Review: Animal Crossing
Posted 23 Sep 2004 at 02:44 by Mark Cullinan
It has taken two long years of steady campaigning, complaining, lobbying, and jealously looking over the Atlantic to our American friends. For years now, we've been hearing whimsical stories of talking animals in forests, of rogue raccoon shopkeepers and aerobics-loving policemen (or should that be policedogs?)
Well the wait is over. Animal Crossing has arrived in Europe. It's finally time to find out whether this is a relic from the Nintendo 64 age, or a bang-up to date pointer to the future of gaming. All aboard!
The European Saga
Well, it's all been a bit ridiculous really, hasn't it? Animal Crossing's European saga has been rolling on for ages now, and it has been a bit of a comedy of errors from Nintendo. First they said the translators were busy with Pokémon Ruby, and there was no hope of text-heavy Animal Crossing getting converted. Then we heard that it was such a minority interest game that it wouldn't justify the resources that translating the game would require. Well-organized and well-supported petitions and campaigns to get the game released from the Nintendo print media and websites followed, but seemingly to no avail. In the meantime of course, many of us turned to importing what was already effectively a three-year old game. And then at E3 this year, amid all the hullabaloo created about the Nintendo DS and Zelda, Nintendo quietly confirmed that Animal Crossing was to see an early Autumn Europe-wide release.
So here we are then, in the year 2004, with a game that was mostly developed in the previous century. You could be forgiven for dismissing it on this basis alone. But you'd be a fool to. Let's just get something straight right off the bat, as Reggie Fils-Aimes would probably have put it- Animal Crossing delivers one of the most refreshing gaming experiences in years, and is a must-have title for the GameCube.
Trying to squeeze Animal Crossing into a genre is a difficult task, though. The nearest comparison to AC's free-form approach to gaming is undoubtedly the Harvest Moon series- both centre around character interaction and making money. But the comparisons only go so far- ultimately, it is Animal Crossing's absolute freedom to do what you want, when you want, that sets it apart from others in its genre. You see, there is no 'point' to Animal Crossing. Feel like helping out the locals? You're free to run errands from them at any point (well, provided they haven't gone to bed- but we'll get on to that later). Fancy a spot of fishing? Go right ahead. Or, on the other hand, if you'd prefer to engage in some interior design, you're welcome to. There is no overarching 'aim' in the conventional sense of the word to Animal Crossing- which is both a blessing and a curse.
You start out as a newcomer to the village (which you can name at the beginning). You haven't even sorted out accommodation. Tom Nook, a raccoon who is at the centre of the Animal Crossing world, offers you a house on the condition that you work for him to pay off some of your rent. After half-an hour of tedious jobs for Tom Nook, you're free to do what you wish. Meeting all the villagers- they're an odd bunch- is an essential activity. And this is where your Animal Crossing odyssey begins.
The village has a notice board on which details of upcoming events is displayed. The next main event, incidentally, is the viewing of a full moon on September 28th. Of course, you're going to have to wait until that day before the event in question. You see, one of Animal Crossing's main features is the use of the GameCube's internal clock. It governs just about every aspect of the game- from the growth of the weeds and the fruit on trees to the animal's sleeping patterns and weekly music sessions in front of the train station. It is precisely this feature which lends AC it's feeling of community and the sense of a constantly changing game environment.
It is also this that has had Animal Crossing in and out of my GameCube disc tray on a regular basis- something has always changed since you've last played it. Tom Nook's store changes it's stock daily (there are literally hundreds of items to collect, trade, and decorate your house with) and there are monthly lotteries to enter. There are many more events and happenings to cover, but Animal Crossing is a game best left unspoiled by over-detailed reviews. To experience Animal Crossing is to love it. Yet, there is a certain type of gamer who will be left cold by Animal Crossing.
There are no enemies or bosses to speak of, and the game's relative lack of immediacy will put many players off. Like Harvest Moon, you'll only get out of this game what you put in. It's love it or hate it stuff, but you'll already have decided by now whether or not you're going to take the plunge and join the AC community. And a genuine community it is, too, because AC really is like an online game without, er, an online option.
The game is listed as a single-player game, but Nintendo certainly don't want you playing alone. Up to four people can have their own completely customisable homes in the same village, or if they'd prefer, a totally different village altogether. Each player can leave messages on the door of their house, post letters to each other, or share and trade items and money. If another player has opted to live in their own village, you can visit their town via the train station and explore the other village- which is significantly different in layout from your own.
Each town is randomly generated, with different fruit trees in each, for example (bringing Tom Nook unusual varieties of fruit from other villages is a good strategy for making a lot of money). But beyond the single player-multiplayer crossover opportunities, there is a particular ingenious item trading system, which allows you to send any item to a particular person in a particular town. Tom Nook takes your item and turns it into a code, which is useful only to the person who it is intended for. What this means is that come this Thursday, an Animal Crossing board will be set up in the Cube-Europe forums, where rare items, clothes, furniture, letters and even games can be traded. It's a brilliant innovation on Nintendo's part, and one which we hope will stimulate further involvement in the AC community.
But the connectivity options don't end there- the game features extensive Game Boy Advance compatability, which enables you to design wallpapers and clothes on the GBA (it can also be done without a handheld, but for a price), and also allows you access to an island paradise just south of your village, which you can view remotely on your GBA. This latter feature sounds insignificant, but it opens up some interesting possibilities for item-collecting. Again, it's best to discover this sort of thing yourself. Unfortunately, compatability with the E-Reader has been removed from the European version because that peripheral never made it out over here. But Nintendo have assured us that there will be other ways to obtain items which the E-Reader link-up previously offered.
But even the most open-minded of gamers will occasionally find the lack of 'game' in Animal Crossing frustrating at times. And that's where the NES games come in.Brilliantly, the Animal Crossing disc contains a whole pile of old NES games which greatly expand the game's lifespan. A free NES game comes on the supplied memory card, and another can be obtained through the Animal Crossing website. You'll also receive a new NES game on your birthday and at Christmas, as well as other ways. And we're not talking about rubbish titles, either. We're talking about The Legend of Zelda, Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, and Balloon Fight to name but a few. In short, the cream of the NES first-party crop.
You can also download the games to a GBA for mobile play if you so wish (although the game data will be lost when you switch the GBA off). It's a cracking addition, and an extraordinary fit of generosity from Nintendo. Evidently, the decision to include these NES games was made well before Nintendo had the idea of releasing the GBA NES Classics series- their appearance for free in Animal Crossing renders the pricey GBA series irrelevant. I've got a spare Balloon Fight by the way. I'll start the bidding at 8,000 bells when the new board opens on Thursday!
This being a review, I've got to mention all aspects of the game- and that includes the graphics. Dated, angular and basic they may be, but Nintendo have put a bit of a GameCube sheen on it too- the game runs at a super-smooth sixty frames per second, and the game sports a very 'clean' look- particularly when you're outside. The landscape varies with the seasons, too, and the weather effects are acceptable. The only major black point is the awfully blocky character models. Within a few hours into your new life though, the polygon count will be the last thing on your mind.
The game's sound is also perfectly adequate, given that this is essentially an N64 game. The tunes are of the bright and breezy, plinky-plonk variety, although they fit in well with the laid-back mood of the game. They are also some of the most hummable Nintendo themes in a long time. Which is always a good thing in our book. The character voices are reminiscent of Banjo-Kazooie's- which is to say that they're random noises rather than voices. The characters, despite their blocky, undefined appearance and irritating voices, still manage to be surprisingly expressive- hearts, exclamation marks and the like work well to give them personality. And while we're on the subject, the characters certainly aren't short of personality. Animal Crossing, in a recent tradition of Nintendo games, sports a fine script. Characters range from the amusing to the downright bizarre, and they usually have something interesting to say. Each villager has a distinctly individual style about them which is a tribute to a great translation. Resetti the mole, in particular, provides plenty of laughs- reset the game without saving and he'll be on your case next time you load your village. Just wait and see.
As I've said before, you probably decided a long time ago if Animal Crossing is for you. And if it is, and you approach it the correct way, then it will consume your life in ways that most games can only dream of. And all this from a four year old N64 experiment.
It's hardly the perfect game, though. It is limited in many senses and isn't suited to playing for hours at a time. It's lack of direction can be tiresome, and there are plenty of little niggles like the relatively small size of your village, tedious missions from the villagers (all they ever seem to want you to do is to collect an item from another character, who invariably loaned it to someone else in the meantime) and the fact that if you send someone a letter, they rarely understand what you're saying. But most of these problems arise from the fact that Animal Crossing was never meant to be a GameCube game. And in this respect, AC is not just an important game because of what it is- it's important for what it will become in the future. Animal Crossing will serve as the mere blueprint for a much more in-depth and complex sequel, which has yet to receive a public airing. But that's no excuse to miss out on one of Nintendo's most daring and unique games in years.
Animal Crossing is coming to Europe because of overwhelming demand from Nintendo fans the continent over. It's vital that the game does well, because if AC flops, then Nintendo will be less inclined to give in to public demand in the future. But Animal Crossing deserves to bought for it's own sake.
N-Europe Final Verdict
A beautifully unique and playable game which you can't really afford to miss. Shigsy knows we've waited long enough...
You'll never grow tired of it
Free memory card
It's a bit late, isn't it?
Occasionally feels pointless
A little limited
Poor text recognition