Anyone with an interest, however fleeting, in video games, smartphone apps, or pop culture has perhaps noticed their Twitter feed being slowly overtaken by images featuring cartoon cats, whimsical colors, and text in Japanese.
What you’re looking at is a game, which should be obvious. But what may not be obvious is what the game is, why it’s so popular, or even how to find it — especially because it’s in Japanese, and most Americans don’t make a general habit of searching for Japanese titles in their various app stores.
But this game comes by its cult appeal honestly. Falling somewhere between “The Sims” and Tamagotchis (the briefly popular “electronic pets” from the 1990s), it makes you the best pal of a bunch of neighborhood cats, who visit your home to eat the cat food and play with the cat toys you leave out for them. It’s addictive, adorable, and completely free. And it will only take up a few spare seconds of your time, whenever you need to check in — though you just might find more and more excuses to check in as you coax more cats into your virtual home.
Potential virtual cat owners, meet the felines of “Neko Atsume.”
What is “Neko Atsume”?
Designed by the Japanese company Hit-Point, “Neko Atsume” is a mobile phone game that gives the player a small backyard area (which can later be expanded with an indoor area as well) where the stray cats of the neighborhood come to visit. The cats will only drop by if there’s food, but if they like the food you give them, they’ll stay to play with any cat toys you might have laying about. These toys can range from simple balls and stuffed mice to more elaborate cat jungle gyms.
Here’s what “Neko Atsume” looks like when you have a bunch of cats hanging around:
Hit-Point: More cats than any one person would know what to do with.
After they’re done feasting and playing, the cats will leave you some number of sardines. These offerings will either be normal gray sardines (which they leave with great frequency) or precious golden sardines (which they leave much more sparingly). You can buy more golden sardines with real money, but the cats are generous enough that you shouldn’t really have to. Occasionally, the cats will also bring you a special gift they’ve found in their scrounging.
The fish function as the game’s currency, allowing you to buy more and more elaborate cat toys, which will attract more and more cats, who will bring you more and more fish. And on and on it goes.
The game, in its current incarnation, features more than 40 different cats. Some of them are standard cats, but others wear costumes. There’s a baseball player cat, a samurai cat, and a giant fat cat who eats all your food in one go.
And what does “neko atsume” mean? Roughly translated, it means “cat collecting,” according to GamesIndustry.biz.
How did people even come to know about this game?
“Neko Atsume” has climbed the charts in Japan, where there are enough mobile games about cats that Apple was able to run a promotion early in 2015 that centered on February 22, an informal holiday called “The Day of the Cat.” It is so named because 2/22 can be spoken as “nyan nyan nyan” in Japanese, which is roughly similar to saying “meow meow meow” in English. (Yes, now you know where the name “Nyan Cat” comes from.) Though not an official holiday, enough people know about it that Apple’s promotion proved a success and boosted “Neko Atsume” into the top 10 of all games sold in the country.
“Neko Atsume’s” slow-building popularity in other countries stems from the American video game press discovering it. Video game writers, who always keep an eye on what’s going on in the Japanese gaming industry, were quick to praise the game, which is fairly easy to play even if you don’t speak any Japanese.
One of the earliest US-based posts about “Neko Atsume” was on the site Destructoid. The game later received writeups from outlets like Kotaku, Vice’s tech site Motherboard, and Boing Boing’s gaming site Offworld. Soon, the game even earned itsown subreddit.
Recently, the game has begun to cross slowly but surely into the mainstream, especially thanks to this story on the Billfold, which satirizes the game’s economics.
Much more here…