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

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