Joseph Harper reviews a different game every week in a brand new column. First up: Neko Atsume.
I started playing a new smartphone game this week. I’m probably the target market for these kind of things via vaguely addictive personality and enjoying the patronising simplicity of the kind of games that exist on this platform. I’ve never gotten into them though. I had NBA Jam on an old iPod touch, and obviously I’ve played Angry Birds (I’m not a moron). But I never got hard into Candy Crush or Flappy Wings or any of the other phone games that people play on the toilet. This week though I started playing Neko Atsume. I started playing it aggressively.
“Playing” is the wrong word. You experience it. Initially a Japanese game that managed to infiltrate the Eigo speaking world without a translated version via sheer force of cuteness and its rudimentary mechanics, Neko Atsume – which roughly translates as “Kitty Collector” – is a game where your sole aim is to provide pleasure to cats. It’s great.
You begin with an empty yard. Drawn for a child and backed by a terrific bit of pastel theme music. A few minutes of tutorial later and you’re in possession of a red rubber ball and a meagre supply of Thrifty Bitz cat biscuits. You put out the toy and the food, close the game, and wait for cats to appear in your yard.
They drip feed in. Spooky toys with the ball. Bolt partakes in the Bitz. And for your trouble, the cats leave you gifts of silver or gold fish, with which you buy upgrades to make your yard more cat-friendly. I got a baseball (because I like baseball) and a scratching post (because my cats like their scratching post) and quickly my yard was overrun with cats. The game lets you photograph them as an added ‘collect ‘em all’ element. I showed the game to my co-worker Andrew and our workday became quickly interrupted by shouts of “Oh shit! Bandit left me five gold fish!” and “Jeez, Gozer really goes in on the sheep cushion.” It’s surprisingly riveting stuff.
We both pretty swiftly spent irl money (300 gold fish for $4.99 – good value imo) to purchase an extension so that we could place objects and lure cats into our living room too. Over a few days my cat colony expanded to include offerings of Sashimi, a brightly coloured temari ball, an ornamental goldfish bowl (feat. fish), an ineffective but charming ball of yarn, and a frankly embarrassing three-storey “cat condo”.
I attract enough cats that earning the requisite fish to keep my food bowls full is a given. I’ve even attracted a few rare cats, including a very chill, morbidly obese cat “Tubbs”. The ‘challenge’ element of the game is gone already. It probably never even existed. But I’m still compelled to continue playing Neko Atsume.
There’s a ‘rare cat’ named Kathmandu (he dresses in some kind of ceremonial garb) who has visited my yard numerous times, but I haven’t managed to photograph. Normally this kind of tantalising incompletion would drive me nuts, but in this game I don’t feel stress. I check in every hour or so. Sometimes the food bowls, and so the yard, are empty. You’re left imagining the cats who visited in your absence and saw fit to drop some fish and leave.
It’s some very good, Matsuo Basho frog splash shit. There is the occasional gentle thrill of encountering someone new, but mostly it’s just filling the food bowls and observing the unending animation of a cat batting a baseball back and forth or sleeping on a cushion. It’s cute, yes, but mostly it’s tranquil and relaxing. I can’t recommend this game enough.