“Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby…”
When it was first unveiled, Tomodachi Life was considered one of the strangest things Nintendo had ever made. The idea was simple enough: create an entire community of Mii townsfolk, give them basic necessities, and let them have their own day-to-day adventures. It’s rather telling that a wacky life simulator with customizable characters is weirder than things like Fire Flowers, Metroids, or Tingle. The game’s selling point wasn’t just that you could create anyone you wanted; it was the ability to turn the mundane – eating breakfast, having dreams, going out to the park, etc. – into the bizarre. At a glance, it’s easy to believe Tomodachi Life accomplishes everything it promises. But once you get into the daily grind, you’ll realize this simulation is far more tedious and unrewarding than it looks.
Oh, it seems fine at first. You’re tasked with populating your island, either by creating new Mii avatars, importing from your 3DS system, or downloading QR codes from an online database. The initial options are taken straight out of the 3DS’s Mii Maker; you’re given several choices of head shape, facial features, eye and skin color, and hairstyles. It’s not until you access the voice programming that things get interesting. Not only can every character speak, but their voices can be tweaked for age range, speed, pitch, tone, accent, and even intonation. By no means does it perfectly mimic human speech, but it’s far better than what you’d expect from a handheld game. The designers also had the foresight to include customizable pronunciation, just in case the computer doesn’t understand your inputs. The most impressive aspect, however, is the personality builder. You’re given spectra in which to measure a character’s movement speed, politeness, expressiveness, attitude, and even quirkiness. Much like in real life, these aspects make a huge impact in how the Miis operate and interact. For example, my personal Mii is quick, direct, somewhat expressive, mostly serious, and absolutely weird. She’s designated as a Confident Adventurer. Darth Vader, on the other hand, is slow, deadpan, and takes himself way too seriously.
Yeah, you read that right. Darth Vader is my Mii’s next door neighbor. When you can program anyone into your game, such wackiness is inevitable. The majority of Tomodachi Life’s humor comes from those slice of life interactions among unlikely friends. Bowser didn’t even look at Princess Peach; he fell in love with Bayonetta and married her within a week. They even have a child now – they named him Jason – who has his mother’s hair and his father’s fangs. Captain Picard thinks I’m his BFF, and it’s only a matter of time before Batman proposes to me. Gordon Freeman occasionally goes out for coffee with Luigi and Travis Touchdown. Though managing up to 100 residents might seem daunting, the game’s info displays make it easy to keep track of friendships and romances. You’re tasked with introducing characters and manipulating the major points of their relationships, giving you ample opportunities to partake in the drama. It’s like reading bad fan fiction, only with more control over the characters’ choices.
Regardless of who you put on the island, the objective remains the same: make them happy. When you look at the apartment building, flashing icons indicate a problem needing to be resolved. It’s usually something simple, like feeding someone or giving them new clothes and advice. Sometimes they’ll ask for fancier things, like a bath set, camera, a new room background, or a specific item. You’ve got to be careful, though; if you give them stuff they hate or bad advice, they’ll end up even more miserable. If the Miis get enough of whatever they need, they’ll reward you with money, items, and expensive gifts that can be sold for more cash. The characters’ happiness ratings level up individually, allowing you to give them presents to expand on their hobbies and social lives. Most are practical, like books, laptops, and sports equipment, while things like the Wii U and the metal detector are more for laughs. Then again, watching Ganondorf practicing the Hula is pretty entertaining in itself. If you don’t want to spoil the characters too much, the leveling system can be used to teach them new phrases and songs, and change their apartment interior. The more stuff the Miis have, the more they’ll interact with each other and develop their relationships.
It’d be a great concept, if the game actually made it fun.
The whole cycle of buying supplies, leveling up happiness, and getting cash gets old within minutes. You’ll spend most of the time just staring at the apartment complex and visiting whoever needs help. There’s very little variety in terms of problems and how they’re phrased. Everyone seems to love “practicing their funny faces” and vocally impersonating their friends. Others just want the same bath time, have identical stomach problems, etc. Even special items get stale fast; I’ve used several travel tickets, but my Miis often end up on the same vacations. The game tries to hide the repetitiveness with a small selection of touch screen-based mini-games. These usually involve catching falling items, matching icons from memory, and identifying items in pixelated or silhouetted images. That last one is particularly overused; after the first dozen or so games, you’ll likely have memorized most of the answers! It’s not like any of the mini-games are particularly difficult or rewarding, either. Success merely grants you another sellable trinket, and the sheer amount of opportunities to play takes the sting out of failure. Even the interactive dreams – some of which are admittedly hilarious – lose their appeal after repeated viewings. How many times can you watch someone dream they’re a Super Sentai character, race like snails, or chase a plate of food on a string?
Things get slightly better once you leave the apartment complex. There are nearly 20 locations on your virtual island, each with their own activities and features. However, most of them are strictly for utility; you’ll only have to visit the clothing shops, apartment interiors, and grocery store once a day. Even the town hall, which could’ve been used for all kinds of social functions, serves as little more than a Mii creator and index. The rankings board and its extensive amount of information would’ve been great if you actually, you know, cared about the characters. The beach, observation tower, and amusement park are utterly disappointing. Oh sure, you can watch your Miis run along the shore or ride a roller coaster…but that’s all you can do. You can’t change the camera angle, let alone do anything beyond taking funny screenshots. There’s no exploration, no details, nothing at all to keep you interested for more than a few seconds. There’s an optional NES-style RPG with turn-based combat mechanics, but it lacks customizable stats based on Miis’ clothes, optional weapons, leveling, or anything else resembling depth. Even the cafe, in which characters indulge in Seinfeldian conversations, gets repetitive after the first few minutes. You’ll hear the same tales of someone buying a pirate ship, hair problems, their latest obsessions, and bribing professional singers with cake. Let them go long enough, and someone will point out how they always talk about the same things. When the characters notice how repetitive things have gotten, it’s a bad sign.
While nearly all the attractions on the island are one-dimensional, the concert hall is the only thing remotely interesting. Miis can learn to sing eight song styles, such as metal, pop, opera, and techno. Though every song has a default tune already programmed, you’re allowed to change the lyrics. Even if you’re not going for a parody, watching your Miis trying to reenact Broadway-style musicals is hilarious. The animations are a little jerky, but whoever programmed those vocals and dance moves did an impressive job. The same can be said for the customization in general; you might not have much interactivity with your characters, but you can certainly make them look nice. There are hundreds of potential outfits and accessories, ranging from simple t-shirts and bandanas to gothic dresses and suits of armor. The various apartment backgrounds got the most love, though. Your Miis can live in the middle of movie theaters, Japanese arcades, golden temples, ice palaces, star-studded galaxies, and dozens more. Some of them are absolutely dazzling, tempting you into believing that buying all of them is worth it. But no matter how well you dress it up, you’ll still be confronted with the same lackluster gameplay.
The shallow design becomes especially apparent once you activate StreetPass. You can send and receive Miis – but only the children of married couples – along with special items and accessories. Aside from selecting the single export for your island, the wireless functionality serves no purpose. There are no additional mini-games or activity beyond greeting your visitors. This is a gargantuan oversight in terms of the game’s design; rather than just importing and exporting an item through chance meetings, it would’ve made more sense to develop it around an online multiplayer experience. Islands could’ve been used as hubs for gamers to visit and exchange goods. There could’ve been an option to design and sell clothes, or put rarer items up for auction. How about playable volleyball at the beach? Rather than just watch characters enjoy the amusement park, there could’ve been a way for you to develop and customize the attractions to appeal to other gamers. Instead of featuring bland, repetitive chunks of fake dialogue, the cafe could’ve used the 3DS’s microphone to let gamers hold live conversations. The sheer amount of missed opportunities is mind-boggling.
I wanted to like Tomodachi Life. Really, I thought it had a lot of potential. The concept is clever. The ability to customize voices and personality is an impressive accomplishment; it’s far more extensive than what you’d find in Animal Crossing or similarly-designed games. Despite such advancements, the game loses sight of the most fundamental aspects of gameplay: making something fun, and giving players a reason to care about its characters. Rather than having a fully fleshed-out world, this is nothing but a bare-bones collection of repetitive mini-games. It doesn’t even bother trying to hide it, either. There’s no satisfaction in shoving food and trinkets into an avatar in attempt to level up their happiness; <i>true</i> gaming satisfaction should come from building a little world for yourself from scratch and enjoying the results. Tomodachi Life demonstrates the real problem with life simulators; regardless of humor and bizarre situations, they’re limited to their programming. In the end, real life will always be better.
*Originally posted here.