Animal Crossing may not seem like the most action-packed or technically impressive game in the world, but give it a few days and it’ll surprise even the most hardcore twitch-gameplay fan. Running through fields of flowers attempting to catch a butterfly with a net isn’t just for little kids and weirdo nerds anymore. Originally designed as a N64 title (and released in Japan as such under the name Animal Forest), Nintendo decided to delay the game stateside so that it could be specially tuned to take advantage of two key peripherals that the big ‘N is desperately trying to push in order to promote inter-connectivity between their two platforms: the e-Reader and the GBA-GC link-cable. But despite these “advanced” features that Animal Crossing is specifically tailored to take advantage of, the game looks and sounds very much like an early N64 title. So why then has Animal Crossing garnered such a huge following in both the US and Japan? Well, I’ll tell you this, it ain’t because of the graphics.
To attempt to define the premise of Animal Crossing is akin to defining the premise of an unscripted TV show like The Osbournes, but with less chance of predictability. You start the game on a train headed to a town inhabited by a motley assortment of animals to start a new life. Once you get there, what you do is your decision. You’ll be outfitted with a very basic house courtesy of the town’s friendly shop owner, Tom Nook, but just like real life, nothing is for free. You’ll need to pay off your 20,000-bell debt to Nook by dividing your time between a staggering amount of activities like running errands for your neighbors, catching bugs, fishing, digging up fossils, picking fruit, investing in turnips, literally growing money trees, building snowmen, and tons of other stuff. Eventually you’ll pony up the cash needed to pay off your house and be able to buy a bigger, more Feng Shui-friendly flat.
But it isn’t all about the Bells in Animal Crossing. Communication is also a important facet in the Animal Crossing “experience”. Trading letters with your neighbors, divulging personal information in conversations, and visiting your friend’s town by utilizing their AC memory card (a MemCard 59 is included with the game) are all contributing factors to what makes this game so fun. Every animal you live near has their own unique personality, and often times they have plenty to say about what they think of the other animals in town or even you. The things that come out of these character’s mouths vary between an impressive amount of topics, and it is very rare that an animal says the same thing thrice.
This isn’t a game that you’ll be able to sit down with for hours on end the first day you get it and burn rubber all the way through to the credits. This isn’t that game by a long shot. The developers intentionally made the game to be best played at short to moderate bursts on a daily basis, almost to the point where the player is forced to maintain a “normal” sleeping schedule in real life. You see, the town in AC is largely dependant on the internal clock of the GameCube. If you play the game late at night, for instance, it will be dark in your town and the animals will likely be very sleepy, not to mention that the town shop will be closed (it’s open from 6a.m. to 10p.m.). The clock dependency, coupled with AC’s deliberate pacing, forces the player to be mindful of how and when the game is played. Most of the time this isn’t a problem, but for insomniac prone gamers such as myself, it can often prove to be a frustrating dynamic. For example, last night I was unable to visit Nook’s Cranny to sell off a bunch of items I had “acquired”, so instead I had to temporarily drop each item in and around my house until the next day when I could make three or four roundtrips to Nook’s to unload my wares. But then, I’m sure most people play videogames between 6a.m. and 10p.m. so this gripe is probably irrelevant to the majority
You’ll find yourself visiting Nook’s Cranny quite regularly since not only is it the sole place in the game to sell the stuff you find, but it is often the only place where you can buy stuff, trade items with your friends, or unlock new items via a password system. As you play the game, more items will become available to you in Nook’s shop, though it is only after many sessions of play that you’ll be able to get your hands on some of the more rare items in the game. Items that can be bought include various styles of wallpaper, TVs, stereos, videogames, statues, clothing, tools, stationary, seeds, furniture, paintings, and just about anything else you could possibly think of. There are literally oodles of different items that can be directly purchased from Nook or ordered from his catalog and sent directly to your in-game house.
Animal Crossing is the first GameCube game to really take advantage of the GBA-GC link-cable, showcasing an assortment of unique uses for the Game Boy Advance as a GameCube-enhancing peripheral. By plugging in the link-cable to the GC while it is connected to a powered-on GBA, you’ll be able to create custom patterns on the handheld for use in the game, visit an island that cannot be reached any other way, or even play NES games on the portable unit that you find or purchase. The NES games (new ones are constantly surfacing) can be played on your television, so a link-cable isn’t a necessity to enjoy that aspect of the game, but there is something to be said about being able to play these 8-bit gems in all their 56-color glory on a handheld device. The island that you can travel to via boat when linked to a GBA is a great place to earn bells and acquire rare items, and can even be explored on the GBA independent of the GC game.
Also, there are some pretty nifty tricks that can only be performed with Nintendo’s e-Reader device. By scanning in Animal Crossing e-cards, you’ll be able to open up new musical tunes, design patterns, and receive presents through mail from your various neighbors that sometimes contain ultra rare items. The AC e-cards are up to the fourth edition and more goodies are being uncovered all the time. But even if you don’t have an e-Reader peripheral, you’ll still be able to take advantage of the Animal Crossing e-cards since, as an alternative to the quick and clean scanning method, you can also manually input the passwords found on most every e-card. Time consuming, sure, but at least you aren’t forced to buy the e-Reader in order to utilize the cards.
From a visual standpoint, Animal Crossing is focused on a colorful and cute presentation without much regard to the system’s technical prowess. The game was, after all, developed around the N64 architecture. But it isn’t always easy to overlook the game’s graphical faults since the simplicity of the textures and character models are always brazenly apparent. The textures, more than anything, seem out of place on the 128-bit console, particularly the facial areas of characters that suffer from a washed out blurry look throughout the entirety of the game. But top quality visuals are hardly needed for AC’s straightforward communication-heavy gameplay, and once you get over the dated graphics, there is an enormous amount of entertainment to be had with the title.
In terms of audio, AC fares a bit better. The musical additions are composed mainly of simple, short and catchy tunes, and the ability to literally write your own town theme is definitely a plus. The positional sound effects are quite helpful in terms of knowing where insects are, since they can often be heard but not necessarily seen. But the most entertaining facet of the game’s audio presentation has got to be the way the developers integrated an “Animal-ese” language into the game. Whenever a dialogue begins with another animal, every letter that they speak emits a particular sound in accordance with the English alphabet. So when the sounds of the letters are combined, the result is often akin to actual words, but not quite.
Animal Crossing offers up an experience unlike that of any game before it. The satisfaction that you get from completing a 40-speciman collection of fish or insects, or accumulating an impressive collection of furnishings or old NES games, is something that must be experienced to really be understood. You see, like The Matrix, no one can be told what Animal Crossing is. But if you take the time to experience it for yourself, you’ll undoubtedly understand why AC is a must-have game despite its technically limited presentation.