When reminiscing about the good old days of the Nintendo DS, it’s almost impossible not to fondly recall one of its most loveable games: Nintendogs. Its real time pet simulation gifted players with their own furry companion from the comfort of a handheld and stirred up such a positive reception that it even received a sequel on 3DS. The Nintendo Switch however, has had a gaping pet simulation shaped hole, until now. Enter Little Friends: Dogs & Cats.
Although not developed by the same minds behind Nintendogs, Little Friends: Dogs & Cats serves as a spiritual successor. For the most part its plays out just like Nintendogs, adopting familiar features from the games that inspire it, but then also combining them with fresh nuances to create the pet simulator Switch players have sought after for the last few years.
Your animal antics begin at the Friends Plaza where you have the pleasure of choosing your very first companion. As the title suggests, there’s plenty for both cat and dog lovers to enjoy with a line up of eight pet breeds to choose from. With such a variety of coat colours and personalities to decide between, the “top 3” feature is a real godsend, allowing you to keep track of the doting animal eyes that tug at your heartstrings most as you do a little window shopping.
Little Friends primarily plays out in a single room where you’ll care for, groom, play and form a long-lasting bond with your pets by keeping track of their needs gauges on screen. It’s difficult when playing not to appreciate how great everything looks, especially when thinking back to the Nintendo DS. Your pet is really brought to life with beautifully rendered fur and animations teeming with personality. Yes, you’ll spend heaps of time cooing over happy tippy-taps or gazing deep into puppy dog eyes.
Playing with the touchscreen and the Switch in handheld mode is the obvious port of call when petting and grooming, even if your pet jerks around uncomfortably when engaging via the touch screen, there’s a deeper sense of interactivity than with the Joy-Con and have the console docked. Awkwardly swaying the remotes in small circular motions simply doesn’t have the same interactive feel, and besides, nothing breaks immersion like frequently recalibrating your Joy-Con in between tasks. However, docked play shines when you get to fling squeaky toys with a throwing motion of the Joy-Con; In handheld mode you simply hold and release a button whilst altering your trajectory with the analogue sticks.
It’s a shame, but it doesn’t feel like Little Friends makes full use of the console’s controls and the touchscreen in particular. When Nintendogs on the DS managed to fully incorporate touch controls, the fact that you can’t navigate menus in Little Friends by tapping away on the screen is indicative of this inconsistent feeling.
Alongside general care, there’s always time for walkies. 3D routes invoke a welcomed sense of realism and showcase Little Friends’ enticing and vibrant visuals. Walks task you with finding spots for your dog to mark and digging up treasure spots indicated by balloon bundles. The Joy-Con functionality shines its brightest here, as manoeuvring the remotes to lead and steer your pup towards objectives effectively imitates a real dog walk. In comparison, handheld mode feels horrendously clumsy seeing you erratically swing the lead side to side to guide your companion.
As soon as you’ve returned from a walk, you can immediately grab the lead again and head back out on another walk as soon as you’ve finished, making walkies feel like less of a novelty and more of a traditional video game grinding technique. Nintendogs negated this tedium by only allowing walks every thirty minutes, so multiple walks were possible without outstaying their welcome and you were pushed to do other things or take a break from the game. It’s also arguably less realistic; you wouldn’t return home with tired ‘ol Fluffy in real life only to drag them out the door again panting and parched.
Walking is one of the many ways you earn the experience required for climbing the game’s rewarding progression system. Becoming better acquainted with your pet sees your friendship level grow, granting access to unlockables and new tasks. This may cleverly depict strengthening ties with a pet and constantly provide you with focused goal, but it also defies the genre in many ways, stepping away from simulation and slipping into a generic, run-of-the-mill video game form. Reaching a certain level of friendship will reward you with another trip to the Friend Plaza to pick out a new friend.
When you have multiple pets, you have to cycle through and interact with them individually. This breaks up the game’s flow as you navigate menus, but it also highlights the differences between cats and dogs. Though it might arguably be more realistic, there’s annoyingly little to do with cats beyond playing a cat wand mini-game.
Little Friends appeals to a player’s competitive nature with flying disc competitions. The Joy-Con prove finicky when throwing a disc, urging you to compete in handheld mode as to not carelessly throw away first place. They’re an efficient way to earn currency and better connect with your furry pal. Coins and tickets earned can be spent on over 600 accessories, alongside several room themes and furniture items to purchase. Unfathomable customisation options gives Little Friends its own identity and make for hours of fun even if poor little Rover looks ridiculous in the Polka-dot skirt you bought for him.
Pet personalities give an even greater edge. Each pet has a preferred food type and flavour, and matching their preferences will earn you big XP rewards and a happier pet. This is a feature brimming with untapped potential. As your pet walks around idly when you’re not interacting with them, it’s hard not to imagine how better traits may have been better implemented. Perhaps your pup could be more mischievous and be a bit of a barking pain or a lonely kitty could pine for your attention. There are twelve pets that can be owned in total, with three being at home at any one time. Although this allows you to enjoy all breeds and their quirks it doesn’t deter from the fact that once you’ve dabbled in a few competitions, levelled friendships and played dress up for a little while, there’s ultimately little else to do. It’s a shame a lacklustre range of content fails to emphasise the replayability the games that inspired it managed to retain.