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EGM Review: Tomodachi Life

Posted on June 6, 2014 AT 10:00am

My So-Called Tomodachi Life

Tomodachi Life is very un-Nintendo.

Well, let me correct that: Tomodachi Life is very un–Nintendo of America. In Japan, Nintendo is a different beast. Ever since the company started developing videogames, they’ve consistently sandwiched strange, unusual, or niche releases in between proven hits like Mario, Zelda, and Pokémon. Some of those games make it here, receiving moderate to heavy localization in the process. Quite often, however, we miss out on some of the strangest games that Nintendo’s Japanese arm has to offer.

I was certain Tomodachi Collection would be one such situation. While the release became a gigantic hit in Japan—more than 5 million copies have been sold between the original DS game and its 3DS sequel—so many things stood in the way of it ever leaving its home country. A quirky, decidedly Japanese nature. A heavy reliance on synthesized voices. An overall concept that’s a very hard sell to a lot of players.

And yet, Nintendo of America surprised many when the announced that not only would Tomodachi Collection be coming to the States, but that it’d be called Tomodachi Life. (Tomodachi being the Japanese word for “friend.”) A game name with an untranslated, unfamiliar foreign term? That’s very un–Nintendo of America.

Now that I’ve played Tomodachi Life, I wouldn’t have blamed Nintendo of America had they passed on bringing it over. The game is weird—and really isn’t even a game, at least in the traditional sense. After naming your new digital island home, you’re tasked with either creating some Mii residents or importing them from the system’s Mii Maker app. One huge sticking point in this process, however, is that you can’t import the Miis of those on your friends list. This limitation has long been known, but here it’s another reminder of how haphazard the implementation of Nintendo’s avatars are on the system. For close acquaintances—who you already can’t add to your friends list until you directly trading friend codes—you then have to go through an extended process to get their Miis onto my system and into the game. Complete strangers I’ve happened to pass by on the street once in my life? Their Miis are there, ready and waiting to use.

Once you’ve imported or created a few Miis and set them out into the world, the game sees “you” as the player holding and manipulating the 3DS—not as one of its inhabitants. While you can interact with the island’s inhabitants, you can never directly control them, including your own personal Mii. The closest comparisons I can make is to virtual-life games like EA’s The Sims. Initial interactions are pretty rote: Feed Miis when they’re hungry, give them a new outfit or hat, spruce up their apartment, teach them a new catchphrase. Every interaction that ends on a positive note nets you cash (for buying more food, clothing, or room styles), and through activities like accomplishing those requests, playing minigames, or helping relationships grow, Miis will level up, allowing additional unlocks and bonuses.

As Tomodachi Life rolls along, you start to really get into what makes the game the bizarre-yet-lovable virtual world that it is. Once friendships are made, Miis begin hanging out together. After a Mii is given a gift, you may catch a glimpse of them putting their new possession to use. As your population and achievements grow, new areas of the island open up, giving you access to things such as a music hall where Miis can perform concerts (complete with customizable song lyrics), or a TV station that provides news broadcasts (of questionable journalistic value) throughout the day.

How much players will get out of Tomodachi Life will vary greatly depending on what they go in wanting from it. If you played Animal Crossing and came away thinking it was too boring, then this is not the game for you. If you want something that you can sit down with for an hour and gain tangible progress, you’ll be disappointed as well. Tomodachi Life isn’t something that you play, per se—it’s a window you look through to see what’s going on in the world beyond the glass. Sometimes, you’ll spend a few moments doing a few menial tasks; others, an exciting, unexpected surprise will be waiting.

Those surprises are what make Tomodachi Life appealing for those who , like me, do have an appreciation for something different—and different this certainly is. The more you see of what the game has to offer, the less it makes sense. At first, you’ll think you’re just taking part in silly social activities with your Miis, but soon, you’ll begin a descent into madness. Oh, sure, some of the things that happen are pretty normal, but they’re overshadowed by the Japanese team’s bizarre sense of humor. It’s hard not to become enchanted by Tomodachi Life, and it becomes apparent that the game wouldn’t have the same charm if you could directly control its participants. The fun comes from being on the outside of what’s happening, as a viewer who can only sit back and watch the weirdness unfold.

There are points when you’ll find yourself wishing that there was more to the game, however. To once again hit upon the comparison, it’s similar to how I tend to always feel playing Animal Crossing. Nintendo has this enviable capacity to come up with projects that really break the mold and engage players both casual and hardcore in new ways, but you’ll inevitably end up noticing the fence surrounding the playground. The activities, skits, and social encounters that Tomodachi Life offers are chock-full of Cs—cuteness, craziness, and creativity—but there could and should have been more to see and do.

If Tomodachi Life not having as much to offer as I’d like it to have were my only real complaint, I’d have little hesitation in recommending its purchase to anyone intrigued by its weirdness. Unfortunately, that lack of control players have over how the game’s events unfold caused me to have a personal (and unexpected) conflict with what has been built here—to the point that it affected my ability to enjoy some of its intended concepts.

Nintendo has a tendency to take player agency away at weird times, and I’ve long expressed frustration over the ridiculousness of situations such as having to use an FAQ just to get the face or hairstyle I want for my Animal Crossing character. Tomodachi Life heavily encourages players to add their family and friends to the game, but in a similar way, allows no direct control over how relationships play out from there. The game is strangely obsessed with marriage and baby-making—numerous locations on the island can’t even be unlocked until couples start forming—but it, not you, decides who ends up having interest in who. You, as the formless overseer, can suggest to a particular Mii that somebody may or may not be right for them, but their interest pops up when the game wants it to. While you can set what relationship a particular Mii has to you—spouse, parent, child, sibling, other relative, or no relation—setting your spouse doesn’t guarantee that your Miis will end up together and married. There’s also no direct method for determining relationships between other Miis beyond giving them advice at key moments—so bringing together the Miis of real-life couples or keeping two Mii siblings apart must all be done through the game’s complex method of relationship-building.

It was under these circumstances that I started running into events that made me feel strange emotionally. At one point, my wife’s Mii—single at the time—professed her love for the Mii of a friend of mine. Even though it’s just a videogame, even though they’re only digital representations of real-life people, I didn’t like that such a situation cropped up. I told her that he wasn’t right for her—and she proceeded to cry and become depressed due to the heartbreak. In a game that’s meant to be silly and funny and light-hearted, it put me into an uncomfortable place. More weird situations cropped up between the Miis I’d added, and I found myself either wanting a way to directly pick certain pairings or simply turn off romance for them.

This will no doubt be an especially sore spot for any players who are gay or lesbian. It’s not about the passionate opinions on both side of political discussions debating if Tomodachi Life should include gay marriage or not—it’s about the reality that such players, if they add their significant others, will have to watch the Miis of those closest to them in their lives chasing after other Miis for the entire game. (There is, however, always the option to create a new Mii of the wrong gender to get around this. While not perfect, a Mii’s looks aren’t locked in by their gender, and there’s no rule to what kind of voice a particular Mii can have, and—so far as my testing showed—the game doesn’t ban Miis from wearing the clothing of the opposite gender, as opposed to Animal Crossing.)

Given its developer, its usual development style, and the culture it comes from, I understand why Tomodachi Life does a lot of what it does and doesn’t do some of the things that it’s missing. At the same time, Nintendo’s insistence on “their way or the highway” gameplay choices had a negative impact on my enjoyment of the game, as I’m sure it will for at least some of you as well. Asking players to bring aspects of their lives into a game, and then giving no control over those aspects, will inevitably create unwanted situations for some out there who can’t divorce themselves from the real people those virtual characters represent.

That’s a shame, because in so many other ways, I really enjoyed what Tomodachi Life is trying to do. What’s here really feels different—and it’s a kind of different that works, so long as you’ve got an open mind when it comes to what a “game” is supposed to be. This is a virtual world that plays out inside of your 3DS, best experienced when purchased in digital form, so that it’s always on hand for the constant quick trips you’ll be making to its island’s shores. Its goal is simple: to entertain. And, for most of my Tomodachi life so far, entertain me it has.

I just wish Nintendo would be willing to concede a little and realize that it’s OK if not everything is buried under gameplay systems or computer-controlled events. Sometimes, the right choice is the one that puts choice in the hands of the people playing your games.

Developer: Nintendo • Publisher: Nintendo • ESRB: E for Everyone • Release Date: 06.06.2014
Tomodachi Life is a trip into a world where your Miis live out a never-ending series of bizarre and amusing adventures. While I’m glad that Nintendo of America decided to take a chance in bringing it our way, those adventures are unfortunately tainted somewhat due to a few gameplay decisions that really should be rectified in a future sequel.
The Good An offbeat-yet-captivating slice of digital life like only Nintendo can produce.
The Bad Much like with Animal Crossing, at times Tomodachi Life’s content feels somewhat shallow.
The Ugly Living on an island where business establishments demand romance fill the air before they’ll open their doors.
Tomodachi Life is available exclusively on 3DS. Review code was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this review.
Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got his start via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as he can convince them to fit in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk him on Twitter: @pikoeri. Meet the rest of the crew.

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