Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Most Adorable Free Game Ever Made? An In-Depth Look at Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector (Mobile)




WHAT IS IT?
Only quite possibly the most adorable mobile game ever made. In it, you lure cats into your backyard using food and toys, and watch them play. That’s about it. So I guess it’s also quite possibly the most pointless game ever made.

INTERFACE/NAVIGATION
For a game with such limited scope, I’ll admit that navigation can actually be a little confusing at first, what with the multiple menus and all. The paw on the upper left part of the screen will pull up your menu, allowing you to select from multiple options, including “Goodies”, “Shop”, “Cats”, and more.

The in-game menu, as Tubbs relaxes from doing what he does best.
This is where you’ll spend the bulk of your time, as the “shop” button allows you to purchase new items for use in your yard, the “goodies” button is basically your inventory, and the “cats” button is used to keep track of which kitties have visited, and also allows you to set their profile pic (based on in-game screenshots you’ve taken), see their statistics, and even change their name!

The individual kitty profiles further up the ante of cuteness, giving you some basic statistics such as number of times they've visited, their "personality", "power level", and the top three toys that they play with. While most of the information is just for fun (the developers of the game even state in their FAQ that the power level means absolutely nothing and is just thrown in to add to their unique identities), you can use some of it to your advantage. Like the top three toys profile, which clearly indicates the best toys to use if you're trying to catch an elusive feline in the act of visiting.

The kitty profiles can help you identify the best ways to lure specific cats to your yard.
While a couple things are slightly confusing (I wish there was a way to launch the shop right from within your inventory, and vice versa, rather than having to back out to the main menu to switch between the two), repeated sessions make things a lot easier until most of it becomes second nature. You'll also pick up some helpful shortcuts by noodling around: I just learned that you can snap a photo of a kitty without having to go into the menu by long-pressing on a particular cat, which is a helpful tip that will save me a few clicks every time.

(PRO TIP: Head to the "News" section daily, where you will see a cat holding up a sign with a word on it. From within that same menu, there's an option for "Daily Password". Input the word from that sign exactly as it appears, and you will be granted a daily reward of gray, and sometimes even gold, fish. For every five days you do that, you will be given a free item.)

GAMEPLAY
Well...this is pretty much it.
Remember the Tamagotchi wave from the mid-90s? Gameplay is fairly similar to that, except that you’re monitoring a bunch of cats who come and go, rather than one being. This also makes it nice from a kindness standpoint: unlike your Tamogotchi, which could die if underfed, there are no ways to “kill” the cats in Neko Atsume. If you fail to put out food, for instance, they just won’t show up, with the idea that they are going to someone else’s house to get the nutrition and attention that they deserve. Ditto that for toys. And what fun is having an empty yard, anyway?

In terms of the actual mechanics of play, it’s so simple that many hardcore gamers will be left scratching their heads: buy toys and food, lay out toys and food, wait for cats to come. Now, cats won’t actually show up while the app is open (i.e. there are no in-game animations for “walking”), so basically you close out of the app, and check back in later to see which (if any) cats have stopped by.

After kitties leave, they'll pay you in either gray or gold fish.
When cats are “playing” in your yard, you really can’t even interact with them, aside from taking their picture to add to their own personal photo albums. (Alternatively, you can take a picture of the entire yard if there's an overabundance of cuteness you want to capture; these images are saved in your phone's image gallery instead, for easy sharing.)

Once the cats are done playing, they will disappear…but not before gracing you with some fish, which is also the in-game currency. There are two types of fish, gray and gold, which can then be used in the shop to buy more toys and food for your cats. And then you just continue that cycle, ad-nauseum, for as long as you can stand it before losing interest. Which, as odd as it sounds, and thanks to annual updates that add new foods, kitties and surprises, will probably be much longer than you think.

ITEMS
You will start off with a red ball, and an endless supply of Thrifty Bitz food, which ensures that you’ll always have some way to lure cats over and earn currency, and from these meager beginnings, you must build a kitty empire. Or not. Really, the “goals” of the game are up to you, which is another refreshing change of pace from the ultra-competitive games of today; you’re never given quotas, or challenges to complete, and while some may find that off-putting, I think it’s ingenious.

At any rate, what the game may lack in interactivity, it more than makes up for in one area: the game’s creators have gone to great lengths to ensure that the game can stay fresh for long hours of (terribly intermittent) play, as there are 54 pages of items available to purchase at any given time. Now, there are only four items per page, and some items have as many as 4 color or theme variations, but that’s still over 200 things to watch your cats interact with, ranging from a cowboy hat, to felt pile of leaves, to glass vases, to beach balls, to sashimi, and just about everything in between.

A "memento" sequence
Also, when a kitty feels like it has formed a complete bond with you, they will give you an item, called a "memento". These can be viewed altogether, via the "memento" subsection in the "cats" menu, or under each individual kitty in their profile page. The idea that these cats give you their most personal, prized possessions to show their appreciation for you taking care of them adds a layer of emotional connection that just shouldn't be possible in such a casual, mostly static game. And like real-life kitties, who leave owners dead mice, or other random "treasures" as gifts, expect to get cicada skins, torn up toys, or random seeds in exchange for your kindness, presented to you via an animated sequence. (If the screen goes black and you see a kitty walking to the center of the screen right as you open the app, you know you've earned one; tap the kitty when he's staring at you to see what you've earned.)

Like many other aspects of the game, the mementos system is entirely random: you may get a memento after only a handful of visits from a certain cat, or after 100...it's basically when they feel like they have earned your trust. From what I can tell, there are no "cheats" or shortcuts to earning one, outside of making the cats visit you as much as possible, so keep them happy and you should start seeing them slowly start to trickle in.

Once your main yard gets a little old (and after you save up the required 180 gold fish), you can also buy a room expansion, which adds fresh scenery, and doubles the available slots for food and toys. When that gets tiresome, you can also remodel this area with several different looks that break away from the standard yard to keep everything unique and fun.

VALUE
The game is free—you can’t really get much more value-oriented than that...at least, on paper.

But to me, “value” isn’t necessarily just the amount paid; it can also be offset by intrusive ads, or constant nagging for upgrades. Thankfully, Neko Atsume has neither of those things. In fact, it even found the most adorable way to present ads ever (if you go into the menu, sometimes a kitty will appear on top of the menu square, holding a pamphlet, with text urging you to read the pamphlet…it’s really an ad).

How in the hell did they even manage to make ads adorable?
While the kitties give you some type of fish payment every time they leave (some more than others), if you’re the impatient type, you can directly buy gold fish with real money. Surprisingly, it’s temptingly affordable, with 300 gold fish (enough to purchase the room add-on with plenty left over to furnish it) only running $3.36. That's right, those much sought after gold fish are basically only worth a little more than a penny of real money each. I’m opposed to the whole “pay-to-advance” notion that many mobile games make their living off of, but at least Neko Atsume isn’t trying to nickel and dime you to oblivion…for a small fee, you can basically skip to the “end” of the game, when the playing environment is larger and there are “more” things “to do” (relatively speaking; you still just put toys out and watch the kitties interact with them).

Feel inclined to "cheat"? A little bit of money goes a long way here.
Like I said, I still personally won’t do it—I like the personal feeling of accomplishment for having raised all the funds myself, and also like buying cool toys along the way—but it’s a nice option for those weak-minded, impatient individuals that like to skip to the end of a book, rather than savoring everything that leads up to that point.

RARE CATS

For the more competitive types, there are an abundance of “rare” cats, usually with some terribly-punny American name (such as Joe Dimeowgio), and who resemble their real-life counterparts (Joe is dressed up in a baseball uniform and holds a bat). Oftentimes, these cats can be lured using certain combinations of food and/or toys, and don’t tend to stick around long, meaning you will have to check a bit more frequently in order to catch a rare cat in the act of visiting. They are considered "rare", after all.

The great Xerxes IX (and one of my favorites) sits atop his cat bed throne as another kitty looks on.
While looking for them is fun, I will say they feel like more of a gimmick; their “human” stances (most of them stand on two legs and wear "human" clothing to differentiate them from the rest) kind of take the cuteness away from the main game, while the outrageous nicknames generally just fall flat. I’m actually all for the “rare cat” idea, but I think it would have been a lot neater if they were more like the typical cats, only with unique colors (like pink), or some other outlandish idea that would make them stand out, while remaining as flat-out adorable as the other frequent visitors. But maybe that’s just me.

Lady Meow-Meow? Okay...now we're just taking things a bit too far.
Thankfully, though, the games non-linear approach means you don’t have to try to lure them in if you don’t want to. In fact, there aren’t even any mention of them in the in-game tutorials; casual gamers could probably go weeks or even months without knowing (or caring) of their existence. And, although they do tend to "pay" more in fish than other kitties, there are no other bonuses or items gained by luring them in or interacting with them.

GRAPHICS
Well...this sums up the graphics.
The graphics in Neko Atsume are just as they should be: simple. The cat animations (where applicable) appear hand-drawn, and somehow stay ridiculously cute no matter how many times you see them. I’m not a cat person at all, but even I can’t resist the happiness of seeing multiple cats smiling and staring at you while they rest, or play, or nap…it’s something that just has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Don’t be surprised when you find yourself snapping your kitties striking different poses on the same toys just because they look so gosh darn lovable…

As adorable as they are, I do wish there were more toys that required animations; I’d say the cats are static when interacting with at least 75% of the toys. Again, it doesn’t take away much from the overall cuteness of the game, but seeing them jump up after a butterfly, or bat a kick toy around makes you wish there were a few more opportunities to see things like that.

(There are some rare poses and animations that kind of add to this idea: twice, and only twice so far, I saw a kitty rub his face with his paw. This animation repeated three times and, just as I grabbed my camera to snap an action shot, it stopped, never to do it again. Apparently this tends to happen if you leave your app open for a while, assuming they are in a seated position. Cats lying face down on cushions, called a "faceplant", are also pretty rare, though they seem to do this more often on the thin cushions, such as the choco-mint one. Little "easter eggs" like this are what help to keep the game entertaining for far longer than it should be.)

AUDIO
While the gentle musical theme certainly fits with the cutesy mood of the game, it’s ultimately pretty pointless and, as far as I can tell, the same music over and over again every time you visit. Honestly, even after hundreds of “check-in” sessions, I can’t say that I find it annoying, but it really doesn’t add much to the overall experience, so I've permanently muted it.


Ditto that for the sound effects, which basically consist of uneventful moments like flipping pages in the store. You do get kitties to “meow” after you take their picture, but outside of that, there’s really not much need for sound in the game at all. That can actually be a positive, though, as muting the game will allow you to sneak quick sessions in at work, or even the most confined spaces, without annoying your co-workers and, perhaps more importantly, making you feel like you’re missing out on much.

SUPPORT
I've never needed support, and with such a noncompetitive game, I can't really see a reason where I would get so upset I would need to (short of not getting fish I paid for, but considering the most expensive option is under $4, I probably still wouldn't be that pissed). If you do require it, though, there are some rather specific step-by-step instructions within the game's FAQ section that can help you get a hold of someone from the company, if you need to. Some users complain of long delays, and/or the language barrier, but assuming you follow the directions clearly, someone should eventually get back to you.

An in-game tutorial covers the basics.
For other types of in-game inquiries, such as how to lure specific rare cats or which items tend to "pay" more in fish, there are thousands of amazingly in-depth guides elsewhere online that can point you in the right direction. Many of these were written by obsessed fans who have been playing the game from the outset, and who have earned every in-game achievement possible, and can be found with a simple Google search. So, in short, outside of some rare in-game bugs or issues that might need the attention of the developer, you shouldn't have a problem finding the information you're looking for on the internet.

OVERALL
PROS (+)
+Endlessly adorable, for cat fans and non-cat fans alike.
+Ultra-affordable in-game purchases, for those weak souls inclined to “cheat”.
+Brilliant “gameplay” mechanics perfect for gamers and non-gamers alike.
+No in-game goals; relaxing, competition-free environment
+Points accrue at a decent clip, even for free users.
+No intrusive ads or constant pushing of paid content.
+Can be played offline.
+The shop contains a large variety of items to keep you entertained for a while.
+The "mementos" the cats give you are impossibly cute.
+Daily password gives users extra fish and free goodies (but requires internet connection).

CONS (-)
-No easy way to transfer save files between devices.
-May be too minimalist for some.
-No direct interaction with kitties allowed (aside from taking photos).
-Cats don't come (or leave) when app is open.
-Support can be difficult to get a hold of when you need them.
-While the music and sound effects are appropriately cute, they're repetitive and ultimately unnecessary.
-Some of the rare kitties feel a bit too...desperate (Lady Meow-Meow?! Come on...)

NEUTRAL (OR “MEW”TRAL?)
+/- Still updated five years later, but for the last two years (2019-2020) it's been reduced to one update per year. Certainly better than nothing, but might not be enough for people who have accomplished everything you can do in the game.

The perfect game for non-gamers, or those just looking for a cute way to kill some time, Neko Atsume is a masterpiece in minimalist cuteness; lay toys and food out, and check back occasionally (or frequently) to watch the cats interact with the toys in your yard. In exchange for letting you play, they will leave you gray or gold fish, which you can then use to upgrade your toys, fish, or play space.

I never thought receiving "random seeds" could be so gosh darn heart-melting.
The only thing preventing this from scoring even higher is the one big issue affecting gameplay: there are no “official” ways to transfer a save file between devices. There are some unofficial workarounds, but nothing from the company themselves, who claim the “save files are too large” to reliably transfer between devices. Ummm...okay, that just seems like an odd reason for the developer of an immensely popular game in 2020, especially when they've had five years to figure something out; I'm thinking there's possibly a more logical underlying reasoning underneath (that even could be something as basic as forcing people to download it again on each device they have to boost download stats).

Also, the mostly "hands off" approach might be a little too minimalist for some gamers; there's really no way to "play" the game outside of doing basic tasks like buying food, placing toys, and taking pictures.

It's always been adorable (I also played it back in 2017, shortly after hearing about it for the first time), but especially in this day and age - with the world going to shit and seemingly on the brink of collapse - its laid-back attitude and neverending barrage of cuteness just might be the thereapeutic respite from reality that you never knew you needed.

OVERALL: 8/10

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Millville Fiber Now 90-Calorie Chocolate Fudge Brownies (Aldi)

Yes, that's right...each bar weighs less than an ounce.
Tired of the same ol’, same ol’ breakfast bars, my eyes were caught by a long-forgotten friend of mine: fiber brownies! It had been a long while—so long, in fact, that I couldn't even remember if I liked them or not the first time around—but after having what felt like everything else in the breakfast bar aisle, I decided to give them another shot.

I actually tend to avoid fiber bars for one reason and one reason only: I always equate them with taking shits, and if there’s one thing I don’t need regulated, it’s my pooping schedule. It’s not as perfectly regular as it once was, but—pardon the overshare—it’s pretty darn consistent, and is probably the one thing in my health regiment that doesn't need fixed (or that doesn't seem to anyway, haha). While that’s arguably fiber’s most well-known benefit, there are two lost in the shuffle that can actually help me out: lowering cholesterol, and controlling blood sugar levels. I do have (marginally) high cholesterol, and my blood sugar is prone to occasionally going off the rails, generally when I’m an idiot and exert myself too much without proper nourishment beforehand. Obviously, this isn’t going to be a “fix-all” for those issues by themselves, but it makes a solid case for eating these more, beyond the bowel-emptying characteristics for which fiber is known.

Anyhoo, enough about me, let’s take a look at what we’re here for!

I suppose I should have expected it from the “90 Calories” in the name - or paid more attention to the packaging, which reveals the 0.88 oz. size of each bar - but taking one out of the box produced a sinking feeling when I saw how small they are. I mean, I knew they would be smallish, but these are so tiny my three-year-old could down one and immediately wonder where the rest of it went. Still, the brownie itself looked pretty good, with chocolate chips protruding through the chocolatey exterior of the brownie, and a nice amount of chocolate drizzled on top. Aside from the disappointing form factor, which looks like a full size bar got blasted by a mini-ray gun, it otherwise looks tasty.

This actually turns out to be a pretty good indicator of actual size.
The brownie part is soft, as was expected, and serves up a nice, bittersweet chocolate taste. It’s a little bit dry, which is the norm for this type of mass-produced bar, and I seem to detect an almost chalky texture somewhere in the aftertaste…it reminds me of the same type found in “high-protein” bars, or other treats that focus on healthiness, although it doesn’t seem to linger as long as the worst offenders. However, the chocolate chips really do their part to keep the texture interesting, providing a nice bit of semi-melty pleasure for about two out of the four bites that will be required for you to completely finish it (assuming you're savoring it, like I do).

It should be pretty clear from the packaging, but this is a snack that is most certainly geared more toward adults: despite the bountiful number of different chocolates contained herein, it’s not very sweet at all. This is partly because the chocolate chips and chocolate drizzle are made with dark chocolate (which I usually can’t stand), which helps to keep the brownie itself from becoming too . But then again, it's a breakfast bar, so that shouldn't be too surprising.

For the right person, though, this is a great way to grab some fiber, while also taking at least a small bite out of that chocolate craving. The small size will leave most merely wanting more, like it did for me, but those with much more willpower (or smaller appetites) will find plenty here to like. 

Well, something small to like all of.

Overall: 6/10. It's got a good, semi-sweet flavor, thanks to the triple-chocolate ambush awaiting your tastebuds, while the $1.75 retail price is pretty good for this type of fiber-filled product. Offsetting this is a slight dryness in the texture, and an alarmingly small 90 calorie size (equating to just 0.88 oz. of weight per bar), which is a little too...little for me. Because of the size (they're gone just as I'm getting warmed up to the idea of eating one) these only make my grocery list as a very occasional buy, but those that need fiber in their diet and that enjoy chocolate might find more here to like than I did.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Elevation by Millville Strawberry Protein Meal Bar (Aldi)

Sickeningly sweet. And that's coming from me.

Well, I’ve taken a look at a couple different products by EbM and was pretty well won over by both of them. They are more expensive than the average Aldi product—their excellent mint chocolate protein bars come in a six-pack that retails for $1 per bar, putting it uncomfortably close to the national brand in terms of cost—but they have great texture and taste that help to offset the “investment”.

With that in mind, I decided to push my luck: I realized I always stuck to the familiar flavors that I enjoyed—such as, in this case, chocolate—and never really branched out to try anything new. Right then and there, I made the decision to try a flavor that I wouldn’t normally get…but I did chicken out a bit by offsetting my potential disappointment by buying the cheapest box I could find. This set of 6 protein bars came in at a respectable $4.19, which isn’t too bad at all, especially for six full-size bars.

Oh wow, the smell hits you right away, like you’re in an enclosed laboratory space where a vat of strawberry natural flavor just got dumped all over the floor—it’s pretty evident that this ain’t real strawberry that we’re dealing with. But you know what? That’s not a problem with me, because it reminds me a lot of the strawberries and cream oatmeal packets, which are some of my absolute favorites.

The flavor matches the scent pretty well—for better for worse—by offering a clearly fake strawberry imitation that is very, very sweet at first, and then continues to snowball from there. The yogurt-based coating (I’m assuming that’s what it is, anyway) provides a nice exterior texture that melts in your mouth, providing a counterpoint to the puffed rice-style interior of the bar. To help put your mind at ease, there are also chunks of dried strawberries laced throughout, although they are in such small increments they don’t really do anything for either flavor or texture.

This is pretty much a strawberry overload of flavor; I happen to have a palate that skewers toward the sweet, but those that are sensitive to sweet flavors will be disgusted and overwhelmed. Even with my own high tolerance for the saccharine, I find that this bar is about the perfect size to test my limits: right as I’m nearing the end is when my stomach starts gurgling, and right as I finish the last bite I start to feel sick, as if my body is shutting itself down to protect itself from potential sugar (and artificial strawberry) overdose. I don’t know that each bar actually has as much sugar in it as it tastes like it does, but regardless of that, it’s…overwhelming.

And that was just the first bar...by the end of the first box, it wasn't finishing the bar that became so much of an issue: it was building up enough courage to start it. Even now, a couple months on, the mere thought of it still gets my stomach a-rumblin'...and that's exactly why I'm hesitant to get it again, and even more hesitant to recommend it.

Overall: 4/10. The price ($4.19 for 6 bars) is actually very reasonable and the taste isn’t all that bad…at first. But gradually, the unrelenting onslaught of fake strawberry mixed with a bucket of sugar overpowers the tastebuds with a syrupy sweetness that always leaves my stomach churning by the time I reach the final bite. Even thinking about eating a bar now leaves my poor tummy feeling queasy, and I ate my last bar over a month ago. And if it's enough to overpower a guy like me—an avid purveyor of sweets—then I can only imagine just how off-putting it will be to most other people. So much for trying a different flavor for once…looks like I’ll be back to sticking to the familiar flavor of chocolate for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Meijer Spicy Trail Mix (Meijer)

No thanks.

I feel like I’ve written too many long-winded intros for trail mix lately, so just as a tl;dr version: I don’t get lunch breaks at work any more, so I just bring some snacks to nibble on throughout the day and trail mix is one of my favorites because I can eat as much or as little as I need to keep me energized.

Anyway, now we turn our attention to a spicy trail mix from Meijer, where my wife has been doing almost all of our grocery shopping lately. I haven’t tried any of their varieties, so it will be interesting to see how they compare to Aldi brand, which I’ve eaten quite frequently, and Kroger’s, which I just tried recently for the first time, and was pretty impressed with.

Oooh yep...this one misses the mark for me, by being an almost perfect example of what not to do with a trail mix. Why is it that all trail mixes seem to have the requirement that they are overly sodium-packed? I never understand why they have “exotic” ingredients like nacho corn sticks and chili bits—things that would taste pretty good on their own—then add boatloads of seasoning to the extent that it's all you can taste.

That’s exactly what happens here, making each bite a pretty repetitive experience, despite the inclusion of many different types of nuts and other goodies. The base mix actually tastes very similar to Aldi’s Sweet and Spicy trail mix, but as that name implies, Aldi was smart enough to counteract the overly salty portion, with some little candied peanuts to help offset the sodium burn. Since there’s no such balancing agent here, all we’re left with is what tastes like essentially the same bite, over and over and over again, no matter what combination of ingredients you're eating.

Piling on it while it’s down, the value here is rather nonexistent, with a 12 oz. bag retailing for $4.49. That’s about 40 cents cheaper than Aldi’s version…but for about 12 oz. less. To be slightly more fair, they do offer larger bags (in the case of the spicy, it’s 18 oz.) for $6.49, which brings the cost per oz. down a teeny bit (from about 37.4 to 36), but that’s still giving you less than similar Aldi trail mixes, but for over a dollar more.

Unless you’re a huge fan of overly salty snacks with little in the way of variety, just consider this one an all-around failure.

Overall: 3/10. This is a hugely disappointing trail mix that makes the fatal mistake of drowning everything in salty seasoning. What’s the point of even having chili sticks and nacho corn sticks when you don’t give those flavors room to develop? Instead, every bite is just overly salted, and they all start to blend in with one another almost immediately out of the gate. Value is also fairly poor, with a 12 oz. bag retailing for $4.49 (or an 18 oz. bag retailing for $6.49), while Aldi offers up bags that are around 24 oz. for under $5. Not a fan of this one at all.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Money For (Virtually) Nothing, or Just Plain Nothing? An In-Depth Look at Dosh (Mobile)

WHAT IS IT?
Dosh is yet another “money back” app, the likes of which seem to be cropping up every single second in this digital age. Yet, this one works a little differently than most others: You link your credit (or debit) card, and automatically earn money back on purchases from participating vendors. There are no specific items to buy, or offers to “activate”--just use your card as you normally would , and get some money back! It's a nice passive way to make some cash...at least in theory. Let's see if the execution follows suit, or leaves a lot to be desired.

INTERFACE/NAVIGATION
The main screen. Online offers on top, scroll down for local offers (if location services are enabled).
In this digital age where the mantra seems to be “more is more”, which leads to cluttered and packed interfaces and confusing user experiences, it’s actually kind of refreshing to see an app like Dosh start to gain traction. (And yes, I hate the name too; it’s a slang British term for “money”.) In order to start saving money, there are no menus or hoops to jump through (outside of linking your card for the first time): just use your location settings, or manually enter your zip code, and a list of all participating businesses pops up, from closest to farthest away. Or, if you prefer, you can rank them from highest percentage back, to lowest.

The "hamburger" icon gives you access to all of your specific account needs.
That's pretty much all I ever use this app for: the local cashback. However, they're pushing other features of the app, as well, so there are categories for “mobile offers”, “hotels”, and “online offers”, which you will have to get in the habit of scrolling past to get to the good stuff.

As is standard for this kind of app (and really any app these days), all of the "savings"-related stuff can be accessed with buttons running along the bottom of the screen, while the "administrative" things, such as account information, debit/credit cards, and support, can be accessed with an oddly-shaped "hamburger" icon on the top left of the screen. It's all pretty straightforward and, unless you just crawled out from under a rock that you've been living under for 15 years, should be easy for almost everyone to get the hang of.

SIGN UP PROCESS
Signing up is easy, but there are four big requirements that might be dealbreakers for some people: you must have a valid mobile number, you can only use the app through a mobile device, you must link a debit or credit card to the app (that's how you get cash back), and you must also link either a Paypal or bank account in order to cash out your earnings.

While two out of those four things might make some people uncomfortable, we're all being spied on and tracked at all times anyway, so why not voluntarily give it out so you can at least get paid for it!

Keep in mind that Discover, pre-paid, and department store cards are not accepted, which is fairly typical of these kinds of cashback programs. Assuming none of these things bother you, and you can meet each of those requirements, then you should have no problems getting yourself up and running.

THE IN-STORE CASH-BACK PROCESS
The process is where Dosh unanimously has my vote: no other app that I’m aware of makes earning the money back so easy. Just shop at a participating vendor, run your card (whether debit or credit) as “credit” at the terminal, and you’ll receive an email about your cash back earnings almost immediately. That’s it! There is no need to upload your receipt, or to “claim” an offer beforehand, or even to go shopping through a specific link: just go to that retailer, make a purchase, and wait for the money to roll in.


Target local shops with the "lightning bolt" icon as much as you can; your balance is credited almost immediately.
But I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking the same exact thing: “Well some places won’t let me run my debit as credit,” at which point I just assumed you were SOL. After all, isn’t that how these apps tend to work? Didn’t claim an offer beforehand in Ibotta while using your loyalty card? Sorry, you're shit out of luck. Didn’t claim an offer in GetUpside before pumping your gas? Sorry, there’s nothing we can do. Sometimes it seems the hoops you already have to jump through just to save a few pennies in these apps are already getting smaller...then they light the hoops on fire until you just no longer want to participate.

This is another area where Dosh is pretty refreshing, because, contrary to my expectations, there’s an easy workaround for this: If it was run as debit, simply upload your receipt and upload it to the Dosh team. Once they verify it, they will add the cash back amount to your account. It’s an extra step, sure, but in their defense, debit cards are processed differently than credit, and it’s quite literally out of their hands. The fact they have a workable solution around this at all besides just telling you "better luck next time" is somewhat generous.

THE ONLINE CASH-BACK PROCESS
One area where I'm resolving to get better for the new decade, is to look for online cash back discounts. There are many sites that offer a percentage back, but I've never really paid much attention to them in the past. This is because I generally only shop at Amazon and eBay online, and they don't always offer a percentage back, seeing as how they're two of the biggest marketplaces in the world and don't really have to.

And, would you believe it if I told you that the process is almost exactly the same as in-person sales? Unlike virtually every other “rebate” program in the world, you don't have to make your purchase by following a link in the Dosh app—find a participating vendor, and make a payment through your connected card. It will “spot” it, and then you will receive your percentage rebate. That's it.

Now, similar to every other rebate program in the world, receiving your money back may still take up to 90 days (it's usually dependent on when the return window for your purchase closes), so it's not as “instant” is the in-store option. But it's nice not having to remember to follow through a link, which then opens up the possibilities of “stacking” your Dosh cash back with other link-clicking rebate apps (assuming your preferred provider doesn't use the same platform as Dosh), or credit card reward programs.

SELECTION


The "local offers" screen, which may vary wildly by area.
Here's one area where this app is going to be worth it to some, and a waste of time for others, depending on where you live and/or how much online shopping you do. Around me, in a suburban area neighboring a huge city, there are quite a few offers from local restaurants that we like going to, that offer 5% cash back. We typically only go to these places once or twice a month, and that only equals somewhere around a couple bucks per month, but hey, that's better than nothing!

However, not everyone will be so lucky, as some reviewers online claim that there are very few cashback opportunities around them at all. As a real world example from personal experience, I visited a somewhat older metropolitan city in Illinois, to visit my family, and there were no local restaurants on board whatsoever, leaving me with just a handful of Papa John's and Wendy's locations (and leading me to believe those are nationwide partnerships). So the potential for cash back can be severely limited by where you live, or where you are willing to shop. Although it is unfortunate for the consumer, it's really not the fault of the app, who would no doubt love to have as many companies on board as possible.

Another thing to keep in mind, is that the participating places and categories are always subject to rotating around, although I must confess it doesn't seem to happen as frequently as I thought it would. A few months before I signed up, they offered 2% back on purchases from Kroger. Sure, I hate that place, but my wife (inexplicably) likes to shop there, and I figured it would get added back to the rotation soon. Over a year later, and it hasn't yet; in fact, there are no participating grocery stores in my area, save for Costco, which technically isn't a grocery store at all. Truth be told, outside of restaurants, there's really not much around me; I did expect a lot more variety when I signed up. But again, not all this is within the app's control.

HOW MUCH MONEY CAN I MAKE?
This is one of those sites where the question becomes, “Well, how much money do you spend?” Unless otherwise specified within the offer (and it seems to be only the larger corporations that do this, at least around me), the cash back is usually limited to some absurd monthly amount (such as $2,000). So unless you’re constantly ordering stuff for your office, or some other large scale operation, you can shop at all of those places every single day, and get some cash back.

Again—and this is something that should be common sense, but that can sometimes get lost in the drive to earn money—since the “rewards” completely depend on your spending, so it’s probably not smart to go out of your way to spend twice as much somewhere you don’t normally go, just to earn a couple of bucks back.

In my case, I signed up somewhere around September, 2019, and have around $18 in my account, pretty much all of this from repeated visits to one local restaurant. It's not a lot, but it's something I wouldn't have had otherwise, and I'm pretty satisfied with it. However, the cashback percentages are often pretty low (probably 2-3% on average, up to 5% near me) so you're going to have to spend quite a bit in order to build up your balance.

CASHING OUT


Here are your cashout options...note the complete lack of gift cards!
Cashing out is one of the major issues I have with Dosh and other apps of its ilk. I'm not referring to the actual process of transferring a balance from Dosh to Paypal, or your bank account (which are the only two options, as of this writing), because, quite frankly, I've never reached the minimum balance for cashout. And that's what brings me to the main issue: Many of these services require a rather large minimum balance in order to transfer your savings at all, which can put people in a hard situation if a store that they've accrued a large portion of their balance from, is suddenly dropped from the app.

Dosh is no exception: in order to access your funds via Paypal or bank account, you must have a minimum balance of $25. That doesn't sound high, but just look at my example: close to a year in, and I only have $15. Other people may even worse off than that, with very few chances to even earn money back at all near them.

And speaking of oddities, another thing I don't like: Dosh won't even let you add any of your Paypal, Venmo, or bank account information until you actually have enough money to cash out. It's the only app I know of that's set up that way. I'm one of those people that like to have everything ironed out well in advance so that any problems or setbacks can be cleared up by the time I cash out. Plus, this opens the door for problems, like making people who think they have a valid account, wait until they have enough balance to find out that their accounts aren't valid, and that they can't cash out the money that should rightfully be theirs. While I can't see this really affecting all that many people, that's still a borderline shady business practice, and a rule that I can't see having any business being implemented.

Referrals can be a good way to get you there quicker, if you have a strong network of people who may be interested, as those can net you $5 every time someone signs up and makes their first valid in-app transaction using a linked card. However, keep in mind that no matter how many referrals you have, you can't cash out until you make a qualifying transaction yourself.

Referrals are a good way to boost your funds quickly; feel free to use mine.
This is definitely something that should be factored in when people are deciding whether or not to create an account here. Sure, they give you a "free" $5 for signing up, but that still means you have to actually earn $20 yourself before you hit the base amount and can put it to use. And, while Dosh seems to be on decent financial ground (PayPal is a major investor), there's always the possibility that the company could go bankrupt or lose money, especially in this uncertain year where it feels like anything can happen; at that point, you can kiss your balance goodbye.

COMMUNITY/SUPPORT

The support menu.
As seems to be standard for me in this section, I have not had a need to contact Dosh support (what can I say? I'm easy to get along with), so I can't vouch for their usefulness in handling inquiries. Based on a variety of reviews I discovered on the world wide web, the consensus is that Dosh support sucks overall (and that also gets mentioned in positive reviews). Lots of complaints involving “bait-and-switch” tactics with sudden changes to their terms of service that took away cashback on what should have been eligible purchases, with the majority of these cases involving a specific Staples offer.

Other complaints seem to focus on Sams Club purchases being hit or miss as to whether or not the rebates actually post to their account. Ditto that for online orders in general, with some users complaining they had to send over additional documentation to verify purchases made from online retailers before they were given any money.

They do have an “A+” with the BBB, but just a gentle reminder that the BBB are worthless scam artists who give higher grades to businesses that pay for a membership, and that they are in no way affiliated with the federal government, as some people believe to be the case. (And I'm not at all suggesting that Dosh's score should be lower; just giving some insight as to how the BBB works, since people tend to put way too much weight on their ratings.)

For the record, this is all just publicly available information I've found online from reviewers: In my experience I've personally never had an issue with anything taking longer to post than it should. Granted, as stated earlier, my transactions have all focused on local businesses that offer “instant cash back”, but it has certainly lived up to that terminology every time I've used them, with the verification email hitting my inbox usually before I even put my debit card back in my wallet.

OVERALL
PROS (+)
+"Instant cash back" establishments give you, well, immediate cash back.
+No deals to "claim" or links to shop through; just use your linked card and earn money back.
+Existing users can earn $5 per referral
+New users get $5 just for signing up

CONS (-)
-Widespread reports of virtually nonexistent customer service
-Very limited number of offers in some locations
-Minimum cashout balance of $25
-Most offers 5% or less
-Cashback for online orders can take up to 90 days to post
-Local offers seem to focus mainly on restaurants

Dosh has performed just as well as I've been expecting it to in the year or so since I've started using it. Even so, the trudge up to the minimum $25 cashout balance has been pretty slow, and there hasn't been nearly as much rotation of available businesses and categories as I was expecting (Kroger offered a percentage back shortly before I signed up, and thought another grocery store might step up to take its place, but that hasn't happened in the past nine months).

The percentages, especially for nationwide partners, are usually pretty low, hovering between the 2-3% range, while the highest I've seen is only 5%. Sure, it's better than nothing, but again, that cashout minimum means you'll have to spend $500 in order to see that money again.

On the plus side, using it is easier than most other apps of its ilk: just use your linked credit/debit card at a participating merchant, either online or in person, and watch the balance hit your account within seconds (if it's a local business that participates in the "instant cash back" program), or 90 days (if it's an online vendor). There's no need to remember to shop from a certain link, or "enable" an offer before you go. This reason alone makes it worthwhile for me, as there have been a few instances I've unknowingly shopped at a participating store, only to get a surprise email stating that I have a rebate on its way to my account. And you really can't beat that!

RATING: 6.5/10

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

X-Mode Energy on Tap Watermelon Rush Energy Shots (Online)

A decent "watermelon" flavor, but too similar to the apple for my liking.
Well what do we have here? In the two or so months since my last order, I see those fine folks at X-Mode have added yet another flavor into the mix: watermelon. This takes their total number of options to four, up double from the two they initially offered when I first heard about them a couple of years ago. I don’t typically care for artificially-flavored watermelon things (although I love the actual fruit), but you know what? You only live once, so I figured I might as well get out of my comfort zone. Well, that, and the other flavors were getting kind of boring to me, so that made the decision even easier.

I won’t go into a hugely long preface since I’ve already done that in previous flavor reviews of X-Mode, but just a quick recap about what X-Mode is: In quick terms, think a boxed wine, only for energy drinks. Each order comes with two resealable 2 oz. bottles which you then refill over and over again until the contents of the box are gone. The idea, I guess, is that it cuts back on waste over getting a one-use energy shot and throwing it away every day. I don’t know…I mentioned back when I first reviewed them that I can’t tell if it’s a genius idea or a completely stupid idea and I’m still stuck in the middle, even though these have become my go-to energy beverage (though mostly out of convenience; going to the store to load up on energy shots and/or drinks every single week was getting to be a rather annoying hassle).

Anyway, onto the watermelon: it smells just like what I was expecting, which is to say an incredibly artificial watermelon candy. I don’t understand why so many beverages and candies even have a watermelon flavor, because they never taste (or even attempt to taste) like the real thing…although I guess that ideology could extend to “sour/green apple” and “blue raspberry” candies, too.

It fits the exact flavor profile of every other X-Mode variety, with a very sweet flavor profile that goes down pretty smooth for me, but that will be a chore for those with a preference for the “dryer” things in life (like my wife, who refuses to go near these things). Honestly, I questioned why watermelon flavors even need to exist, and that goes double for this one; the more I sip on it, the more I realize that it’s very close in taste to their “Jacked Apple”, which was the previous flavor they released last year. Even the smell is pretty similar…I can distinguish the watermelon, but the surrounding notes are so alike that it seems like they barely even had to do anything to change the formula from apple to watermelon.

The one thing that really strikes me as kind of odd about these beverages (besides the whole idea, I suppose) is that, despite all being founded on the same intensely sweet foundation of flavor, none of them hit the taste buds too strongly, at least for me. Like, you know how you get a sweet candy, and it kind of makes all your taste buds wiggle and respond to how sweet it is, basically letting you know that you’re getting a sweetness overload? This hits the top of the tongue in a similar fashion, but seems to dissipate before it hits the surrounding tastebuds. I know, I know, part of it might be because there’s no actual sugar in it, but it’s almost like they somehow “mute” the sweetness in the aftertaste, so that you just get an initial blast of candy-like intensity that quickly weakens so that it doesn't become too overbearing. Eh…I think I’m doing a terrible job of explaining it, but to sum up: it’s not as intensely sweet as it starts off suggesting it will be. (Again, as a counterpoint, my wife finds it to be overwhelmingly cloying and won’t go near it unless it’s her only option and she has another beverage to blend it in as a means to completely mask the flavor; to each their own, I suppose.)

Overall: 5/10. This one has sour notes of typical watermelon candy that hit your tastebuds from the outset, before it all dissipates rather quickly after you swallow. It will be way too strong for some, and while I will say I don’t always enjoy these flavors, I never have to “force” a drink of it down. There’s a slightly medicine-y aftertaste, but it’s light and rather pleasant compared to most energy shots. The biggest hit to the points is just how unnecessary it is, as it offers up a very similar scent and taste to the sour apple flavor the company released last year. And, just like that one, this one is only available at “full price” through both eBay and Amazon, unlike the cherry and orange flavors, which are slightly discounted (with the capability to “make your own offer” on eBay to save even more money on top of that). It’s okay, but I'll just stick to the cherry for the most part, and get the "Jacked Apple" instead of this one when I want something different.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Assured Pregnancy Test (Dollar Tree)

Unless you need to know the moment a consumer-grade test can tell you, these are a great value.
I recently reviewed Dollar Tree’s personal lubricant, so naturally, let’s take a look at what you can expect to need a couple of months after that: a pregnancy test. But typical tests are ridiculously expensive, despite all being designed largely the same, and made of pretty much the same (plastic) materials. So are the name brand tests that much more accurate to justify the 10x price hike? Not at all.

We’ll set the stage somewhere around March, 2016. My wife felt like she might be pregnant, but considering I was strongly anti-kids and she didn’t want any either, wanted to ignore the possibility as long as possible. When the feelings not only didn’t go away, but got even stronger, that’s when she knew she had to be sure; like any budget-minded gal, she decided to grab a dollar store test first, just to confirm (or, in this case, hopefully deny) her suspicions.

Long story short, her suspicions were confirmed. She was pregnant, something we had somehow managed to avoid through 8 years of marriage highlighted by pretty consistent fucking. It had been so long that we kind of just assumed that she couldn’t even get pregnant, which is probably the mindset that lead to that little accident. Oops. But, understandably, she wanted to be sure that she was getting an accurate reading, so she went and bought a name brand one. And, of course, the more expensive one only confirmed what the dollar store version had already told her. And for, like, $10 more.

When she finally broke the news to me, over the phone and while I was at work, bawling to the point that she was almost incoherent, I expected the worst: Did she cheat on me? Did a family member die? Was someone gravely injured? I guess my mind went to such terrible places that, when she was finally able to spit the news out in an audible sentence, I was actually somewhat relieved. I didn’t get pissed, I didn’t get mad…it was kind of weird even to me, despite it being news that I honestly never wanted (or expected) to hear. And now, here we are, four calendar years later, with a three-year-old child who we would gladly trade for the world on certain days (“Terrible Twos” are a fallacy; “Shitty Threes” is a more accurate thing, despite not having the same catchy ring), but who has brought us more laughter, fun, and cuteness than we ever thought possible. Who knew?

Anyway, the moral of this story is that dollar store pregnancy tests always seem to get a bad rep, and at least part of it is for good reason. After all, a lot of the things to be found inside dollar stores are cheap junk. But there’s one little piece of info that seems to elude the general public (and that, honestly, I had never really considered up until now): pregnancy tests are FDA-regulated, meaning they have to be FDA-approved in order to end up on store shelves. And while that probably doesn’t amount to much in real world value—after all, the FDA is the same agency that regulates the allowed amount of rat shit that winds up in the factory-assembled foods we eat—that does at least mean one thing: they have to be pretty accurate in order to end up on store shelves. (This is also a good time to remind everyone that no consumer test is 100% foolproof; even expensive tests can give wrong answers from time to time.)

So is it worth spending more on a name brand test? The answer depends on how soon you need the results: typically, the more expensive brands do give you results a few days earlier than you might get with the cheaper ones. That’s about the only thing differentiating one test from another...well, besides the logo on the front and ensuing wallet hit, that is.

Overall: 9/10. It’s not the most sensitive test on the market, meaning some of the more expensive tests are able to detect pregnancies a little while earlier, but in terms of overall accuracy, it’s up there with the best of them. How do we know this? Because any test sold through official channels must be FDA-approved. And we know how in-depth the FDA gets when it comes to protecting its citizens (did anyone note the sarcasm)! At any rate, my wife took one of these to confirm her suspicions of pregnancy four years ago now, and then re-verified it with a much more expensive name brand, which (surprise!) told her the exact same thing.

And that’s the story of how our son was made.