Whatever you've heard about Animal Crossing, before we start, I have to correct a misconception you may have about it. Animal Crossing isn't so much a game as a way of life. If you buy Animal Crossing expecting a game then you're going to get bored rather quickly and inevitably be disappointed. Instead, you should rather look at Animal Crossing as a life simulator, albeit a genteel one, where your biggest concerns are the well-being of your neighbours, whether you've over-watered your garden, and the Bell repayments on your extortionate mortgage from resident entrepreneur and loan shark, Tom Nook.
Whilst this might not sound exactly like a ringing endorsement, it's important to realise that unless you've played either the N64 or GameCube versions of Animal Crossing, you're unlikely to ever have encountered a 'game' like this before. When enthusiasm for the GameCube version was at fever pitch several years ago, I myself (who didn't have a GameCube at the time) threatened to summarily ban the next person who posted an Animal Crossing thread on the forum I was running, because the sheer volume of Animal Crossing loving going on was taking over the forum and annoying the hell out of me. Yet something inside me twigged that this was a title that I had to try out at some point. With Animal Crossing's arrival on DS, that time has finally come, and now, all those years later, I finally understand why everyone kept banging on about it.
It's difficult to know where to start describing Animal Crossing. To try sum it up in a nutshell, you could describe it as Disney meets The Sims, but that's not really quite right. Animal Crossing doesn't have quite as broad a scope in life simulation terms as The Sims, and the cartoonish aspect is more edgy than Disney. Yes, the NPCs are cute cartoon animals, but they're Japanese cute, not Western cute: the characters aren't all sweetness and light, they have adult character flaws, blind spots and a couple are even that little bit sinister. The girl player character models, for example, definitely have a bit of a Bride of Chucky look about them... At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss Animal Crossing as "utter tosh for kids", and indeed, that's about as much as our esteemed editor wanted me to write about it, (except without the "for kids" bit), but there's more to it than that.
The hook is that while there seemingly isn't that much to do, the game runs in real-time, linking in to the system clock of your DS, meaning that if you leave the game alone for a few weeks, by the time you come back, the flowers in your garden will have died, the sapling you planted before you left will have grown, and your neighbours will be annoyed with you because you haven't talked to them lately and didn't even send a letter to tell them that you were going away (and yes, if you call on your neighbours at 3am, you can expect a frosty reception!). Animal Crossing's the kind of game that you don't necessarily need to devote hours and hours at a time to, but because things in the game world change from day to day, it requires you to come back time and time again. It's sneaky like that. It's an insidiously addictive experience, and absolutely perfect for a handheld, because they're easily suited to snatching a few minutes of game play here and there.
'NPCs will move out of town if they're struggling to strike up a rapport with the elephant next door...'
So why keep coming back? It boils down to two things: the general ambience of the game and relationships. Rather than having you input the names of your character and the town into a menu, Animal Crossing instead starts with a taxi ride, where the driver asks you questions: your name, your birthday, the name of the town you are moving to, and so on. It's an imaginative introduction, and it gives you a taste of the eccentricity of the characters you will later meet. You only start out with a couple of neighbours, but as time passes, more and more people move into the town, giving you more people to talk to. It's also a two way street, as NPCs will move out of town if they're struggling to strike up a rapport with the elephant next door. Your neighbours will be randomly selected from over one hundred characters, so you can expect to wait a long time before you meet them all. Persistent characters common to all towns include Blathers, the museum curator, Pelly and Phyllis, the Post Office workers and the aforementioned Tom Nook, who owns the local shop.
As I alluded to earlier, Mr Nook is a bit of an unscrupulous money-lender, as he owns the house you move into, so therefore your first long-term aim in the game is to pay off your mortgage to him. No sooner have you done this, he'll expand your house (whether you want him to or not) and hit you with a mortgage six times bigger than the one you've just paid off (a whopping 120,000 Bells). This is to provide you with even more of a reason to keep coming back to play the game. It works too, because no-one wants to be indebted to a racoon, do they? And once that's paid off, yes, you guessed it; he does it to you again. And again, a total of six times, with a final mortgage of nearly one million bells; it's worse than living in Surrey... At least all the extensions to your living area allow you to surround yourself with some of the wonderfully esoteric decorative items available in the game. Ever fancied having a T-Rex skull or a billiards table in your living room? Here's your chance, and that's just for starters. Room decoration even forms a sub-plot, with the shadowy Happy Room Academy (surely an Orwellian organisation right up there alongside The Ministry of Peace) rating the Feng Shui layout of your home, and sending you prizes if they like it enough. Other day to day tasks include fishing, catching bugs, digging up fossils, creating constellations with the museum telescope and even laying traps outside the homes of ornery neighbours with pitfall seeds. It all sounds pretty harmless, and it is, in truth, but there's no small measure of satisfaction in digging up a new fossil, or catching a new type of insect or fish and donating it, to the twittering delight of Blathers. It's a simple game that provides simple pleasures, yet has so many hidden depths you'll be discovering new things for weeks: like how hitting rocks with your spade will sometimes spawn Bells, or how shaking the wrong tree will result in a horrifying bee attack that will leave you looking like you've gone twelve rounds with Mike Tyson.
You can customise the look of your avatar with hats, shirts and accessories such as glasses or scuba masks
However, as whimsical and enjoyable as all this is, it's not where the real fun lies. Perhaps more than any other title I've played, Animal Crossing is the most adept at making the player form attachments to the non-player characters. Amongst my current neighbours are the wannabe starlet Gabi, who's taken a bit of a shine to me because I kept sending her medicine and "get well soon" letters when she got ill; Dizzy, a lazy, fossil-loving elephant; Goose, who's a total fitness freak and shirt obsessive; and Angus, a Scottish cow (he macmoos rather than moos) with rather Machiavellian tendencies. As you play day after day, talking to them and revealing more about their characters, it's harder and harder to imagine life without them. Call me soppily sentimental if you will, but it's true. It's not just the ridiculously squeaky Animalese-speak or the cutesy animations when characters laugh, get sad, want to talk to you or are angry; it's the sensation that all the NPCs are actually individuals and the irreverence of the dialogue; it's the sensation that if you took these characters out of the game and put them into real life, you'd still want to spend time with them; and when you sit back and think about it, that's really quite staggering.
In terms of the actual playing mechanics, you can switch seamlessly between using the stylus and the touch screen to the D-pad to control your avatar and navigate the menus, both methods being equally intuitive and well thought out. A slight disappointment is a perfunctory utilisation of the top-screen. It's barely used at all, except for a mini-game where you can try and shoot objects out of the sky with a schoolboy's catapult and to show where you are whilst you're picking through your inventory or other menus. The real innovation in the DS version over its console predecessors is that you can exchange Friend codes with other owners of the title and invite them to your town via Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection Service, so that you can swap items, meet different NPC neighbours, and so on. It's a great touch that will probably entice previous Animal Crossing owners to acquire this version as well. For newcomers to Animal Crossing, the Wi-Fi support and the ability to take your town with you probably makes this the definitive version of the title.
It's almost impossible to write a review without descending into anecdote, because Animal Crossing is one of those titles that immediately lends itself to "a funny thing happened to me on the way to Nook 'n' Go..." style reveries, and I've tried to avoid it because that doesn't really tell anyone what it's actually like to play. In fact, that's probably an impossible task. As I stated at the beginning of the review, Animal Crossing is less of a game than a way of life; and life is something you have to experience for yourself, rather than have it described to you vicariously. So you're going to have to trust me and take a leap of faith when I say that Animal Crossing is one of the great videogame experiences; even if it's not truly a game. That may not sound like a ringing endorsement either, but once you play it, I think you'll find that it is...