A wealth of research confirms that owning a dog or a cat can improve health and happiness. Cat cafes and Uber kittens have popped up across the country to fill the void in petless people's lives. And now there's a new, digital option for animal companionship: you can join the millions of people in Japan and around the world who have found joy in the mobile game Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector.
The game, by Hit-Point, is simple. Incredibly simple. You attract animated cats to your virtual yard by purchasing toys (rubber ball, scratching log, zebra grass gadget), snacks (thrifty bitz, tuna, sashimi) and things to lay on (pillows, hammocks, a cool aluminum pad). Cats come and go as they please -- similar to real life.
Cats leave either silver or gold "niboshi," or fish, when they exit the garden, which you can use to buy more things to attract more cats. You can also take photos of cats in your yard and add them to your "Catbook," a virtual album of cute kitties.
There are currently 49 cats, each with a unique name and personality profile. You can choose to change the name of a cat after it appears in your yard, but who would want to rename a cat called Chairman Meow or Joe DiMeowgio?
Seventeen of the cats are considered rare, and part of the challenge is to figure out how to attract these elusive felines.
The app is free to download and play, but you can rack up charges purchasing virtual items in the game.
As of January 2016 the game had received 10 million downloads. Neko Atsume was also named one of the Top 5 Mobile Games of 2015 by GameSpot, which called it "an intensely quirky title." GameSpot stated: "Once you let Neko Atsume sink its claws into you, then if you're anything like some of the GameSpot crew, you'll be constantly checking your phone to see if any new visitors are in your yard."
What's the secret of its appeal? Sure, the cat pictures are cute, but it's not just that.
"It's a simple game, but an affecting one," wrote Allegra Frank at Vox's gaming site Polygon. "There's no conflict... There are no real achievements, nor any sense of danger. There's neither a failstate nor an ending... You can't let down your cats in Neko Atsume; you can only make them happier."
Players enthuse about the game online. "I wish there was an action to pet cats!! Overall 10 kawaiiness out of 10," Tiana Robinson wrote in one of the more than 150,000 5-star reviews the app has received on Google Play.
I also downloaded the game and love whiling away time placing new items in my yard to attract more virtual cats (much to the chagrin of my real-life cat, Siegfried).