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Image credit: Mat Smith, Engadget

I lost a weekend playing 'Miitomo,' Nintendo's first smartphone game

It's a little addictive.

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Mat Smith, Engadget

So here it is: Miitomo is Nintendo's first smartphone app. It's a social interaction game that's ... kind of existed before. Tomodachi Life was a surreal 3DS title populated by your own avatar, as well as StreetPass users, friends and any other Miis you made. It's not a conventional game: You don't move around a world collecting things or defeating things. This time, though, Nintendo is opening up this weird, wonderful universe of conversations, customizable clothing and interactions to anyone with a smartphone. There's no Mario, mushrooms or ink-spitting guns (yet), but the app is already No. 2 in the App Store and it's rocketing up Google Play's charts as well. It launched last week in Japan, where I live, so this is how I spent the weekend. Welcome to the time (and battery) sucking word of Miitomo.

Once you've downloaded the app, it's time to make your character. You can build from scratch, or use an automated tool that will create a (horrifically ugly) one based on a selfie. I'm still in the process of tweaking my Miitomo, nudging the nose up, making the eyes more kawaii -- it's a narcissist's dream come true. (To be fair, someone also said I looked like Donald Trump, so changes had to be made.)

After you've sorted out the face, it's time to move on to personality and mannerisms and pick your voice. From there, the action begins in your Miitomo's house. First, you make friends. You can connect in person (matching symbols in the app when in close proximity) or in classic social media fashion, linking your Miitomo account to your Twitter and Facebook logins to seek out anyone already using the app.

That's a big part of Miitomo's appeal: While Miiverse on the Wii U and Tomodachi Life on the 3DS were social titles, you could only be social with people who owned the same Nintendo hardware. Here, anyone with a smartphone can join in, and it's more fun that way. I already have some Facebook friends who I know haven't owned a Nintendo console since the SNES, and they're ... very active. It'd be great to see my family playing Miitomo, too.

I'm still in the process of tweaking my Miitomo, nudging the nose up, making the eyes more kawaii -- it's a narcissist's dream come true.

Once you've crafted the perfect avatar, he or she will start quizzing you. About food, life, what you did last night and more. The questions are brilliant, broad, occasionally weird and sometimes deep. The app launched in Japan with its English mode fully functional -- which was a smart move. Friends can see these answers, and then like them or respond inline. Tapping on a friend's head will send you to her room, where you can hear more about her, see what she's wearing or exchange secret personal information that only she'll see. These questions gravitate toward slumber party confessions, but it's so Nintendo-esque and sweet, I want to answer, even if it's barely an acquaintance, like a Twitter friend you've never met IRL.

The sounds and music within the app are also unmistakably Nintendo. Cute tinkly melodies play in the background. I like it enough, apparently, that I've found myself turning off Spotify while playing the game on the train. The computer-generated voices are unusual highlights, too. They're customizable, in a voice-modulation kind of way, and Miitomos will read out what they're saying. (Switch to the Japanese language and they'll read out Japanese as well as English in an awkward, accent-heavy way. Still adorable.) Some basic word recognition within the app will also trigger petite gestures and animations. Think: licked lips for the mention of food, "money eyes" at the mention of gifts. And yeah, sometimes the animations are random and downright confusing.

Perhaps the biggest sign that Nintendo is beginning to grasp the value of bringing its games and products to smartphones is the "Miifoto" feature. As you go about dressing your character (you'll need in-game currency to buy more things, or you can win certain pieces in mini-games), your character will suggest you take a photo of your new look. If you choose to tweak the picture, you can add up to four other Miis (either ones you've made or Miitomo friends), change the expressions, poses, body positioning, insert stamps or even layer the whole thing on top of a real photo you've taken yourself. It's addictive and smart: There's a row of share buttons to send the results to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Line (the WhatsApp of Japan.) To repeat, it's really, really, addictive.

Thanks to early bonuses and sign-up presents, I had no shortage of in-game money to spend on fashion upgrades. (Early favorite: a kitty that hangs out on your shoulder.) However, there's no such thing as free lunch. Welcome to in-app payments. At the moment, what you can spend real money on is limited to clothing, from socks through to scarves and hats, but if the game expands to better represent the 3DS title, you'll likely see items to help spruce up the interior of your fictional house, or even send presents to your BFFs (MiiFFs?).

As I've mentioned, since this is the grand-opening week for Miitomo, I found myself with plenty of coin from the start -- but I can soon burn through it on mini-games. At the start, I didn't even realize there was a normal shop where I'd pay more but definitely get something new to wear instead of risking it on a game of chance.


The current mini-game is a drop-chute challenge: You let go of your Miitomo and see it bounce between an assortment of pinball bumpers and ramps, hoping that it lands on a platform housing that cat sweater you've been coveting. It's 500 coins a drop. So, all those coins can soon disappear. Consider this a warning. Nintendo distributes more coins and game vouchers (valid for one play on the mini-game) for being social, talking to your friends, exchanging answers and commenting. This ensures I've never been far away from earning enough to buy something new ... or taking my chances on the pachinko-pinball game.

Miitomoさん、40%マジでしょうか!(◎_◎;)

A photo posted by Engadget Video (@egjpv) on

As a heads-up, the app isn't perfect. There's a power-saving mode built into the game itself, which understandably doesn't bode well. Those crisp graphics, Mii loading and communications really hammer your battery. My Japanese colleagues noted the same thing.

The game doesn't share resources well, either; skip between the game and email, music, whatever, and the app has to reload. Every. Time. It'll boot back to where you were, but not without a few seconds of loading. It's a little jarring.

If social games, weird hats and a weirdly strong propensity for making everything cat-themed leave you cold, remember that this isn't Nintendo's only foray onto your phone. The company is planning four more mobile games to launch this year. These titles are supposed to be games in a more traditional sense, although I'll say it now: I don't want to play Mario on a touchscreen. I'll take some cats' ear accessories instead.

Mat once failed an audition to be the Milkybar Kid: an advert creation that pushed white chocolate on gluttonous British children. Two decades later, having repressed that early rejection, he completed a three-year teaching stint in Japan with help from world-class internet and a raft of bizarre DS titles. After a few weeks back in the UK, he's recently returned to Japan, heading up our coverage of a country that's obsessed with technology -- often in very unusual ways.
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