It’s like Animal Farm but capitalist.
We’re doing something a little different for Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Due to the nature of the game, rather than a single review after we’ve spent a while with the game, we’re going to release weekly looks at what we’ve been up to, and then put a score on it after the third week. Animal Crossing is a game about routine, it’s a game that wants to become part of your life, part of what you do. It may seem twee and it may be a little too cute, but there’s nothing else quite like it.
Animal Crossing started out on the Gamecube way back in 2001. In that game you travelled by train to a new town and where asked a whole lot of questions. Through this you decided on your name, and the name of the two to which you were travelling. Once you arrived you were unceremoniously dumped, homeless and alone into a strange green place with a river and a beach as well as a group of small shops. Quickly Tom Nook came up to you and basically forced you into slavery, by giving you a house that you had no choice in and then demanding that you work for him until you had paid off the house.
The sinister set-up quickly gave way to the adorable world as you busied yourself making money by catching and selling fish or filling the museum with all kinds of bugs and fossils. The big selling point of the game is that it carried on without you. If you switched it off in the morning, when you went back the next day a whole day would have passed. The other villagers would have been going on their lives, things will have grown, and the calendar has moved on. Events were happening all the time and you’d find yourself switching the Gamecube on during Sunday morning so you could stock up on turnips to sell throughout the week. While we take persistent worlds for granted in lots of genres these days, very few have got close to Animal Crossing in terms of believability and coherence. The town was crazy, but it was yours and it felt like it existed.
Fast-forward 12 years and three entries later, and we arrive at Animal Crossing: New Leaf. To be honest very little has changed in the essence of what Animal Crossing is, you still want to make money by selling things and you still want to collect things for the museum.What has changed is that Nintendo have continued to improve the player’s experience, diluting all of the chores and emphasising the more interesting parts until we’re left with a game that rarely frustrates but constantly delights.
There’s also been a serious step up in the graphics. While the art style has remained consistent, if you compare screenshots of the newest entry with the original, or even the Wii version, you’ll be amazed at how far it comes. Little details and effective but simple lighting really work wonders for the atmosphere. Walking around at dusk or dawn is by far my favourite time to play now.
As I arrived in my new town, after the traditional train-bound information-giving conversation, I was surprised to find that I was mayor. You’ll all be mayor. This is quite the change from your previous enslavements at the hands of Tom Nook (don’t worry he still forces you into ridiculous loans) and gives you an odd sense of empowerment even if it’s never properly explained how you got into that position. There’s a short ceremony and you get to meet everyone and then you’re off into the world to have your adventures.
The first thing I did was go round collecting fruit. Each town will have it’s own native fruit, and ours is cherries. Your own fruit sells for a measly 150 bells in the best-paying town store, but if you can get non-native fruit you’ll be earning much more. The only way to do that is to visit other people’s towns, which is easy as anything, you just mosey on up to the train station and ask to go travel. Wandering around someone else’s town is an exercise in jealousy though as you begin to covet every little bauble they’ve attained that remains out of your grasp. There’s a new feature where you get to see showhome versions of people’s houses once you have met them via streetpass. I wqas quite pleased with my little hovel until I managed to get another journalist’s house to appear and immediately wanted all of their stuff. Thankfully you can buy all of the common items through a catalogue if they appear in your showhome space, but if something’s rare or attained through a special method it’ll be unavailable for purchase.
Once I had my fruit bundled up, I walked up to what used to be Tom Nook’s ‘Nookington’s’ and quickly turned by cherries into bells, the town’s currency. With this I could buy some tools like a fishing rod and a spade, and I set back out to find more riches and collectables for the museum. From this moment I was absolutely hooked.
Even though I’ve played this same game in all four different incarnations, it still has an oddly compelling effect on me. I want to gain bells, so I want to fish more, I want to fill my museum up so I have to load up the game certain times of the day to give myself the best chance of finding insects and fish, I even want my residents to think of me as a good mayor so I take my time to go visit them each day. It’s all irrational, it’s a virtual town with little randomly-picked snippets of code that let me know what’s going to happen and who’ll turn up. But Nintendo’s magic is that they make all of it very convincing. You don’t want to make an appointment with the duck next door and miss it, because that’d be rude, you have to live next door to him! In reality of course, there are no real repercussions, there’s no morality system and you rarely have to make a really important decision. They’ll seem important to you though and that’s what matters.
One week into the game and I’ve achieved a lot. I lost a lot of bells that I bought on Sunday and never found a good price for them, I’ve got well on my way filling the museum with all manner or fish and fossils, and a number of insects too. I’ve visited a tropical paradise and caught a shark there, I’ve commissioned the building of a new bridge and a campsite, and so far not a single animal has moved out of my town. I’ve even got a yellow Pikmin hat and in the photo above, I’ve been stung by a bee. It all seems to be going well, and I’m having a lot of fun. Will it last?