So… why is it that popular?
In the Times, Bradley suggests that the game plays into the Western obsession with kawaii, Japanese cuteness, and certainly, the toys -- a mochi cushion, a temari ball -- seem designed to appeal to that well-worn fetishization of Japanese culture. That, and the fact that the internet loves cute cats as much as it loves pointless apps (lest we forget that Kimoji made $1 million a minute).
For me, Neko Atsume also evokes nostalgia for the digital games I grew up playing. It's like a Tamagotchi I don't have to care for, Pokémon I don't have to do battle with, Sims that don't have bodily needs, or Petz that don't make me cry (Did anyone else have Petz!? Email me, let's commiserate). In that way, Neko Atsume takes the artificially nurturing, stimulus-response environment of these old-school games and turns down the engagement level to match the way that people use their phones nowadays: as constant sources of low-intensity distraction.
Just as I scroll through Instagram and Snapchat during daily lulls, I've come to incorporate checking in on my Nekos as part of my digital routine. It's takes little to no effort, yet seeing a rare cat playing in my yard (as well as the tantalizing gold rectangle that says "gifts await" every time the Nekos leave you something) provides a burst of dopamine much like a Facebook "like" or a Twitter retweet, tiny injections of excitement that I can take hits of over the course of the day. Much like Snapchat, the app of the moment, Neko Atsume is transient, fleeting. You can't hold onto your cats or control their behaviors, you must merely revel in their presence.