With such cutesy graphics, it is hard to believe that Animal Crossing caused such anger when Nintendo postponed the European release. While the game was released in Asia and America, Europe was made to wait, all the while being forced to read the rave reviews the game was generating. Now with Animal Crossing finally released in Europe, we have got the chance to see what the fuss is about. Nintendo is a company that has a proud heritage of creating innovative, original titles with huge playability - Pikmin, Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Mario 64 to name but a few. Animal Crossing is the latest title to be added to this list.
The premise is simple; you are a boy (or a girl) living in a small village full of talking animals. That’s it. There is no epic storyline, neither are there dozens of missions to be completed. The game is completely open-ended and this is where the real beauty of Animal Crossing lies. Aside from the first couple of hours of play, you are free to do as you wish. The game operates in real time in conjunction with your Gamecube internal clock. Therefore, if you play at 11.00 a.m then it will be 11.00 a.m in Animal Crossing too. Weather effects (rain, snow, sun) are generated randomly and the appearance of your town changes with the seasons. In the summer, the grass is green and the rivers are a bright blue, in the winter snow blankets the ground. With no set storyline or missions, how do you play Animal Crossing? The answer to this is however you want. There are many things to do, many ways of passing time. You can talk to and run errands for you animal neighbours (of which you can have no more than 15, drawn from a pool of over 200 individual animals), or you can write them letters and send them presents in the hope of receiving something back. Buy a fishing rod and try to catch the dozens of different fish that populate the rivers, use your net to capture some of the many insects, or dig up fossils with your spade. Fish , fossils and insects can all be sold, kept or donated to the museum, along with any paintings that you may find. Alternatively, change your town tune (which rings out on the hour and also when you speak to animals) or design a new pattern at the tailors that can be put on your clothes, umbrella or even the walls in your house. It’s not all play, however. While there are many activities for you to pursue, you are also responsible for the attractiveness of the town. To this end, you must pull up weeds and plant flowers and trees to make the town more attractive. Do a good job and the Wishing Well may reward you with special items. Furthermore, as you are given a home to live in at the start of the game, you become straddled with a hefty mortgage, which grows depending on what improvements you make to your house. To pay off your debts, you have to make money any way you can - running errands, fishing, collecting seashells or hunting for money bags hidden in trees or buried in the ground.
Day to day life in Animal Crossing is punctuated by certain days when special events are held. Some of these mirror real-life holidays, such as Christmas, Halloween and New Year’s Eve. Other original holidays and events include the Harvest Festival, the August Meteor Shower, the fishing tournaments in November and the Sports Day in March. Holidays and special events often yield rare items that are not available anywhere else. On top of this are the random events that can happen on any day that you are playing, such as Wendell the Walrus coming to town, or a balloon carrying a present floating over the trees. Further depth is added by the Gameboy linkup option - connect a Gameboy to your Gamecube and you can then visit a tropical island, complete with its own resident animal. Alternatively, slot in a friend’s memory card and go on a visit to their town. You are never left without anything to do in Animal Crossing.
Visually, the graphics are simple and often quite primitive, especially concerning the character models. This does not detract from the game at all; in fact it even increases the game’s charm. While the graphics are simple, they are well-drawn, colourful and possess a certain unique quality that lends to the atmosphere. This atmosphere is added to by the jaunty, upbeat tunes that play during the game - the usual foot-tapping melodies that Nintendo create with such ease. The controls are, like the game itself, extremely simple - the control stick is used to move your character around, while the A button is the ‘action’ button used for most game activities. X and Y toggle the inventory and map screens, while B makes you run and allows you to pick up items when you already have something in your hands.
There are some slight niggles. Too many items that you can acquire are not actually functional and serve no real practical purpose; it would have been better if like the instruments, televisions and music players, they could function in some way. Being able to place items outside would have added further depth to the game as you could have created a garden complete with statues and a rockery. Instead, items can only be placed inside your house, meaning that if you want a garden, it’s going to have to be an inside one at the expense of a bedroom or living room. With the seasons determining what fishes and insects can be found, winter is a slight problem in that there are no insects and few types of fish available to catch. These are ultimately minor gripes. Animal Crossing is a typically innovative and original Nintendo title. On more than one occasion you will find yourself rushing home because you know that the sale is only on for another five minutes and otherwise you’ll miss it, or you will get up early just so you might stand a chance of catching the elusive char as it swims beneath the waterfall… Animal Crossing is often more like living a seperate life than playing a game…and that is no bad thing.
Review by James Long © 2005 www.theorderofmidnight.blogspot.com