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Nintendogs

The digital graveyards are littered with virtual pets of all shapes and sizes. From blipping demanding Tamagotchis on up, virtual pets tend to get abandoned for one simple reason: They ask too much and give too little, and in the end, the illusion of life just isn't enough motivation to keep them going. (Or, in the case of the late-'90s Dreamcast title Seaman, they're ugly, abusive beasties who are better off dead.) Nintendogs, a new Nintendo DS title, might solve that problem. Not only are the simulation's dogs cute, they behave uncannily like real dogs, right down to the endearing/ creepy look of undying devotion.

Nintendogs comes in three different variations, which differ only in the breeds from which players (er… owners?) may initially choose. For instance, Nintendogs: Chihuahua & Friends comes with options to adopt a chihuahua, German Shepherd, boxer, or three other breeds, but play long enough, and you'll have access to all 18 puppy types. Once you adopt, the training begins, and just as with real dogs, it's all about repetition. The DS voice-recognition system lets players talk directly to their Nintendogs. It's a cool feature, but also one of the game's weaker aspects, in part because it can be a bit twitchy, but mostly because it makes it impossible to play with your Nintendog without looking like a lunatic.

For anyone with a soft spot for dogs, however, it will be worth it. Players train their dogs to obey simple commands (and later, complex ones) and enter competitions. That leads to more money, better dog toys, and more puppies. Walks around the neighborhood can yield unexpected surprises, and the wireless function allows you to interact with other virtual dogs. All that, and unlike real dogs, they never steal your sandwich or demand to be walked at 5:30 a.m. If players could put their arms around Nintendogs, real-life pets might have reason to worry.

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Beyond the gameplay: One strategy tip: Do not name your Nintendog after your real dog and attempt to play the game with the real dog around. Nothing good will come of it.

Worth playing for: When a Nintendog sits on cue for the first time, it's hard not to be filled with almost parental pride.

Frustration sets in when: Your Nintendog stubbornly refuses to fight space aliens, punch hookers, or perform other expected video-game feats.

Final judgment: Filled with adorable, lifelike cyber-dogs, Nintendogs should have the highest survival rate of any virtual-pet simulation, at least until someone comes up with "compulsively bark at the UPS guy" and "never know when to stop playing fetch" patches.

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