Animal Crossing (GameCube) review
"You really are in control of this town. It goes beyond customizing your house and choosing its furniture; you can also make your own clothing patterns, doorway illustrations, and umbrella designs. The whole time you play, you'll get the sense that someone spent a lot of time perfecting nearly every small detail."
A title that debuted on the Nintendo 64 and Japan, Animal Crossing has been attracting casual attention from press and hardcore gamers ever since. Now available in the United States with slight improvements and for a newer system, this strange sim title at a glance seems an outing appropriate only for a select few, but is actually an adventure anyone with a serious taste for fun will want to enjoy. From the dated yet infinitely charming graphics to the sense of detail and interaction, Animal Crossing is a true delight you simply have to experience to fully understand.
The premise is simple enough: you're a young person moving out on your own, getting away from the rigid rules of childhood. You're on a train seeking your fortune, whatever that might be. With no more than 1000 bells in your pocket (the game's equivalent of money), things look grim. Then you're given a home on faith in a community you name. From then on you'll be interacting with the inhabitants and helping turn this virtual village into something you can truly be proud of.
From that simple foundation, you'll almost immediately find the game builds a complex world with more intricacies than you might imagine, more chances for customization than most players could ever dream might exist. And somehow, the developers pulled everything together so that even when you're doing something trivial like returning a Game Boy to a wolf who lent it out, the end result feels shockingly rewarding.
Perhaps it's best to begin by describing a typical day, except almost immediately, there's the problem that no day is truly typical. The GameCube's internal clock affects what you will see. Play early in the morning and the residents will have just awoken from a night's slumber. The store might not even be open. Play in mid-afternoon and you'll be seeing a shiny, bright atmosphere. An evening excursion will be draped in shadows and some of the people you'd like to talk to won't be available, or they'll be sleepy and uninterested in asking you to do errands.
Speaking of errands, those comprise a major portion of gameplay. From the moment you start trying to repay Tom Nook (the proprieter who lets you have a home in the community), you'll be running around, meeting your eccentric neighbors, befriending them, and doing little errands for them. The reason this is so important is as simple as two words: the rewards. Complete a task successfully--often it's just a matter of taking an item from point 'a' to point 'b', or hunting down several characters until you find the one who has an item you wish to retrieve--and you could be awarded a piece of furniture, clothing, or even bells to spend at Tom Nook's store. At first you'll be quite addicted to this whole setup, but your interest will lag and you'll begin to see that despite nearly limitless depth, this game does have a few parameters. Characters start to repeat things soon enough. Sure, you'll hear original things day after day, but a lot of redundant conversation still occurs. It's not really a fault of the game, since it would have been impossible to keep things fresh indefinitely without trapping actual people on a disc, but it's still a fact of life.
Fortunately, there's more to the game than just these tasks. You can earn bells by capturing bugs and selling them to the storekeeper, by catching fish, digging up items, and even in return for an item you might give to a friend. Even though this is a single-player game, Nintendo goes through extraordinary efforts to make certain you can enjoy it with others. There's a system that means if you have friends online, you can find a suitable message board and swap passwords. This enables you to exchange items over the Internet. Or maybe you have friends at school who own the game. The same thing works if you slip each other passwords in fifth period, then rush home after school to try them.
Exchanges aren't limited only to the passwords, however. If you live in the same household with someone, every member of the family can get involved. Mom and dad might play in the morning while the kids are at school. Then in the afternoon, little Johnny might come home and do some playing, check what mail his neighbors sent him, see if anyone posted something interesting on the town bulletin board. Only one memory card is required, and it's included with the game so you won't have to buy a new one.
However, you can buy a new one and then each player can have a separate town. If you want to visit that other town, just make sure you have both memory cards in the system and you can hop a train over to the other area, where you can impact things such as what trees have been chopped down, what fruit has been harvested, what seashells are available and more. This kind of behavior is encouraged, in fact, as it's impossible to find everything the game offers in just one town.
This kind of depth is definitely appreciated, and Nintendo has extended it past the innovative features described above. You really are in control of this town. It goes beyond customizing your house and choosing its furniture; you can also make your own clothing patterns, doorway illustrations, and umbrella designs. The whole time you play, you'll get the sense that someone spent a lot of time perfecting nearly every small detail.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the visual department. While some might rightfully argue that there's not really anything here the Nintendo 64 probably couldn't have handled, five minutes of romping around Animal Crossing will make the point downright petty and irrelevent. Even the insane amount of cuteness that went into the presentation isn't half the issue it might be in other titles. Everything just feels right. The characters are simply drawn yet expressive, the atmosphere an odd, hand-drawn patchwork quilt sort of an affair. It all comes together in a way few but Nintendo could manage. And again, the attention to detail is astounding. The whole world is polygonal, even if it looks somewhat two-dimensional. Water flows naturally, eyes blink, footprints appear in the sand, leaves blow in your character's wake, rain forms droplets on water, light from windows blends with the ground and more. It's all a wonder to behold.
Sound is astounding, as well. The type of terrain you're crossing affects sound. There are plenty of types, too, ranging from soil to grass to leaves to cobblestone. When leaves rustle, you hear them. When you're near insects, their chirping gives them away. If a conversation with a character is interesting, sounds punctuate the fact. Even when you're typing a letter, the little voice that tells you what letter you've entered adds to the effect.
With all these strengths, the game could well have been perfect. However, it falls victim to a few tiny details that keep it from reaching that point. None of them should keep you from buying Animal Crossing, but a failure to mention them would be irresponsible. For one thing, as was noted above, there are times when the game grows redundant. It's never for very long; almost precisely the moment you start to tire of something, the developers throw a new wrench in the works that renews your interest. However, it's still there. Another issue is the sometimes-awkward interface. Again, it's not a big deal. You'll get used to using the controller to type messages. It's not quick, by any means, but this really isn't about the penning of your next novel, so that's all fine.
In fact, the two biggest limitations are really a result of limited hardware. With a hard drive, load times could have been much shorter, for example. And with an Internet connection, Animal Crossing might well have been unbridled perfection. Still, the final product is so close to perfection that to grade it heavily for these few mars would be unfair.
What Nintendo has introduced us to in Animal Crossing, then, is the most enjoyable experience we may see for a long, long time. It remains fresh long after most other games would find the way to the bottom of the pile. If you can only buy one game this holiday season, make it Animal Crossing. You'll be enjoying it into next year. How many titles can promise that?
Staff review by Jason Venter (September 19, 2002)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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