It's a virtual dog's life

He can do tricks, recognise your voice and likes long walks. But best of all, Nintendog has an off switch. Rebecca Armstrong develops a bad case of puppy love
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But something is about to be released in the UK that could be the salvation of wannabe pet-owners like me. On 7 October, I can be the proud owner of a Nintendog, a virtual canine that won't go after domestic rodents or make my eyes water.

Created for the DS ("Dual Screen"), Nintendo's touch-sensitive hand-held console, Nintendogs is a new kind of computer game - one that lacks a beginning, middle and end. Instead, players choose a virtual pet dog and give it attention and treats while teaching it tricks. It's similar to another Japanese export, the Tamagotchi, the plastic "pet" that needed constant prodding to keep it alive that was a playground hit in 1997.

Giving the Tamagotchi your love and attention was relatively one-sided, with only bleeps or a slow death to show for your time. Nintendogs, however, are considerably more rewarding. The more a puppy is played with, the more responsive it becomes, learning skills like Frisbee-catching or performing backflips. You touch the screen to pat your Nintendog, and use the DS's microphone to name and command it.

I've managed to get a pre-launch copy of the game. I can't wait to enter the world of dog-owners, even if my dog is going to be a collection of pixels instead of a wet-nosed, glossy-coated four-legged friend. The version I have is Chihuahua and Friends, which means I can choose from a chihuahua, Yorkshire terrier, King Charles spaniel, Shetland sheepdog, boxer or German shepherd.

I'm tempted by a Yorkie, but I decide on a chihuahua - tea-cup pups are very "now", especially with Hollywood types like Lindsay Lohan and the ubiquitous Paris Hilton. If a tiny rat-like dog is good enough for them, I'll give one a go. My female chihuahua looks a lot like Gizmo, star of the Gremlins films, so that seems like an appropriate name.

I then realise that I have to train my puppy to respond to her new name by tapping her on the head with the DS stylus and repeating "Gizmo" into the tiny microphone. My colleague looks at me disdainfully as I shout into the DS. "Are you talking to yourself?" she asks. No, I'm naming my pet.

It takes a few shouts to get my dog to recognise her moniker, and by the time she does, colleagues are looking daggers at me. Time to relocate to the corridor. Apparently, the voice recognition function is all part of the fun.

"You get really into it," Nintendo's PR manager Robert Saunders contends. "But when you are out and about shouting 'Sit!' into an electronic handset, you get some very interesting looks." And, as I start trying to teach Gizmo to sit by tapping and dragging the stylus while trying to keep my voice low, I notice a co-worker waiting for the lift looking at me in astonishment. "I'm training my new dog," doesn't satisfy as an explanation, and he goes away shaking his head in dismay.

Then my boss appears, wanting a go. I relent because she loves dogs, but when she starts smacking my pet on the nose I snatch it back, aghast.

Once Gizmo has mastered sitting, I take her for a walk in the park, although our route is limited by the size of my dog. I soon discover that little Chihuahua legs can't go very far. Maybe I should have gone for the German shepherd.

Walk completed, a message appears instructing me to make sure my dog has a drink after her exertions. I go to the in-game store cupboard and find some water. I also find some dry food. I check her status - well-groomed, thirst-quenched and happy. I feel proud. I try to take her for another walk, but the game tells me my dog has to rest.

Part of the appeal of the game is that there's none of the violence or combat of traditional computer games. There's no need to worry if you forget to feed your virtual pooch - it won't suffer, it will just be harder to control the next time you play.

Anne Salter, an educational psychologist, sees the launch of Nintendogs as a positive move. "It's a little bit more realistic than blowing people's heads off," she says. "I'm also very comforted that the dogs can't die."

Dawn Paine, the UK director of marketing at Nintendo, agrees. "This game is very important to Nintendo," she says, "as it represents our philosophy of what games should be about - new experiences, new ideas, not sequels and guns."

I'm beginning to feel a bit bored, but then I discover the toy section and find a bubble-blower to entertain my pooch. To create the bubbles, I have to blow on to the touch-sensitive screen to the point of light-headedness, though it's worth it to see Gizmo prance happily around. We shop for a Frisbee to use in the flying disc competition, I buy Gizmo a rather smart red collar, and I have a go at teaching her to roll over.

I feel slightly sheepish that I've just spent two hours playing with a virtual dog, but despite the unusual premise, the game is compelling. If you start taking part seriously in the game's tournaments you can win cash - and buy more puppies. A sure-fire recipe for social suicide.

Nintendogs may sound like a game that will appeal solely to girls, but it's not - it has already sold a million copies in Japan, where it was launched in April, and seems to appeal to consumers right across the spectrum, much like Tetris did when it launched in 1988. I know of many hardened male games-journalists who rushed out to buy Japanese versions of the game as soon as it went on sale.

"At face value it looks like a game targeted at younger people, but actually it appeals across the board," Paine says. "It makes grown men cry." One owner has been moved to set up ppytimes.blogspot.com. "Here I am, 30 years old, and I'm talking to my virtual dog," he says. "Even more alarming is how totally disarmed and attached I feel to the little bugger."

What's sad, but true, is that I know exactly what he means. A virtual dog has stolen my heart.

Made in Japan - the toy crazes

Tamagotchi

Keyring-like creatures from Planet Tamagotchi required undivided care, love and attention or would decide to return to their home planet - i.e. die - prematurely. The awesome responsibility attached to owning one of these pocket-sized electronic treasures didn't deter consumers, and Bandai sold 40 million in 1997, when they were at their peak.

Aibo

Unveiled in Japan in 1999, Sony's Aibo was a robotic dog light years away from K-9. Aibo could be trained to recognise its own name, had a camera on board to take pictures of a dog's-eye view and later models could dance. Despite its obvious appeal to children, Aibo was very much a big boy's toy - it cost over £1,000 when it went on sale in the UK.

Pokémon

This gang of miniature fighting Japanese monsters was one of the biggest crazes of the late 1990s. Beginning life in a 1996 video game devised by the Japanese designer Satoshi Tajiri, Pokémon soon branched out into collectable cards, toys, books, a cartoon and even a spin-off movie. Pikachu - Pokémon's biggest star - made a name for himself in the 2000 film, which grossed around $150m (£107m) in the US alone.

Sylvanian Families

These felt families of woodland creatures were brought to the UK by Tomy in 1987 and were the biggest-selling toy in that year. The craze went on to include a theme park, special Sylvanian shops, a Sylvanian restaurant and there's now a Sylvanian Families website. Impossibly twee yet irresistible to small girls, the furry dolls include families of foxes, squirrels and rabbits living together in harmony.

Transformers

In 1984 Transformers took over Britain and became the best-selling toy of th e year. A range of robotic action figures, they were created by the Japanese designers Takara for Hasbro and they went on to spawn a cartoon series and comic books. The robots refuse to go away: last year a Transformers PlayStation2 game hit the shelves in Japan, the US and the UK.

GameBoy

The original handheld games gadget, the GameBoy launched in Japan in 1989. A small grey box with a green screen, the battery-powered console is still selling today; to date, Nintendo has sold 150 million of them. Tetris, Super Mario and Metroid were some of the original GameBoy titles and all have become classics.

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