Video game all warm and fuzzy

In oft-violent cyberworld, this man's best friend doesn't even bite

October 08, 2005|By STEPHEN KIEHL | STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN REPORTER

NEW YORK -- For years, Shigeru Miyamoto says, the women in his Tokyo neighborhood didn't like him. He's a charming guy, sure, but he's also the chief video game designer for Nintendo. That makes him Public Enemy No. 1 for those who think video games are too violent and pornographic.

But recently, Miyamoto has become more popular. The reason: Nintendogs.

The new video game, which Miyamoto designed for the hand-held Nintendo DS, allows players to choose a pup at a kennel and raise the dog as if it were their own. This virtual dog must be fed, watered, loved and taken for walks. Don't bathe him and he gets fleas. Don't feed him and he runs away. Don't play with him and he sulks in a corner.

It's a cute-bomb lobbed at an industry that has become obsessed with violence and sex, and it's a sensation. The game ($30 retail) has sold almost 500,000 copies in North America since going on sale in late August, one of the fastest launches of a hand-held video game. An additional million have been sold in Japan, where Miyamoto's female neighbors are at last warming up to him.

"For a long time [they] thought I was doing something that really wasn't good for kids," he said in a recent interview.

Through a translator, he said, "When I make a game like Nintendogs, then all of a sudden they get very interested ... and they start to kind of open up."

The game is opening new markets for Nintendo, particularly among young women who had been turned off by the violent nature of most video games. And for those intimidated by the dizzying array of buttons on game controllers, Nintendogs offers this attraction: To play the game only a stylus is needed - and a soft spot for adorable puppies.

"It's not so much a story," said J.C. Smith, a Nintendo spokesman. "It's about a relationship."

The Nintendo DS touch-screen allows players to pet their dogs using a stylus or their fingers. The system's microphone lets players name their dogs and teach them tricks and voice commands. Players must clean up after their dog on walks or risk being castigated by neighbors.

"DID YOU JUST LEAVE YOUR DOG'S POOP ON THE SIDEWALK?!" scolds Audrey, who lives in the virtual neighborhood of the game, if a players doesn't properly tend to the dog. The neighborhood also includes all manner of trash on the streets, which makes dogs sick if they are allowed to eat it.

Still, playing the game is more sanitary than owning a dog.

"It's like a real dog, except you don't have to pick up its poop," said Lilia Jimenez, a 9-year-old from Brooklyn who was at the Nintendo World store in New York recently to meet Miyamoto.

Mary McDonough, 29, an administrator at the Johns Hopkins University, often plays her Nintendogs on the bus and at lunch. She has two virtual dogs - a Labrador, Twinkie, and a beagle, Dru. She says she'd rather play with them than watch TV at night.

"I don't want to watch the 10th Survivor. I want something that's really interesting that's worth my time," said McDonough. Her Lab has won competitions against other dogs in the game, but Dru is tougher to train: "The beagle's kind of a pain, but I'm hoping that as she and I bond, she's not as difficult."

McDonough is a selective video-gamer. She doesn't play sports games or shooter games, partly because they take too much time. But she can turn on Nintendogs while she's making dinner and watch her pups play.

"It's not as though the game sucks you in and you can't look away for a second or you'll be killed or something," she said. "You can do other things and still be a person."

Children have embraced the game, particularly those whose parents won't let them play violent games or own real dogs. At a Nintendogs fashion show in New York's Riverside Park last month, dozens of kids showed off their Nintendogs.

The game has a wireless function that enables it to identify other Nintendog owners nearby. When that happens, the games "bark" and then exchange information; that lets players meet each other and play with each other's dogs. When the dogs get along, they lie on the ground and lick each other. When they don't, snarling fights ensue.

Mark Levin, a 10-year-old from Fair Lawn, N.J., has four virtual dogs: a pug, a beagle, a Lab and a Yorkshire terrier. He said that by taking good care of them, he has shown his parents he can be a responsible pet owner.

"I really like animals and I really wanted to get a dog, so my parents said I could get Nintendogs," Levin said. "Now we're talking about getting a real dog because of this game."

Miyamoto, who created Super Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong for Nintendo, was in New York last month for the doggy fashion show and an autograph-signing that drew more than 700 people, of widely varying ages and races, to Rockefeller Center.

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