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Animal Crossing - review & more

October 31, 2005 10:40 PM EST | Nintendo | Email to Friend | Comments (0)

Animal Crossing
Create a thriving community that works even while you sleep! Animal Crossing is a "community sim" that takes place in real-time. Get a job, build and furnish a house and explore your village. Then take it on the road with your memory card, and visit your friends' villages as well. Multiplayer options allow up to four players to "live" in your village, and with a Game Boy Advance there are plenty of other options. Don't forget to look for the hidden classic NES games!

Into a market dominated by action games, Nintendo has released the quiet, happy, and group-oriented Animal Crossing. Though not a challenging game by any means, nor one with any sort of plot or tension to draw the player, Animal Crossing more than makes up for that with its sheer number of activities and a good sense of humor that is both kid-safe and capable of making older kids and adults snicker. The premise is simple: Animal Crossing is a role-playing-style game where you play as a human leaving home to make your way in the countryside village of the same name as the game's title. The game itself is not so easily pigeonholed. When you arrive, since you have no money and no place to live, the owner of the general store loans you a house. Where the game goes from there is really up to you--there is no time limit to repaying the loan, and the game does not push you toward any particular course of action, unlike in a typical RPG. The goal of the game, if it can be said to have one, is to simply live in the village and amuse yourself. You have no need to eat or sleep. As you play, you'll meet the animals of the village, see some move out and some new ones move in, find various ways of making money, and begin to get a picture of just how much there is to do and see. Events happen in real time through use of the GameCube's internal clock, allowing for daytime and nighttime activities, along with special events like holiday celebrations and seasonal changes.

Nintendo dubs Animal Crossing as a "communication game," and it's a somewhat accurate label. Talking to your animal neighbors and sending them letters are large portions of the game. Of course, the animals don't understand what you write, and in conversation they do most of the talking and leave you with only two or three response choices if you get any at all. But each animal has a distinct personality and will talk about a wide variety of subjects. Rarely do you have a conversation or receive a reply letter that feels like a repeat. What they actually say is sometimes amusing. Sometimes they'll insult other animals or even you, and sometimes they'll say things that can be taken as a double entendre. There are also many moments in the game that you'll want to describe to the people you are playing the game with, whether it is because the event is something you hadn't seen before or because it was just funny--like your hound dog neighbor, Butch, switching his clothes to that pink and purple design one of you made at the pattern shop.

The game isn't just about communication, though, but collecting as well. There are many different types of collections available: fossils, insects, fish, art, fruit, furniture, wallpaper, carpeting, stationery, cloth patterns, and gyroids (little twitching robots that resemble cactaurs from the Final Fantasy series). The amount you can collect of each type is also impressive. There are 40 species each of insect and fish, for example. You can receive just about any type of item as a reward for doing an errand for an animal. The most common errand is the familiar courier task: Deliver an item to another animal or pick up an item and bring it back. Picking up an item can get very tedious. The animals will often loan items that have been loaned to them to a third animal, and sometimes the chain extends to a fourth or fifth. Thankfully the town is small enough that crisscrossing it a few times is only mildly annoying and not exasperating.

In fact, no task to earn collectibles in Animal Crossing takes very long or requires too much skill; fishing is the only activity with any real challenge to it, and its only requirement is that you have a good reaction time. You can see the silhouette of a fish in the water, so all you have to do is cast your line in front of the fish and wait for the bobber to sink. Sometimes the fish will just nibble and the bobber will just dip, but once it actually sinks you will have only a short amount of time to press the A button. If you succeed, that's it--you've caught the fish. If you were any good at the school-yard game where you and a friend would take turns trying to slap the top of each other's hands, it's likely you won't find any challenge whatsoever in building your various collections.

Animal Crossing's appeal isn't tied to how challenging it is, however. It's a communication game after all, not a puzzle or action game. If the core of the game appeals to you, you won't mind how easy it is. What you may not like, though, is how the game makes up for the lack of difficulty by artificially pacing your progress. The store stocks a very small number of items at first, and once you buy something, its slot is empty for the rest of the day. The first day, you won't be able to get the shovel for finding fossils, nor will the insect net and fishing pole be available. You will be able to get another tool every day you play until you have them all. But if you're playing with others, you will have to lend the tool to them so they can go to the store and order another one through the mail, because it's not certain that the same tool will be in stock the next day--it might just be a tool you both have already. Though the store does get larger as the game progresses, when it expands, it shuts down for an entire real-time day. Since it's the only place you can sell surplus items, and your total inventory space is limited, you will get to the point where you don't have much to do besides chat with your neighbors or rearrange your furniture. And since the town starts out with just a few residents (a new one moves in every day until the town is full), and you start out with no furniture, the first few days you might find yourself with not much to do after an hour's play. After a few days' play, though, finding something to do won't be a problem, and there are plenty of special events like holidays and one-day visits from out-of-town merchants, in addition to all the other day-to-day events.

If you have a Game Boy Advance and a link cable, even more options will be available. The game makes good use of the GBA as a peripheral: You can use it as a portable version of the pattern design tool that you find in the pattern shop, and it unlocks an island that you can visit (by hitching a ride with a turtle that talks like a pirate and sings sea chanteys during the trip), where you can find different insects and fish than you'd find on the mainland. And, most interestingly, you can use your Game Boy Advance to play old Nintendo Entertainment System games that you find in Animal Crossing. There are a rumored 20 available, and you can obtain them both from the game and also through the use of yet another peripheral, the e-Card Reader, a scanning device released on the same day as Animal Crossing. The e-Card Reader scans special cards that can unlock not only NES games, but additional music and cloth patterns as well. Those who don't have all this extra hardware can still trade with others. You can visit other people's towns by putting their memory card in the other memory card slot and going to the train station, or you can trade items by getting a code for the item from the store manager and exchanging the code with others.

Animal Crossing was originally released in Japan under the name Animal Forest Plus as a sequel to the Nintendo 64 game Animal Forest. It too was intended to be a Nintendo 64 game, but as development went on and the GameCube neared release, Nintendo decided to switch platforms. Thus, the plethora of art content that allows Animal Crossing to show you something new every day is mostly targeted toward being shown on an N64. This turns out to not be a problem, for the most part. The cutesy art style certainly doesn't require a game to have the level of graphics a GameCube can output. The one area that suffers and should have gotten more attention is the characters' faces. The textures on the faces are low resolution, and what's worse, the camera is fixed in such a way that you are never far enough away where you can't notice at least some blurring due to texture filtering. Since there are more than 100 different characters in Animal Crossing, redoing all the art for the GameCube would have been impractical, but it is still quite a jarring effect, especially since you spend a lot of time zoomed in on conversations with animals.

Music pieces are catchy but short, again likely due to the platform switch. The music matches the lighthearted feel of the game well, and transitions fit together nicely, but you might find it gets a little repetitive after a while, not only because of the shortness of the songs, but also because the game never makes any sort of radical style switch like the switch between the aboveground and underground themes in a Mario game. Even at night, it's all just variations of upbeat, mellow jazz. This is easy enough to ignore thanks to the great use of sound effects in the game. There is usually quite a bit of activity going on in your vicinity, and everything generates distinctive and positional sounds that mix together to draw you into the environment. This is especially useful for finding insects, because they're often hidden in the bushes. Each type of insect even has a unique sound, and hearing an unfamiliar buzz or chirp can be an exciting event.

Animal Crossing's saccharine look and feel combined with the easy sandbox-style activities are an insurmountable obstacle for those who thrive exclusively on twitch games. At its heart, Animal Crossing is very much a game for a family or someone looking for a change of pace, and for that audience it provides an enjoyable, relaxing experience with a long life span.

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