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Man's best friend goes virtual with 'Nintendogs'

Digital puppies are adoring, adorable and very, very addictive.
Taking the time to clean your puppy earns its loyalty. Negligence leads to a grumpy collection of pixels
Taking the time to clean your puppy earns its loyalty. Negligence leads to a grumpy collection of pixelsNintendo / AP

The puppies in “Nintendogs,” the virtual pet title for the Nintendo DS, are just so darned cute.

They’re fluffy for one. They hop around on puppy feet too big for their tiny bodies. They chase their tails. When you call their names they scramble up and hop on to their two back legs, front paws pressed against the screen.

First you pick your puppy. “Nintendogs” comes in three versions, each hosting six separate breeds for a total of 18 breeds in total. Dogs such as shepherds, labs, terriers — even that dog-like animal Paris Hilton carries around.  

You feed your pup and train it to perform tricks. Using the bottom touchscreen of the Nintendo DS, you can administer playful scratches behind the ear and all sorts of pats and rubs. 

As in older virtual pet titles such as the Tamagotchi or NeoPets, owners must care for their pets. Taking the time to clean, exercise and feed your puppy earns its undying loyalty. Negligence leads to a grumpy collection of pixels. The great thing about "Nintendogs" is that your puppy will always be a puppy. And no matter what you do, it will never die. It's always springtime in "Nintendogs."

I have a German shepherd pup, Rex. I've taught him to roll over, chase his tail, catch frisbees and shake hands. 

Training is easy. Take the "sit" command, for example. Using the touch screen I give Rex's nose a quick downward brush. He sits. "Sit," I say. "Nintendogs" uses the DS's internal microphone.  Repeat the movement and the voice command enough and Rex learns to sit on voice alone.

Taking your puppies for walks can yield new tricks. This part isn't virtual: You actually go for a walk, with the Nintendo DS in your pocket. Let me explain. “Nintendogs" has a play mode called "Bark Mode.” If you come within wireless range of another Nintendo DS owner who has their "Nintendogs" set to "Bark Mode," your DS will give a little bark. Ruff! It's an invitation to play. Accept the play date and watch both dogs romp around and swap tricks. 

I haven't had the opportunity yet to find another "Nintendogs" owner, but I can't wait.

Owners also can trade personal audio messages in "Bark Mode." Mine says: "I may be over the age range for "Nintendogs," but Rex sure is a cute little pup."

Caring for these little Nintendoggies, all realistically animated and rendered in 3D, can teach children many things: A sense of responsibility, patience — and an obsession with cleaning up poop. 

For adults, the “Nintendogs” experience is not so cut and dry. 

I drove my co-workers crazy as I shouted one-word commands into the DS: “Sit!”  “Shake!”  “Roll-over!” So I took "Nintendogs" home to play with.

One evening Rex was in an irritable mood. I couldn’t get him to catch his Frisbee. I was planning on entering one of the many Frisbee contests available on Nintendogs. I wanted to earn more virtual money so I could visit the virtual pet store and buy Rex a sombrero.

(Yes, there is such a thing as a puppy sombrero.)

But Rex would have none of it. He just sat there, his big brown eyes pleading. What is it, Rex? Another walk?  Water? 

Rex and I were having a moment. Then I felt something tug my pants. It was my 5-month-old daughter. Watching daddy talk to his Nintendo DS was an odd sight, I assume, and so she had crawled over to investigate.

She looked up. Big brown eyes. What is it? Hungry? Poo poo in your diapers?

There was, I admit, a millisecond of “what should I do?” as two sets of brown eyes, virtual and real, stared unblinking. And looking back I can understand why "Nintendogs" was a huge hit in Japan last year — Japan, home of the lowest birth rate in the first world.

I left Rex alone with his water bowl for a couple hours. I'm sorry. "Nintendogs" is awfully cute.  But it's not that cute.