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(I should point out first of all, due to the difficulty of conveying accents, that the title is supposed to be a pun on the French for 'ready to wear' rather than an instruction to stroke a member of railway personnel. The latter will probably get you in trouble and has nothing to do with the subject at hand. Thank you.)
The Pocket Neopet is a spinoff of the neopets.com website, a favourite online haunt of mine. The site gives you access to the country of Neopia where you create, name and adopt a virtual pet, which you can then feed, play with, read to, battle with other owners' pets, write poems about and so on. (I kid you not about the poems.)
The pocket version is a Tamagochi-style device: earn money (NeoPoints) by playing games, then spend it on toys and food to keep your pet healthy and happy. It might even dissuade the household Neopets addict from tying up the computer for hours on end - a sort of Neopet nicotine patch.
I got mine at Toys R Us (in the 'Teen Tronics' aisle, to save you searching) - I've also seen them in Woolworths and the Argos catalogue. It cost £15, which seems a little steep given that Brand X type pocket pets can be found on market stalls for a quid or two (usually called something Japanese-translation-sounding like 'My Best Puppy').
There are currently three kinds of pocket pet to choose from; there are over 40 different species on the site, so it may be a while before they're all available. The Kougra resembles a tiger cub, the Aisha is a sort of alien cat with antennae and the Kacheek a generic cutesy cartoon...thing.
Your pocket Neopet comes in a bean-shaped plastic podule about the size of the average MP3 player. Colour-coded by species - mine is green and contains a Kougra - with a picture of the pet within and an embossed Neopets badge. It's a cool-looking piece of kit, reasonably light but too large for a pocket; it would be nice if it had a belt clip. It seems pretty durable but I suspect the paintwork will soon get a bit scruffy from travelling in my bag. (Of course I take him to work! You wouldn't want the poor little guy to miss lunch would you?)
Open it up and the first thing you notice is that the LCD screen is tiny - barely an inch square, and much of that taken up by graphics printed on the top and bottom of the screen itself. The rest of the space is filled by the various control buttons and a little plastic model of the appropriate Neopet - a lovely little thing this, carefully detailed and painted.
The underside of the lid holds a moulded Neopian scene - mine is 'Mystery Island': palm trees, water, native huts and a jetty - with three holes into which you can pop your model pet and give it whatever adventures your imagination can dish up. This has limited play value at my advanced age, but I know that if Neopets had been around when I was under twelve I would have spent hours engrossed in this miniature world. Comes of being an only child.
I was itching to get started, but first I had the instruction sheet to get through. I make a point of reading instructions all the way through so I don't do anything irreversible in my ignorance, and this set was a good ten minutes' read. I can't see young children managing them - or knowing what a 'node' or a 'port' might be, for that matter. With hindsight, I reckon you could just dive into things without reading the instructions, as everything is pretty self-explanatory.
Then again, without the instructions I wouldn't have known how to turn the sound off and would probably have taken a hammer to the device within minutes. The sound effects are an assortment of bleeps, pings and burps (heard after your pet has enjoyed a meal), and far too loud for my tastes, especially as an alarm sounds when your pet wakes or feels hungry.
When you switch on for the first time, you are welcomed to Neopia by a scrolling message and asked to set the date and time. Be warned that your Neopet likes to get up at 7AM and retire at 9PM, so if these hours don't suit you you might want to fiddle the books a bit.
Next you are asked to determine your pet's name, gender and preferences - what it likes to do and how it greets new acquaintances. It's the same process as creating a new pet at neopets.com, and neither these decisions nor the randomly-generated initial height, weight and intelligence statistics will affect your game.
Now the fun can start. Your pet's happiness, health and intelligence are raised by feeding it, putting it to bed and waking it up at the right times, and by giving it toys to play with. It's a demanding little beggar and will keep you on your toes.
When you're not playing, the screen alternates between displaying the time and showing animations of the pet. These are short and simple but there are lots of them and it will be a while before you've seen them all. My Kougra runs, pounces, swishes his tail, scratches behind his ear and many more. How a creature composed of so few pixels can be so cute beats me. Unless you activate it, the screen will turn off during the pet's sleeping hours of 9PM to 7AM to make sure it gets enough sleep - I mean to conserve battery life, of course.
There are four games to play. In Racing, you hit the left and right directional buttons as fast as you can to move your car towards the finish line, in Negg Drop you catch falling objects, Copycat asks you to memorise a sequence of keypresses, and Luck is a simple fruit machine. The first three of these will only pay out NeoPoints three times a day, but you can still earn by plugging away at Luck. I found none of these particularly absorbing, and having to play them every day to earn enough points to buy food quickly gets annoying.
Got NeoPoints? You're ready to hit the shops. There are three of these: Food, Toys and Petpets (give your pet a pet of its own). Shops stock three items a day, so don't give your pet all the available food first thing in the morning or it'll be hungry later. The selection of items sold varies from day to day.
It's here that you'll really get confused if you don't play the NeoPets site, as you're presented with goodies like Neggs and Faerie Toast, Fuzzles and Quiggle Plushies. If you buy something you'll see a picture of it and a message informing you that the item has been transferred to your inventory, a.k.a. the Burlap Sack. Once an item's there, you can give it to your pet. Giving it a food item results in an animation of the pet eating and a message informing you that it was hungry; give it a toy or a petpet and a 'playing' animation runs. Toys will disappear after they have been played with three times; petpets have a varying lifespan of days to weeks before they vanish. Toys, pets and food raise your pet's happiness and health; food also makes its weight go up.
Sometimes you may be told your pet has fallen ill. In that case, you'll need to pay a visit to the hospital to get a diagnosis and purchase the cure. I haven't had to do this yet - obviously I treat my Kougra with the tender loving care he deserves.
You can jump quickly to the Feed, Games or Hospital options by pressing buttons on the console using the peg on the model Neopet's base. This is the theory, at least - I find I have to press very hard for it to work, and I think children with small clumsy fingers would find it tricky.
Once you've earned a certain number of points at Racing, Negg Drop or Copycat you earn a trophy and progress to a harder level. Complete Level Three on all three games and you'll be given a Rare Item Code which can be redeemed at neopets.com, provided you have an account, for a (virtual) rare object, highly prized among users and often changing hands for millions of NeoPoints. A code also comes with the toy. To me this seemed a bit of a swizzle, as the back of the package says 'Earn Rare Item codes!'. Technically true, yes, but if you can only earn one code through actually playing the game I won't be terribly motivated to carry on with it once I've got my code. I suppose you could reset the console and start again...if you want that on your conscience, you pet-murderer you.
The Neopets branding is very appealing, but I feel it could have been done better. As interacting with other users is a big part of the site, it would be nice if you could link up with a friend to swap items or do battle. If you're a fan of the website, though, it's great to own a little piece of Neopia in the real world.