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August 23, 2005

Nintendo's Geist and Nintendogs together offer fun for gamers and non-gamers alike

After the usual summer gaming drought, Nintendo has released two top-flight titles that together offer a little something for everyone. I'm not using "everyone" in the narrow, gamers-only sense, though. Parents, little siblings, and girlfriends will be just as entertained as your stereotypical gamer between Geist, a first-person shooter/adventure that adds a never-before-seen twist, and Nintendogs, which fully realizes the virtual-pet concept for the first time thanks to the Nintendo DS's innovative technology.

Geist (GameCube, $50, Available Now):

First-person shooters have quickly joined Grand Theft Auto clones as the videogame industry's dime-a-dozen genre, as developers continue to cash in on recycling the same, tired formula with minimal tweaks or new characters. Sure there have been plenty of great first-person games—including Nintendo's own Goldeneye and Perfect Dark—but it's hard not to grow a bit tiresome of every small upgrade. With its latest release, however, Nintendo has shown there's a lot of life left in first-person games if game companies are just willing to think outside the box.

Three months ago at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, I walked away from the Geist demo disappointed. While the concept of playing as a ghost that could inhabit objects and living things had sounded great, the first level of the game played like, well, a generic first-person shooter. Even worse, it played like a bad one, featuring floaty controls, enemies that unconvincingly fell with a single hit, and an uninspired laboratory environment. After the game was delayed once again, this time from June to August, I figured that Geist would end up as another one of those games that just didn't come together in the end.

In some respects, that initial impression turned out to be true. The game's shooting aspects remain average, the victim of a relatively weak engine. But in terms of overall fun factor—the only thing that matters with videogames—Geist succeeds incredibly well, making you think and laugh through its clever environmental puzzles. As soon as your character's soul is ripped from his body after the first level (an infiltration of a suspicious scientific corporation), the game takes a dramatic turn for the better, switching from a shooter to a puzzle-based adventure.

What follows is a surreal sequence in a heavenly meadow, where you learn the ropes of being a poltergeist. You are taught how to possess objects and living hosts, the former being used to frighten the hosts so that they are possessable. After occupying a bunny—complete with colorblind view and hopping ability—the computer simulation breaks down and you're thrown back into the labs with the purpose of both trying to bring the company down and trying to get out alive (well, in some form or another).

Most of Geist's puzzles involve figuring out how to get from point A to point B, and there may be a couple solutions—some requiring brute force, others allowing you to slip by unnoticed. Without giving away the game's best puzzles, one example allows you to possess a dog's food bowl and scatter its contents everywhere in order to frighten and take control of the canine. He can sneak through some small holes, but of course can't open doors nor sneak through pipes and other very tiny holes, requiring you to look for other beings to possess. In other situations, you may even protect your host, whose suspicious activity may alert other guards, by dispossessing and scouting ahead to make things easier for yourself.

Boss battles require a lot of the same type of thinking, and they get better as the game goes along. One early fight requires you to use the enemy's own weapon against himself, and in later ones you can try to trick your foes into shooting at each other. Pure brilliance.

It's clear that the developers at N-Space have a good sense of humor and had a lot of fun making the game, designing a number of situations that will make you laugh. The possession aspects are easy to keep track of as well, as a miniature version of your character is shown in the bottom-left corner of the screen so that you can always tell exactly what you're doing.

Unfortunately the game's biggest drawback is that developer N-Space just didn't nail the technological side of the game as well as they did the concept. Aiming is sluggish, the graphics are decent but unmemorable, and glitches and awkward animations can take you out of full immersion. That being said, Geist's puzzle focus avoids most of these issues and really impresses as a one-of-a-kind experience through the game's satisfying 15-hour story.

Like most games of this type, Geist isn't nearly as satisfying on a second play only because knowing how to solve the puzzles is most of the battle. The game's multiplayer mode, however, comes through big here, offering everything from your traditional deathmatch style to a clever possession-oriented fight. The latter mode was my favorite, splitting the players and bots (up to four of each) into hosts and ghosts. While the hosts use their special guns to kill the ghosts the conventional way, the poltergeists try to inhabit the hosts and drag them (kicking and screaming) into the level's multiple spikes, electric fields, lava pits, and other hazards. Even deathmatch has a fresh feel thanks to the ability to possess different hosts with their respective advantages.

With a solid story and an even more satisfying play concept, Geist breathes a lot of new life into the first-person genre. Though the game lacks Nintendo's usual tight play control, it does bear the company's signature innovative eye. It's a great buy that has satisfied both me, an adventure fan, and my friends that are shooter nuts.

Rating: B+

Nintendogs (Nintendo DS, $30, Available Now):

Unlike Geist, Nintendogs uses an idea that's been attempted plenty of times. The big difference between this virtual-pet simulator and previous attempts like Tamagotchi or Seaman is that this time your pet is convincingly real. The Nintendo DS's hardware features offer an entirely new level of interactivity with your pet, and the developers clearly went the extra mile to make sure these dogs reacted as realistically as possible to your treatment. Nintendo took a risk with a "non-game" like Nintendogs, and they succeeded with a title that will at the very least intrigue anybody that gets five minutes with it.

When you first boot up Nintendogs, you'll be given a choice amongst six different breeds of pups, with each featuring three personality, sex, and color variations. After you bring your new dog home for a price, you'll have to teach it its name, repeating it into the DS's microphone several times. After your new puppy gets a hang of your voice, it will react lovingly toward you and bark its approval. From there, you have free reign to do whatever you like, the defining experience of the open-ended Nintendogs.

The first thing you'll notice as you coo, pet, teach, play with, and walk your dog is that it will react completely believably to your every action. Each bark, wag of the tail, and lunge after a tennis ball (or even you) is animated to perfection. Tire your dog out with a long walk and it may act indifferently toward its toys as it readies for a nap. Come back to it after being away from hours and it will be thrilled to see you come home and probably desperately hungry and thirsty as well. Pet it and watch as it rolls its eyes back into its head.

Nintendogs keeps track of time elapsed with the system's internal clock, and you'll have to schedule your playtime accordingly. A title best played for a couple short sessions a day, your dog needs to be fed at least once a day to keep it happy and active. You'll also need to take it on frequent walks, with at least a half hour of rest required between them, and enter it into one of three competitions up to three times a day. Those competitions—agility, disc catching, and obedience—help you earn money to buy pet supplies, a new interior design for your condo, and new puppies. As you gain more success in the trials, the contests will increase in difficulty, requiring a strong bond between master and dog.

Of course, all dog owners want their puppies to grow affectionate towards them, and depending on the personality of the dog chosen, earning love varies in challenge. Thanks to the Nintendo DS, you're not limited to playing games, feeding, or giving praise with artificial button presses; instead, you use the system's stylus to actually feel like you're petting your dog and playing fetch. All dogs have different spots that they like to be scratched the most, and some may even grow bothered if you pet them in their least favorite spots. The stylus is also used to teach your dog tricks, as you can give simple motions to show it how to sit, rollover, jump, shake, and more. As soon as your dog pulls off the move, you can tap the light bulb above its head and assign a voice command, though each dog will have different tolerances for learning multiple tricks in a day. Completely neglect to feed and play with your dog for multiple days may cause it to run away from home.

Even taking your puppy out for a walk is entertaining, thanks to the ability to sketch out a route through the city. You can visit various discount shops, run into other dogs, pick up surprise presents along the way, head to the park or gymnasium to practice for the competitions, or even just enjoy the scenery. Your dog will gain stamina with each walk, and it may come back happy or upset depending on who it met along the way. Almost certainly it will come back thirsty and tired, though. The town map even shows where your dog has recently marked its territory.

As with most of Nintendo's DS games, Nintendogs places a high priority on interactivity with other players. The game includes a "bark mode" that allows you to place your DS in sleep mode as you carry it around throughout the day. If your system detects another system within range, it will send you the other player's puppy to play with and offer you the chance to send a present along with a message.

The entire process is effortless and extremely rewarding: Watching your puppy interact with another often yields hilarious results, as they may play or fight, bark at each other or fall asleep on each other. As Nintendogs finds its way into people's systems, subway rides may become just a little more interesting, offering new ways to connect to people. These types of local exchanges—similar to those seen in games like Polarium and Yoshi Touch & Go—offer an exciting glimpse into what will be offered when Nintendo launches Animal Crossing and Mario Kart with its free Wi-Fi service this fall.

When you feel ready (and acquire enough cash), you can purchase more dogs, housing at most three at a time. Of course training a new pup can be hard if the other one keeps taking its toys or attracting its attention, so Nintendogs allows you to drop any of your dogs off for a luxurious hotel stay. When you have all of your dogs together, though, the game does a great job with handling all the voice recognition and puppies' interests.

The game's main visual strength is in the dogs themselves, as clearly all care went into making them as lifelike as possible. Still, your condo and the city are both well-created backdrops, and the DS's two screens ensure that one is always focused on your puppies as you navigate the easy-to-use touch-screen menus.

That accessibility is the game's strongest point, as Nintendogs is a game really made to entertain anybody. My parents—who never touch any game unless it involves something interactive like Donkey Konga's bongos—were just as interested as my gamer friends, and the game's slower pace ensures that this is a game that anyone can relax with on the couch or on the road for short spurts. With plenty to unlock to keep Nintendogs in your DS for a long while, this game should expand the system's reach to a much wider demographic than any gaming system has before. I hope there's plenty more from Nintendo where this came from.

Nintendogs: A+