The following occurs between May 31 and June 7. Events occur in real time.
Driving home from K-Mart in 2003, I tried to explain to my Mum what I had just bought with several month’s savings. “It’s called Animal Crossing,” I said. “You start with nothing and have to build your house and manage your expenses as the town expands,” I added.
She responded with something to the effect of “that sounds far too educational for a Nintendo” — her dialect for “game” at the time.
That sounds terrible to the uninitiated, and a decade later I’m still not sure how best to articulate that saving Bells to pay your mortgage and dabbling in turnips is the most rewarding gaming experience you’ll have this year — there will be great games. And then there’s Animal Crossing.
In many ways, it’s the same Animal Crossing you may have lived three times, but it’s also a delicately refined incarnation of a franchise Nintendo is yet to milk dry. It’s the perfect game for a handheld, with its pick up and play mantra for short bursts of the daily grind and its unprecedented ability to command undivided attention until the battery runs dry.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a way of life. It demands you make a daily appearance and has a magical ability to make the smallest of trivial matters delightful.
If this is your first foray into the delightful world of Animal Crossing, all you need to know is that it demands daily attention. Events occur in real time, and are tied to the 3DS’s internal clock. Shops will close late at night, some events are only held once a week, and you’ll need to play on December 25 to celebrate Christmas. It’s one of the few games that will keep you playing for a full year, if only for a few minutes towards the end, because it provides a reason to do so. You could jump to the settings menu and change the date, but you could also go tell a bunch of pre-schoolers the truth about Santa: it ruins the fun for everyone.
The economics of domestic life haven’t strayed far from the GameCube roots. After waltzing through the station gates homeless without a Bell to your name, building an empire is a slow trek. You’ll scavenge shells and fruit to make your first home deposit — reduced to just 10,000 Bells so you can get into the action faster — to conniving realtor Tom Nook, and toil in his inflated debt as you expand from tent to house to mansion.
Countless hours will be consumed sifting through furniture and interior designs, and local muso KK Slider will keep your Saturday nights jiggy. Catching a sporadic fish and finally netting an illusive butterfly have never been so exacerbating, and when you relinquish a rare fossil worth more than your house, the moral dilemma of selling versus surrendering pro bono to a museum nobody ever visits will tear you up inside.
But this time, it’s not all about your hoarding lifestyle. After a quick introduction, you’re sworn into the mayor’s office. More than just a fancy job title, the mayor’s seat acts as a catalyst in removing the limitations you once accepted.
As mayor, you’re handed the keys to the town’s rapid expansion, but not before building is allowed by a flawless approval rating. Socialising with the animalistic townsfolk all of a sudden becomes critical, as you fight to keep the bumbling neighbours onside; the very same neighbours you would have once segregated using a fortress of trees. No more. Now you’ll find yourself asking ‘what can I do for Monty the Monkey?’
Mayoral duties revolve around keeping the town radiant with plenty of flora and public services including a police station, paved walkways and streetlights. Projects progressively evolve as the village starts to take shape and develops its own charisma.
The freedom to shape the exterior of houses — for the first time — and compose the blueprint of an entire village transforms it from a generic sleepy suburb to a unique metropolis. After a week, my town is slowing coming together, but my grand plan is still months from fruition.
So I took a trip to a friend’s town (hi Mandy); a village with a populous reaping the rewards of four months dedication. I’ve played Animal Crossing with friends before, but it always felt like variations of the same thing. New Leaf feels like your town. And in this case, Mandy’s.
Sitting in the prestigious mayoral chair also grants you the privilege to make and change the town’s laws. You can force the Nook conglomerate to change its trading hours, and protect your freshly planted flowers by barring citizens from trampling them. It’s fairly lacklustre compared to city planning, and not fleshed out anywhere near as much as it should be. I can’t help but feel Nintendo ventured into legalities, and elected to play it safe and streamline the experience as to not alienate its casual fan-base. Considering changing legislation is completely optional, variety would have been appreciated.
If there’s one thing to fault about New Leaf, it’s that it doesn’t make any bold advancements. City planning adds another dimension to one of the few games capable of becoming part of your daily ritual, but it isn’t an extravagant leap forward. New Leaf is easily the best in the series to date, but it’s strictly for fans yet to tire of the formula.
The biggest additions, outside of a respectable job, come with some brilliant social gaming. It requires some finicking around with the 3DS’s still awful Friend Codes system, but once you’re past that hurdle, Animal Crossing offers passionate slow-burning multiplayer. You won’t see it all at once, and nor should you.
Swapping native fruit and items between friends is highly encouraged, and New Leaf now offers the option to add one player as your “Best Friend” with whom you can interact even when you’re not in the same town. You can also visit towns offline via dreams as to not overwrite a more recent version, including those of friends and strangers, and see Animal Crossing homes of the folks you’ve StreetPassed.
Those looking for a more active social experience can discover a series of charming mini-games on the tropical island not seen since the GameCube original, where you’ll also find former mayor Tortimer forced into semi-retirement.
The Final Verdict
Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a way of life. It demands you make a daily appearance and has a magical ability to make the smallest of trivial matters delightful. Every day is different, for a full year, and it’s the first game in the series that genuinely feels as if each town is unique, harnessing the personality of its creator. Though very much a single-player game, New Leaf’s biggest accomplishments come from genius social features connecting you with likeminded peers. Now let’s face it. The only people reading an Animal Crossing review are its legions of fans that just 'get it' —prepare to start your new life. It’s the best one yet.