Uh-oh! It looks like managing a puppy is more difficult than it looks, which is something you’ll learn minutes after switching on Zhu Zhu Puppies, the latest entry in Game Mill’s best-selling videogame versions of Cepia’s adorably cute plush toys. As you’ll note, the puppies replace the hamsters this time around, and while previous games in the Zhu Zhu series for the DS featured elements of both pet care and light gaming, Zhu Zhu Puppies focuses more on the maintenance part, digitally recreating the day-to-day management of your virtual pooch using little more than your stylus and even your voice. If this sounds almost too good to be true, better hold onto those plushies, because this is one ‘pet simulation’ you’ll want to put up for adoption.
Playing Zhu Zhu Puppies is split between two basic parts; Chores and Free Play, each playing off the theme of you being a youngster left home alone and tasked with taking care of your new puppy. During the Chore phase you’ll have three-minutes to finish up directed activities to earn your allowance, which include basic maintenance for your pet (i.e. feeding, bathing) but will soon turn into hiding “uh-oh” moments from your parents (i.e. stitching couches, gluing vases) before they return home. There’s no real punishment for failing to perform your designated list – your parents never return – though you won’t earn as many doggy points if that happens.
Free Play is where you’ll spend most of your time in the game, as this is where you’ll get to play and interact with your puppy using all of the activities that have been unlocked as you continue to play the game over time (see below for a description of this). Since there’s no time limit you’re free to play as long as you like, or even visit the in-game store to purchase newer items like hats and toys using earned doggy dollars from completed chores. Speaking of activities, you’ll perform the most include basic doggy daycare ones like petting, feeding, and helping them do their ‘business’ outside. Most require simply scribbling or poking them with the stylus, while other more complex activities like throwing sticks or stitching ripped couches require swipe motions or connect-the-dot style motions.
As you play more activities will open up, such as picking up ripped toilet tissue or gluing broken vases together, but most are just variations on themes from earlier activities. Select activities, such as singing or blowing bubbles, require you to speak or blow into the DS microphone, but these are rare exceptions to the stylus rule.
The game’s core problem (among many) is that none of this is much fun, as you never really feel like you’ve made a connection with your puppy, and your interactions with them feels forced and conditional. Actions as intimate and simple as petting are segmented from each other, requiring them to be ‘triggered’ before you can engage your pooch for a little quality time. Then there’s the realism, or complete lack thereof, especially in what should have been the most reinforcing areas; feeding and nature-calling. Your puppy never gets hungry, and whether you choose to feed or disregard him/her completely is up to you, as is taking them outside for a potty break. Same goes with overfeeding or having them ‘go’ often; none of this matters because your puppy doesn’t feel or act like a real puppy whatsoever.
Not helping is a clunky interface that’s far less intuitive than it needs to be, especially given the intended ages the game is intended for. Essentially, you’ll have to navigate between rooms in the house, including the kitchen, bathroom, living room, etc, and outside in the yard. Each has their own individual set of menus and activities, but you’ll have to fumble through them to get anywhere, further adding to the game’s severe micro-managing. Going from the kitchen to outside requires first going through the living room, then manually doing the same to go back inside, then selecting another room. Even selecting activities requires flipping through menus, opposed to simply engaging your puppy directly.
Another big – and potentially crippling – problem is the time-release way the game dolls out its newer activities, which is in real-time, which means you’ll have to play the game literally for days to unlock all it has to offer. This wouldn’t necessarily be much of a problem if the activities were actually worth waiting for, but there’s only so many times you’ll want to pet, bathe, or toss a stick around in the yard before losing interest and wanting more to play. And the new activities that do become available are questionable dog-directed ones at best; blowing bubbles and singing, really?
Graphically, Zhu Zhu Puppies doesn’t fare that well, especially as the puppies themselves look like mutated crossbreeds (no pun intended) between Zhu Zhu Hamsters and characters from EA’s Spore games; they just don’t look or behave anything like ‘real’ puppies. Is this really the same hardware that brought the adorable pooches of Nintendogs to life nearly six years ago?
At least the sound effects are decent enough, with realistic barks, chewing, and other puppy related noises accompanying actions. Unfortunately, the Zhu Zhu’s resident voice-actress, Angela Taylor, returns once again to read EVERYTHING in the game with her exaggerated, squeaky voice. As with every Zhu Zhu game before it, Taylor’s pronunciation and inflection of words and phrases borders on the excruciating at best, and insulting and patronizing at worst. Children, the real targets here, deserve to be treated better than this, as do anyone forced to listen to this style of vocal torture overpowering everything in the background. Angela, if you’re reading this, tone it down next time, OK?
Less an actual game than puppy dog simulator, and not a good one at that, Zhu Zhu Puppies is the most disappointing of the usually reliably Zhu Zhu videogame franchise. The virtual puppies don’t look, move, or act like anything even remotely resembling real puppies, and the game’s outdated user-interface makes even the slightest and most basic activities a chore. There’s nothing resembling intimacy here, and it would be a shame for kids to develop such a one-sided view of how raising real animals really is. Save your money for better Zhu Zhu games (the ones with hamsters) or even the original Nintendogs series. Or better yet, spend the time visiting your local animal shelter and consider adopting the real thing instead; yes, it’ll mean a lot of real work, but you’ll get real love back.
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