Few people can argue that Nintendo know how to make an original game. They’ve constantly been at the forefront of true innovation for longer than I care to remember – whether they’re revolutionising platform games or action roleplayers, Nintendo have always preferred quality over quantity and I for one appreciate the extra lengths they go to to ensure their games are always something special.
Animal Crossing is no exception – it’s unlike anything else around (although it’s somewhere between The Sims and Harvest Moon) and although it’s now never going to come out over here in Europe, there’s no harm in telling you all about it in case you’re lucky enough to be able to import it. Of course, it’s been out for some time now in the States, but like all games here at Gamestyle, we like to play enough of it to make an informed decision, and with Animal Crossing (which has a potential life-span of 3 years) you can’t just throw down a knee-jerk reaction. It needs time, because after a few months the game changes a little, and your focus is completely different from when you first started playing.
An example, then: On your first ever day on Animal Crossing you’ll travel on a train ride, sort out your name, sex and the town you’re going to live in. Then you’ll be introduced to Tom Nook, the local shopkeeper/landlord/mafia racoon, who’ll give you the choice of one of 4 houses to move into. They’re small, but expensive, and because you don’t start with another money to pay for one, you’ll be in debt to Nook until you have paid off your loan. To do this, you’ll work for him, running a number of varied errands, including introducing yourself to every other resident of your new town. You’ll also learn how to send letters, post notices, plant flowers, deliver furniture. It’s daunting, and there’s masses of things to see and do.
After you’ve worked for Nook for about 8 tasks, he’ll run out of errands for you, and it’s here that you’re first left on your own. Without the use of the Axe, the Shovel, the Fishing Net and the Bug Catcher (which all appear in Nook’s shop gradually in the next few days) you’re reduced to delivering and picking up items for the other villagers. Suddenly you’ll realise why this is great – not only will they give you cash and clothes for helping them out, but they’ll also occasionally give you furniture. Furniture (in it’s various themes and forms) plays a huge role in the addictiveness of Animal Crossing – because it’s often so rare, so expensive (and hence generally difficult) to get hold of decent furniture (and even more so to get other items of furniture that match, from the same set) you can realistically spend years collecting your ideal housewares.
You don’t have to get them from your village-mates and the shop though, the most impressive aspect of the game is the trading routines between your mates and on online trading boards – speak to Nook and give him your furniture and he’ll supply you with a ‘code’ in return for the intended deliverant’s name and town-name. Then you can give your friend the code and he can go to Nook and pick up his present. Excellent stuff, even if it’s slightly open to abuse (you can request the same item several times, for example), and it’s just another way to keep you playing.
Another reason is the way that Animal Crossing is perfectly synced to the Gamecube‘s built in clock – play at 6 in the morning and most of the animals will be asleep, and the shop will be shut, but then there’s a better chance of catching certain bugs (more of that later) if it’s that early. Similarly, if you’re able to turn up mid afternoon you’re more likely to catch one of the game’s pre-determined ‘holiday’ events – whether it’s Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve or even your birthday, the animals will response in a pseudo-believable way and you’re sure to pick up limited edition items if you’re in the right place at the right time. Of course, this being the US import means that you’ll have to adapt to a different set of holidays – Independance Day and Labor Day being two that spring to mind – but then there’s always Copper near the Lost and Found building (where you can pick up some handy items if you’re lucky) to advise you on what’s coming up soon in your town.
There is something of a multiplayer aspect too, and it’s here that the game shines even brighter. You can invite 3 of your friends to share your town (each living in one of the central houses) and you can also grab the train to any one of your mate’s towns if they’ve brought their memory card over. Of course, this game being Nintendo’s, each town is different, not just in terms of the villagers that inhabit it, but also the layout of all the houses and even the type of items you’ll find there – even going as far as to have a different main fruit on the trees. Brilliant stuff. Interaction with your friends expands further than just code-sharing though, you can post letters, set traps, even work together to complete the various Museum rooms – once you’ve all picked up the various tools, you’ll be digging up fossils (and mailing them to the research lab to find out what they are), catching bugs and even fishing – the results of all these can either be sold for profit to Nook, or donated to the museum, the ultimate goal is to complete each of the collections. Sadly, if you’re in the same town you’ll have to take turns – the game only allows one player at once.
Graphically it bears some resemblance to it’s N64 iteration – the models are low polygon and the textures are low resolution, but the frame rate’s locked at 60 frames per second and the variation from night to day and from season to season is quite lovely. The sounds are nothing to shout about – the villages all chatter in an incomprehensible language that’s loosely based on the words they’re saying (although there’s subtitles) and the music is basic midi material. Don’t let that put you off though, the simplicity means that Nintendo had room for over 1500 items in the game and a huge variety of villages, so you’ll never see everything the game has to offer. It also loads everything in one go, and only takes 10 seconds to do that too, so in theory you can remove the disk from the drive once you’re into your town.
You want more, though? How about the inclusion of a huge number of exact replicas of NES games to play on, trade with and compete with other games for high scores on? Not enough still? How about brilliant Gameboy Advance interaction with you being able to continue your game on the GBA, or visiting a unique island where you can catch other bugs, design your own clothes – even play the NES games on the handheld too? There’s masses to do in Animal Crossing, but you have to understand that there’s not enough to do to keep you interested for hours on end. This is where extended play starts to offer a different style of game mechanics – sure, there’s always the NES games, and the furniture trading, but for the game to last as long as it does certain events, bugs and fish only happen at certain times of the year.
Animal Crossing is best played for between 30 minutes and an hour every day – you’ll want to pop into the shop to check what Nook has in his store each day, and you’ll want to visit the dump, the lost and found and of course do a bit of digging and fishing, but after that the interaction between the animals and the often mundane errands do start to get repetitive. However, limit yourself and you’ll never get bored, and make sure to visit your town on all the major holidays – Animal Crossing is harmless fun, highly addictive and somehow appeals greatly to both the post-Pokemon generation and grizzled hardcore gamers like myself equally.