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Platform: iOS, Android
Release Date: 30 October 2015
'Ah, cats. I've been told they're great, whether you want a cuddly friend to stroke, a test subject to stick in a box with poison gas to make a point about parallel universes, or just something close to hand that can eat you after you die. Trouble is, I'm a student, and I don't really trust myself with my own life, let alone the life of a small furry creature adjacent to mine.
So to fill that cat-shaped hole in my cat-liking heart, because it's been getting popular around campus, and also because it was free, I downloaded Neko Atsume at the start of this week. I did so with a protective layer of sneering irony - ha ha, look at this game where you spend real money on identical imaginary cats! But then, much like Taylor Swift and wearing hipster t-shirts, it turned out that I actually liked it for real.
The game gives you a garden, with a space to put some food down and then six spaces for toys. Cats are lured in with food, and if they like your garden enough they'll leave you little presents (of in-game currency, rather than a dismembered mouse or a dump in the flowerbed) which you can then use to fill your garden with toys. Should you fail to entertain or feed your cats to a sufficiently high standard, they'll just saunter off to someone else's garden, since the bond of love means nothing in comparison to a slightly larger food bowl. So in that respect, it's a perfect cat simulator.
Interaction with your cats is limited: mostly, you just watch them do their thing from a distance. For a personal touch, you can rename them! Although these aren't technically your cats, so maybe you're then playing as that old woman smelling faintly of mothballs snipping the collars off struggling felines before dragging them in behind the door, which is a bit of a step down from the Master Chief. It's also worth noting that none of the cats really interact with each other, either.
So what do you do? Well, if a cat likes you enough it will eventually bring you a Memento, such as a bell or a note or a squeaky toy, which you can then collect and store. One "win condition" is to collect all of those - the other is to attract all the cats and then photograph them, like the world's most mundane game of Pokemon Snap.
Not that there's much to take photos of. Most of the cats are the same sprite recoloured, with about two animations for interacting with the various objects you leave out. There are, however, special cats you can get. There's St. Purrtrick, Billy the Kit and Mr. Meowgi, who looks exactly like you think he does.
Another one is called Tubbs, and it basically strolls in, refuses to interact with any of the other cats, jams its head in the food bowl and inhales and then leaves. I relate to this cat on a spiritual level. But my favourite is still Chairman Meow, complete with army helmet. Maybe they can patch in something where he knocks the food bowl over and instigates a famine.
And yet, despite the fact that I've been hammering my "NO FUN ALLOWED" sign into the ground for the entirety of this review, I'm still checking it daily. I can't look away.
One reason is simply the appeal of cute cats, heightened by the game's adorable 2D art-style. Another is that you can accumulate currency quickly enough to buy a new toy every day, giving you something new to come back for.
And importantly for an app where you can pay for currency - usually the digital equivalent of a big pit where you can throw game developers your money - you can buy everything with the currency that cats give you for free. It just takes longer, but it never slows gameplay to a complete standstill.
So I actually sort of recommend Neko Atsume, if only as something to absent-mindedly check on inbetween boring little chores like waiting for something or working on your vital essay. It seems to be getting popular on campus, so get it now, and you too can become one of 'Those People' who stands around in the back of parties showing off imaginary cats on their phone. Join us. JOIN US.