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Tomodachi Life

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Game Review

For a certain kind of video game player, a virtual city, Sims-like game is awesome sauce. For someone, say, who raised a little electronic Tamagotchi keychain pet as a kid. For someone who has long dreamed of owning a robot dog. For someone who might even be known to say things like awesome sauce.

Know somebody like that? Are you somebody like that? Well, the gamemakers at Nintendo have a newly constructed, super-duper island home they want to sell you. And you can move in right away.

They Look and Act Like You and Mii
At the game's beginning, Tomodachi Life sets you up with little more than a pretty tropical isle and an empty apartment building. Those apartments, however, are all primed to house any Mii characters that you may have already created for your 3DS handheld. Or you can create oodles of new Mii residents for just this occasion. The versatile Mii creation tools let you piece together characters who look pretty much like anybody you can envision—from your pigtailed little sis to, well, some popular celebrity you've always wanted to meet. And if you don't feel all that capable of capturing someone's unique looks, the 3DS camera lets you simply snap pictures of friends and family and then give the game itself the job of fashioning a Mii look-alike.

After you've got your initial move-ins chosen, though, Tomadachi Life takes things a step further. By answering a few easy, slider-based questions you assign each Mii one of 16 different personality types. You can then choose an appropriate-sounding voice and pick out things like favorite colors. You even specify each little guy's or gal's relationship to you. So, by the time you're finished, your virtual neighbors not only look like people you know (or want to know), they (sorta) act like them as well, right down to the fine-tuned element of favorite sayings and catchphrases. You know how your mom always says "Oh, bother" when she's upset, and your geeky pal Joey tends to yell "I am Spartacus!" when he wins big in a video game? Well, their Miis can easily learn that lingo too.

Thankfully, though, your Uncle Theo's Mii won't ever have to put any cash in the swear jar—because bad words are not allowed in this game.

Don't Worry, Mii Happy
Your gaming job is now simple: Keep everybody happy.

And that's where the Sims-like micromanagement kicks in. As stores, parks, shops and entertainment choices start popping up around the island, it's your job to make sure your characters' needs are met. As you tap a Mii's thought bubble, you'll find out that he's thinking about how hungry he is, or how tired she is of the same old clothes, or how much he'd like to get to know that new girl, Sally, who moved in a few doors down. You check out the shop inventories, buy the necessary items and make sensible suggestions or neighborly introductions. And with each job well done or help given, your kindness is rewarded with cool cash that keeps the bank accounts full enough for future purchases.

Now, that might sound a bit like a grinding step-and-fetch slog, but it's really not. This is actually a fairly fluid game that can be played in short 10- or 20-minute spurts, put down and then picked up later for some more no-penalty fun. Thanks to the Miis' different personality types and ever-developing likes and dislikes, your interactions with them actually become more creative and relationship-like than you'd expect.

On top of that there are myriads of minigames and activities that you can participate in with your apartment building full of tenants. You can stop in and play a short 8-bit RPG video game with a guy who's looking for company on an lonely Friday night. Or you might help a Christina Aguilera Mii rewrite some song lyrics before she belts out a ballad over at the local concert hall. Or you could give that boy-next-door Mii, Juan, a bit of romantic advice.

That's right, as the neighbors meet and the different personalities interact, love, marriage and even little Mii offspring can become part of the gaming mix—all kept very E-rated and family friendly.

Note: Nintendo was reportedly lobbied to include the possibility of same-gender couples in this game, but that's not a part of the Tomodachi Life, uh, style. "Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life," the American branch of the company responded in a statement. "The relationship options in the game represent a playful alternate world rather than a real-life simulation. ... We apologize for disappointing many people by failing to include same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life. Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to change this game's design, and such a significant development change can't be accomplished with a post-ship patch."

What My Mii's Heart Wants, It Wants
What was accomplished is a game that will likely surprise you by its seeming spontaneity and sometimes goofy quirkiness. Because for all of the things gamers must keep track of and organize here, it's the stuff they can't control that keeps things compelling and unique. The in-game characters need your help and accept it graciously, of course. But, interestingly, they still exhibit an innate hankering to live their own lives based on who they are—no matter what direction you push them.

You may want to set up a guy's apartment, for instance, with your preferences in furniture, or fill a girl's closet with your favorite fashions, or send the two of them in the matchmaking direction you think best. But these little digital people won't be happy until they find a way back to the things they enjoy.

Friendships will wax and wane without any help at all from you. Hearts will be broken. Activities will be either enjoyed or spurned. I mean, who knew that the queen of England had such a secret penchant for rap or race car driver outfits? Not me. But that's the way she played out in my game. And that's the kind of good clean fun that keeps Tomodachi Life as cheery and involving as it is.

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June 6, 2014


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Bob Hoose

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