• Animal Crossing Review - Nintendo Gamecube

    Picture the scene: “So my friend, you have a copy of Animal Crossing. What’s it all about then?”

    “Well, you are a young guy or girl who leaves home and moves to a small town in a forest. You haven’t got any money to start with so you have to take out a mortgage on a house from the local shopkeeper.

    You start working for him doing small chores and then you have to find other ways to pay off your mortgage. You can run errands for your neighbours or catch bugs and fish to sell. In addition to this you can decorate your home by buying furniture from the local shop. You can enter a competition which judges your house on how nice it looks. There is also a museum where you can display things, a post office where you can write letters to your neighbours and a design shop where you can design patterns for your own clothes.”

    “Riiiiiight. So what exactly is the aim of the game?”

    “There isn’t one. You just live your life in this forest. You can’t win the game and you can’t die. You just enjoy a peaceful life there.”

    “Hmmmm. So what’s this game Starfox Adventures about then?”

    Animal Crossing is not an easy game to appreciate until you play it. The premise is simple, live a pleasant life in your own personal town. Without a fixed goal or defined plot the title may be mistakenly passed over as mundane. That it is not is a testimony to the game design and proof that not every title requires a fast pace to create an engaging experience.

    The underlying rule of any reviewer who takes their writing seriously is that a game should not be judged until the majority has been played through. For Animal Crossing though, an exception has to be made. The game clock works in real time and every minute of real life is represented by a minute in the game. Stores open and close as they would in real life and the neighbours will go to bed when they get tired. Changes also occur over the longer term. Seasons change, the characters in the game celebrate holidays and life carries on even when the machine is turned off. This is the closest representation yet of a living, breathing world in a game. It may be inhabited by cartoon animals whose only worry is their lost handkerchief, but in a way it shows a greater level of maturity than many games marketed to an “adult” audience.

    The elements that help bring it all together are not immediately apparent. The Gamecube randomly creates every town so that no two are ever the same. Each town will start with a population of animals who act as your friends and neighbours, again randomly chosen from a huge list. Over time more animals will move in and others will move out. If you borrow a friend’s memory card, you can visit their town using the train. Only then do you realise how different each town is. You may even find that one of your town’s inhabitants moves to your friend’s town or comes back on the train with you.

    The game also takes unabashed advantage of players’ desire to collect. A huge number of objects await to be collected including furniture, clothes, in game music and even twenty NES classics to be played or downloaded to a Gameboy Advance, but the game only makes them available very gradually. New items will appear in the town shop every day and most days an event will occur that will allow special objects to be obtained, whether it be a visit from a travelling salesman or a fishing competition.

    One should not take for granted the appeal of decorating your virtual home. Initially filling the space with different furniture is just something to do, but with time it becomes a compulsive obsession to create an interior designer’s paradise. The desire to obtain that last piece of matching fruit style furniture can be immense. Improvements can be made to the home such as extensions and basements that allow even more room to be creative.

    The key to the game is the creativity; the player gets out what they put in. Although there is no specific goal, each player will find different objectives that they wish to reach, whether it is winning the competition for the best looking home, finding all of the NES games or tending to the forest to keep the town looking perfect. Tools are made available to the player such as shovels, axes, nets and fishing rods that can be used to change the landscape or capture the local wildlife to be sold or displayed in the local museum. Like all things in the game, the creatures change through the months and some will only make an appearance on specific days of the year.

    The game makes use of the Gameboy Advance link cable and the e-reader, although only the latter has any real use beyond being a gimmick. A separate island is available only if you have a GBA connected and the game makes no effort to hide the fact from players who do not. The island is not essential to the game save for a few unique objects and it is essentially no more than an unashamed sales tool to sell more GBA’s. The e-reader though is genuinely useful with new music, clothing designs and NES games being released on a gradual basis on Animal Crossing cards.

    Ironically the most essential piece of extra hardware is not made by Nintendo. Having access to the internet is imperative to get the most from Animal Crossing due to the excellent trading tools Nintendo have written into the game. Visit the shopkeeper, give him an object with the name and town of the person whom you want to give the object to and he will give you a password in return. Give the password to the other player and his shopkeeper will give him the object. It is a brilliant system that has become immensely popular all over the net. Trading threads have sprung up in most forums, including an NTSC-UK thread located here. The trading is enhanced by the differences between every town. Taking the initiative started with Pokemon, each town has some objects in abundance whilst others are very rare. Likewise each town’s trees will grow one kind of fruit. Different fruit from other towns is more valuable and has other benefits. Exchange fruit with other players and plant the new fruit to start growing your own.

    The game also benefits from a fantastic official website www.animal-crossing.com which replicates a newspaper of events in the Animal Crossing kingdom. Amongst the pages are passwords that reveal secret objects in the game. Nintendo plan to release more passwords as the weeks go by.

    Nintendo have branded Animal Crossing a communication game and it is a well-earned title. The townsfolk have plenty to say just in general conversation and their comments are often genuinely funny. It is heartening that Nintendo have taken a great deal of care translating the Japanese script, especially considering the number of conversations that go on. It is one of the most successful language translations the company has ever done.

    There is no doubt though that the game would have benefited from an online universe and the direct interaction with other players, but what Nintendo have achieved without use of a modem is admirable. It is the opposite of a game like .Hack which works as an offline game pretending to be an online game. Animal Crossing is an online game pretending to be offline and for the most part it carries it off.

    This is not a game that can be played though in one day. In fact play it for too long in one session and the simplicity of the game becomes too apparent. It won’t grip in the same way as Ikaruga for example, but it might just take over your life in the long term. Everyday something different happens, the townsfolk will send presents on your birthday, dress up for Halloween and you can even expect a surprise visitor on Christmas Eve. It is possible to see every event before it happens by winding forward the Gamecube clock, but to do so is totally missing the point. Like a fine wine, this is a game to be taken slowly and in small quantities. Is it the future of gaming? No, but it is a bright alternative to the standard fare and as such this unique and unusual game deserves a place in everyone’s collection.

    A review by Jez Overton