Even after spending two weeks poking at it, I still don’t what to think of Tomodachi Life; I certainly enjoyed it and it’s insane non-sequiturial sense of humor but whether it’s a good game or not is something that still somewhat baffles me. A lot of the things you would judge a game on such as story, pacing, or coherence, simply aren’t there because structurally it plays more like a random assortment of skits and toys haphazardly thrown together than a proper game. That said, its aimlessness can be quite endearing and the game’s complete and utter lack of structure or reason in both its gameplay design and humor gives it a real quirkiness that some people are going to love.
Probably the best way to describe the gameplay in Tomodachi Life is as Animal Crossing meets The Sims meets Warioware; sharing the passive real-time management angle of Animal Crossing, the doll house feel of The Sims, and the incredibly simplistic though thoroughly enjoyable mini games of Warioware. Unfortunately that combination, specifically the way it’s executed here, doesn’t mesh as well as you might hope. The basic premise is that you’re managing an apartment building full of Miis, feeding, clothing, advising, and playing with them as they ask for it. As you interact with them and make them happy, they get more stuff that they can end up doing and you get more money to spend towards making them even happier. A large of bulk of this takes the form of little Warioware style mini-games and skits with the Miis that feature a lot of offbeat humor. None of these sections are all that complex though, often being as simple as picture quizzes or little physics toys. On their own these bits aren’t very fun but as part of the gameplay overall it makes for a neat mix tape experience, though one lacking the speed and manic quality of Warioware. Just like Animal Crossing though everything you’re doing and when you’re able to do it is dictated by actual real world time, and in the same way as Animal Crossing it’s very easy to run out of game for the day. Unlike Animal Crossing though there isn’t really any fun way to grind, you can’t go beetle catching or anything like that, once you’re done with the 20 minutes or so of actual gameplay available at any given time you have to either make your own fun or put the game down. Making your own fun is where it starts to look like The Sims as you have plenty of tools at your disposal with which you can manipulate your virtual dollhouse. Dress up your Miis in silly costumes, pose them for photos, or have them put on a little concert; there’s all sorts of stuff you can do but it’s not really in aid of anything, it’s just for shits and giggles. There are some toy items you can trigger at anytime but they’re limited and the mini-games attached to them get old quick.
Because the gameplay is so light, your enjoyment of Tomodachi Life will depend heavily upon how much you enjoy its sense of humor which I can see as being an acquired taste. The laughs here are coming from goofy emergent moments of character interaction and mad-libs style pairings of those characters with various silly yet mundane objects and events. Things like watching yourself and your grandmother have a rap battle while Abraham Lincoln and Shaq stand in the background acting as hype men or a news report talking about how Satoru Iwata discovered a new way to clean the floor by just rolling around on the carpet, it’s funny but in a very lazy and procedural kind of way. While I never found any of its spaghetti against the wall jokes truly laugh out loud funny, it did manage to create consistent chuckles with its occasionally serendipitous pairings of characters and items. Probably the best way to ensure you’ll get more of those kinds of moments is to fill the game with Miis of celebrities or known characters, which you sadly have to make or seek out for yourself, them no having a browser of community made Miis feels like a missed opportunity.
What makes the randomness of Tomodachi Life’s humor work is the equally random way it does its presentation, mixing the standard Mii look with bad computer generated voices and oddly taken photo sprites. Don’t take that last sentence to mean I don’t like the look and sound of this game though, in fact the subtle crappiness of it all is exactly what makes it so endearing. The VO is all done via a voice synthesis program that’s right out of the ’90s and it has that distinct scratchy unreal tone that brings me back to afternoons spent in my school library making Microsoft Word quietly cuss. You can certainly play with the voices a bit, slide some sliders around and whatnot, but no matter what you do every voice will still sound hilariously bad which only makes the fact that every Mii can sing even funnier. On that note there’s plenty of music in this game, much of which is actually sung by the Miis, and it all has a charmingly cheesy stock quality to it, especially the lyrics which you can often change out for whatever stupidity your heart desires. The visuals share the same lovingly low rent feel as the audio, mixing the semi-generic Mii style with an abundance of seemingly out of place photo-realistic sprites. Pretty much every item you find that’s not clothes takes the form of these photo realistic sprites and each one looks like it was taken from a stock photo gallery. This especially goes for the food, which manages to look both simultaneously delicious and terrible at the same time thanks to odd plating and lighting choices. Overall the presentation has a very genuine Japanese feel to it, reminiscent of old episodes of Iron Chef or Crayon Shin-Chan, with everything looking and feeling artificial yet still intrinsically handmade.
Tomodachi Life is a joyously stupid odd ball of a game, but I don’t necessarily think that makes it a good or fun game. The same lack of consistent gameplay and motivation that plagues the Animal Crossing series is even more pronounced in this title and I can see its sense of humor not quite resonating with everyone. If you’re okay with an experience that’s more of a toy box or a dollhouse than a proper video game and you’ve got a love of Nintendo’s other experiments in utter strangeness such Warioware and to a lesser extent Pikmin, then you’ll fall in love with Tomodachi Life and happily check in on your Miis every day. For everyone else though, the game’s $40 price tag will start to feel pretty steep right quick and chances are your Tomodachi island will end up being just as covered in hypothetical weeds as your now long forgotten Animal Crossing town. Personally I’m closer to the former than the later in that situation but the game’s ultimate lack of structure and reliance on emergent random humor gnawed at me the whole way through, as such I’m giving Tomodachi Life a 3 out of 5 stars.