendo DS handheld game machine.
Available in Japan for months, "Nintendogs" is a lifelike digital rendering of perhaps the most universally admired of all domestic animals: puppies.
It's a superb example of just how interactive the DS can be with its microphone, built-in wireless and two screens -- one of them touch sensitive.
As in the real world, obtaining a pet starts with a visit to the kennel. After toying around with several breeds, my wife and I settled on a Shetland sheepdog. She named him Huggy.
The dogs are shown in 3D and do an amazing job of mimicking the real thing: they'll sniff around, pant and bark when excited. (They even engage in some unpleasant but necessary business).
The DS touch screen and microphone are ingeniously used. You can "rub" your pet by stroking it on the bottom screen.
You teach your pet various tricks by speaking into the microphone, then rewarding your dog with a rub on the back or behind the ear.
Huggy has only mastered the basics so far, including "sit," "lie down" and "shake."
The trick for owners is to say each command clearly and consistently. Barking orders, in my experience, prompted tail wags but not much else.
In "Bark Mode," your DS will scan the wireless airwaves for fellow pet owners to play with. (I never had the good fortune to bump into other players, however).
"Nintendogs" is real time, so it's important to frequently check on your pup.
I neglected Huggy for two days and returned to find him thirsty, hungry and in no mood to play.
Guilt-ridden, I gave him a bowl of food and water, which he quickly gulped down. He then curled up and took a nap. I quietly saved the game and turned off my DS to give him some dream time.
Checking on Huggy isn't the chore I thought it would be -- it's fun teaching him how to beg, shake, play catch and take walks around the virtual block.
After only a few weeks, I've already formed an emotional attachment with my pixelated pup.
It's this sort of bonding that ultimately makes "Nintendogs" the perfect test run for families considering a real dog -- or anyone uncomfortable with the thought of pet dander, pooper scoopers and veterinarian visits.
There are three versions of "Nintendogs," each with different breeds.
Clearly, pets are becoming more high-tech than ever. In the real world, South Korean scientists recently cloned a dog -- Snuppy, an Afghan hound. Last year, a Texas woman paid $50,000 for a kitten engineered from the DNA of a pet cat she had owned for 17 years.
"Nintendogs" certainly won't replace our love and devotion for flesh-and-blood creatures -- but it's paws-down the cutest virtual pet I've ever cared for.
**** Four stars out of four.
By: MATT SLAGLE
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