If you know a younger gamer who loved Nintendogs (or one of these people), this may be a surefire recommendation. Surprisingly, it's that good. But that seems to be par for the course when it comes to developer Amaze Entertainment -- who also worked on the GBA's incredible Spyro title last year. They take old franchises and licenses that no one seems to care about, and sometimes put out gems no one notices. Not all the time ... but when they're good, they're great. And for what it is, Disney Friends is pretty great.
Gallery: Disney Friends
The Nintendogs comparison is very apt here, to the point of Disney Friends sounding a little creepy at first. Instead of an animated dog in your care, as a new Guardian, you're charged with the care and feeding of a Disney character (first Stitch, then Dory, Pooh, and Simba). It's a little weird, sitting there scratching Stitch on the side of the head and telling him to play dead via the microphone, but it grows on you pretty quickly, even if you're not already heavily invested in Disney characters. There's no way around it -- they're cute -- and that cuteness is played to the hilt here, just as it is in Nintendo's powerful puppycare sim.
A lot of the elements are similar, too; as a Guardian, you can play with your little friends, and talk to them, and take them on adventures. You're also given challenges -- such as assignments for certain pictures -- and you earn trophies, gold, and pins as recognition for your efforts. The direct-care of most "pet" sims is dialed down a little in favor of playtime here, and that's nice. You never feel burdened, as I often did with Nintendogs, which always seemed more an overly-cute cautionary tale about the responsibility of pets than a game. Instead of walks and poop and bath time, you spend time making music, drawing, and playing cute mini-games tailored to each character. Find honey in the Hundred Acre Wood with Pooh, or build a toy city for Stitch to rage through, Godzilla-style. There are also certain activities only available on certain days; on Fridays, for instance, Dory hangs out with the Fish are Friends, Not Food group.
And Disney Friends takes a few extra steps for fun and usability that are actually very impressive in this little game. First and foremost, there's a ton of wi-fi multiplayer options, including games against random players that don't require friend codes, as well as friend-based matches. Also, for anyone who's ever had trouble with voice commands, you don't have to rely on them here -- you can talk to your friends, but it's just as easy to scroll through the voice command menu and select the option you want.
Disney Friends is easy to praise, but there are flaws, too. Most of the game text is incredibly tiny, and there's a lot of reading at the beginning, which may thwart some very young gamers who would otherwise have fun here (so play with them!). The games tend to get a little monotonous over time, too, and so filling up your Guardian points can get trying ... but since you don't have the same responsibilities of other pet sims, you can pretty much just focus on the things you prefer doing and ignore the rest. That's another nice design choice, and one that seems particularly geared toward offering younger gamers a great experience.
The stylus is not always as precise as it could be, and sometimes items and toys end up in hard-to-access areas, which can present a problem, but it's rare. A few more mini-games would have been nice, too, or even just a little more variety in the ones that are on offer (particularly the drawing game). But these smaller problems are also offset by some of the game's strengths, like the great voice acting, which sounds very like the original actors (and might be, in some cases). The characterization is also particularly sharp. Pooh acts, well, like Pooh Bear should act, Dory is dumb as hell and very funny, and spending time with the Disney characters quickly became something of a guilty pleasure, and one I will deny to my death.
All in all, this is a very solid title, and one of the great examples of the child-friendly games available on the DS. So often, games for kids tends to mean "games no one spent time on," and that's no way to train the future generation of gamers.
Final verdict: 7.5/10 -- A well-crafted experience, but never a very deep one. While that's might be a benefit for part of the target audience, a little more in the way of mini-games would have been nice.