GAMECUBE REVIEW: ANIMAL CROSSING
Animals with lifestyle issues.
When Animal Forest first arrived on the N64, it typified the “Nintendo difference”, right down to the fact that it did little to convince the PlayStation generation of gamers that they were missing out by not owning a Nintendo machine. “A communication game? Riiight. Where you talk to animals? Yeah, okay, whatever.” They couldn’t look past the childish graphics, the unsophisticated sound, the deceptively simple interface.
The poor fools.
Meanwhile, hardcore gamers were wetting themselves. “Communication game” was Nintendo’s typically cryptic label for a living game world that exists in real time. Not an artificial simulation of time as seen in adventure games, RTS games and the like (featuring speeded-up time where days change arbitrarily every five minutes) this would be a game that existed in real, day-to-day, month-to-month calendar time, something that had never been accomplished before on a home console.
To appreciate that, you need to remember that the previous generation of consoles didn’t even have in-built clocks. The Animal Forest cartridge had its own clock chip, which enabled the player to plug in the cart at midnight, and it would be dark; to turn on the game in winter, and it would be snowing; play on a major holiday, and the characters in the game would put up decorations and bring you gifts. This was an online game before most people were even using the net to play games only without the need to go online. A living, breathing community, where you could build relationships, personalise your home, and live out an entire lifetime in your own little town. THAT, my friends, is what Nintendo is all about. Are the graphics cutesy? Yeah. Is the sound primitive, plinkety-plonkety fare? Uh-huh. Is the whole thing a little bit childish? Well, maybe a more appropriate word would be ‘fun’, but sure, yeah. Does that mean that the game isn’t the most original, innovative title in a long time? Hell no. Only an utter gibbering, witless fool no doubt the same breed that decided that Wind Waker sucks because it looks “too cutesy” would claim otherwise.
Nintendo: shillin' and illin'.
We waited and waited for a US release, but sadly, the N64 was not long for the world, and Nintendo have never been keen to release distinctly Japanese games in other territories. So Animal Forest was reserved strictly for the importer so hardcore they’d learn Japanese in order to play it. That was until Nintendo announced Animal Forest + for the GameCube. But did that mean a US release was any more likely? It appeared not. Yet some sort of miracle happened and thankfully, NOA took a chance on releasing the obscure Japanese title, just as NOE took a chance on Doshin The Giant in the PAL territories. Renamed Animal Crossing, it hit stores with little promotion or fanfare, but to say that it’s been a hit in the US would be an understatement. The title went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and firmly established itself as the most popular Nintendo title on every videogame message board. With elements of “gotta catch ‘em all”, absolutely compulsive depth and a truly innovative gameplay dynamic, kids and adults snapped up the title and, with GameBoy Advance and eReader connectivity in fact, necessity, if you want to get the most out of the game the unit was a huge success.
We don’t play Nintendo games because they’re cute, we play in spite of that fact. The reason we play them is because Nintendo is simply the most creative, innovative videogame developer on the planet. The PlayStation generation refuses to play games because they look cute, and consequently they miss out on titles like Mario Sunshine, Zelda, and Animal Crossing. For better or worse, Nintendo will never change their ways you’ll either play their cute games or you won’t. That’s what’s so cool about the Kyoto crew they don’t give a fuck whether the in-crowd buy their stuff, because they know the true gamers always will, so they won’t change their cutesy ethic for anyone. I for one hope that these casual gamers continue to steer clear of Nintendo platforms, and that the GameCube continues to be “marginalised”. As DDP might say, the Cube sliding into third place isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing: knowing that they don’t have to crank out endless instalments of mindless franchises (á la EA or Activision) or pander to the movie tie-in, nu-metal soundtrack-buying casual fan, they can concentrate on making creative, original, innovative, risky titles for hardcore gamers that cash-cow companies like Sony will never take a chance on.
It's amazing what you can find washed up on the beach.
Call me a fanboy if you like. Tell me I’m sucking Miyamoto’s dick. No-one gets called an Xbox fanboy for creaming all over Halo, or a Sony mark for drooling on GTA3. Those are great, great games, but neither is the stepping forward, the evolutionary step of videogaming that Animal Crossing can claim to be. Hate on the GameCube. Hate on it all you want, PLEASE. Because the more casual gamers that hate on it, the more hardcore Nintendo fans become. Being popular isn’t being cool, being cool is being different Nintendo different.
[Rant over. Sorry.]
Animal Crossing is a hard game to sum up, because it’s so much more than the sum of its parts.
You’re a human, moving away to a new town populated by talking animals. Yeah, it’s a Nintendo game alright. Once you arrive, you don’t have enough money to buy a house, so the local shopkeeper/mob boss Tom Nook loans you some cash and lets you move into one of his houses. From here, it’s all you.
Play NES games! Good ones!
The game doesn’t have a goal, or even an ending. Days pass in real time, and the aim of the game is really just to live in the town day in and out. Decorate your home with furniture, wallpaper, carpets, stereos, TVs, and even a NES one of Animal Crossing’s biggest selling points is the fully-functional NES emulator, along with over 15 games including Super Mario Bros., Punch Out!, Donkey Kong, ExciteBike, Legend of Zelda and more. Cooler still, you can download these to your GameBoy and play them on the move.
Starting off working for Nook in his store you must repay your loan you’ll need to run errands for the community, do chores for the Nookster, if you’re lucky enough you might even find some valuable stuff buried in the ground. Once your loan is repaid, the game is pretty much open-ended. You can either choose to keep living in your little box, accumulating more and more cash in a Scrooge-like fashion, or you can ask Nook to expand it for you for a price, of course. He loans you the money to pay for the house extension, you earn money to pay him back, and he can keep building on your house until it’s got three floors and enough floor space to park a tank. Fill it with rare paintings, excavated fossils, collectible items, collections of furniture make it yours. You can even design your own wallpaper and carpets. Visit regularly, keep it clean if you don’t, or you’re away for a few days, you’ll come home and find the place crawling with roaches.
Decorating and co-ordinating: more fun than it sounds. A lot more.
Making money isn’t easy at first, and you scratch around for every bell (buck) you can find, shaking trees, running errands, selling cheap fruit to make ends meet. Buy a shovel, then you can start digging up fossils and selling them for big bucks. When you get a fishing rod, you can catch fish of various values (freshwater and saltwater fish, depending on where you decide to go) or, alternatively, you can sell your rod back to Nook and not bother ever fishing again. And THAT’S what we’re talking about. You don’t HAVE to pay off your bills. You don’t HAVE to keep the village weed-free. You don’t HAVE to run errands you can do whatever the hell you want. Offer to do chores for the other animals, and leave them half-done. Buy an axe, and go round chopping down all the trees to make your least favourite critters move away. Be a good citizen, or be a complete prick go make t-shirts with swastikas on them if you want. This game is just SOOOOOOOOO deep, yo. Case in point our favourite animal, Grizzly (a bear, natch) god fed up in our village and moved to my friend’s village on his memory card. The missus was desperate to get him back, so I hopped on the train to the other village and went on a series of midnight raids, sending hate mail and chopping down all the trees to screw up the little village and make it a crappy place to live. Sure enough, Grizzly got pissed off with the shoddy upkeep of his new home, and came back to our village. Now THAT’S non-linear gameplay.
Up to four human-controlled players can live in a village, in the lot of four houses grouped together. Only one person can play at a time, and it’s not even the sort of game where the other player should sit and watch while he does. This is a game for families, siblings, and flatmates to share and get the most out of. With half an hour playing on your own when no-one else is around, you can cruise round the village, do a little shopping, dig up some fossils and run errands, then buy presents and mail letters to the animal inhabitants or even your fellow players. When they play the game the next time, your presents and mail will be waiting in their mailbox for collection. Sure, this doesn’t sound like the kind of multiplayer experience that’s going to rival four player Def Jam or Monkey Ball, but it’s totally unique and rewarding in its own way.
Dig shit up and donate it to the museum. Or sell it at the store.
I fully realise that none of this sounds particularly interesting, or even fun. That’s the thing about this game it sounds so frigging boring. But it ain’t. Hell, The Sims sounds boring on paper, but it isn’t, and this is certainly in a similar vein premise-wise. This is absolutely one of the most refreshing games I’ve played in years and years. Its simplistic, kiddie exterior is mind-blowingly deceptive, and will no doubt provide much ammunition for Nintendo naysayers. Trust me though, if you aren’t prepared to go shell out for this, at least give it a rental. Just make sure you’ve got a spare memory card once you’ve built your town, met the inhabitants and set up your new life, not only will you not want to leave it all behind, you won’t want to take the disc back to Blockbuster.
Buy this and Zelda and be happy forever.
The interface is so simple. Pootle about the place, Y brings up your inventory, X brings up the town map (which you’ll have to acquire from the police station if you’re just visiting), R makes you run, B picks items up, A is the context-sensitive button that makes you interact with objects, talk to other animals and so on. It honestly isn’t any more complicated than that.
Write letters to your animal chums.
The NES games are nothing short of genius. ABSOLUTE, UNMITIGATED, GENIUS. Sure, you can get the ROMs and emulaters off the net, but nothing compares to having the complete, bug-free, fully-functional, original titles on your Cube. It still amazes me that the original Super Mario Bros. is still as playable today as it was decades ago. Punch Out! still eats up way more time than it should, and it’s so damn cool to have the very first Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time, and Wind Waker all on the Cube. Everything plays just great through the GC pad, but some people insist on using the D-pad (which, in fairness, I can understand) and of course, whinge about it being so tiny (which again, I can understand). If you’re seriously hardcore, you can pick up the Hori controller which is basically a SNES-shaped pad with GC buttons, and also comes in handy for your GameBoy Player. Or you could just save yourself some effort and use the analogue stick.
Row, row, row your boat...
If you’re lucky enough to have any of the Ninty hardware such as a GameBoy and link-up cable or the e-Reader, you’re in for a real treat. Using the GBA allows you to make use of a lot of additional features you can borrow a sewing kit from the haberdashery and design your own clothes and wallpaper without having to pay, you can download your NES games and play them on the go. But the coolest feature is that you can use the GameBoy to call Kapp’n, a swarthy sea merchant with his own rowboat, who will take you to a tropical island off the coast of your village where all manner of paradise awaits. That kicks all kinds of ass. With the e-Reader, you can pick up the Animal Crossing e-Cards and scan them for NES games, letters containing exclusive outfits and furniture these are all genuinely worthwhile features; it really is more than just a gimmick.
CHEAT TO WIN~!
Now, if you’ve invested in an Action Replay (review HERE!), you can bust the game WIDE open with the coolest cheats yet available on the Cube (except for unlocking the debug test dungeons on Wind Waker). Using AR codes, you can unlock just about everything in the game, including Mario Bros., Wario’s Woods, Ice Climber and Zelda which are otherwise impossible to get through normal means. You can unlock hidden items and furniture (such as a giant green Mario pipe), and items that were locked away in the code after being included only in the Japanese version. And using the jump cheat, not only do you gain access to the offshore island without needing a GBA, but you can explore areas of the game that weren’t meant to be seen. Want to see what’s out in the middle of the ocean? Want to walk to the end of the world? How about getting on the train track and seeing where the choo-choo goes when it disappears through the tunnel? These codes are completely awesome, and if you’ve been in two minds about whether the AR is worth picking up, THIS is what the device is capable of.
Uhh… nope, I can’t come up with a defence. The graphics are very, VERY basic it’s not just the style; you can have soft, cutesy, sparsely-detailed cartoonish graphics and do them very well (see Wind Waker), but the textures don’t have to be blocky, lacking in detail and overly basic.
In one sense, it does add a very distinct feel to the game bubbly and endearing, in a raw and unpolished way. It doesn’t change the fact that this looks almost identical to Animal Forest on the N64 improved in areas, sure, but on occasion you would be hard pressed to tell the difference. Admittedly, this is largely due to the nature of the game it was originally intended as little more than an advanced, Director’s Cut version of the original Animal Forest, hence the Japanese title Animal Forest +, not Animal Forest 2, so perhaps little things can be forgiven somewhat.
Design your own shit, sell it to animals.
All of that said, this really isn’t a game you buy for gorgeous, tech-demo visuals, but nor is Tetris, and that doesn’t take anything away from the presentation or the feel of the game. The graphical style simply is what it is, and to be honest, you don’t notice the flaws unless you’re looking for reasons to hate on the game. Hopefully for Animal Crossing 2 (which is confirmed, by the way), they’ll take the next logical step and make the title cel-shaded. Until then, as long as I can make recognisable HIM and CKY shirts, I’m happy.
You might as well see the above and substitute all my graphical comments for audio ones. This is definite N64 territory, which still admittedly manages to give the game something of a simplistic, understated charm.
The sounds and music are simple beyond belief no rich, slick orchestral compositions or thumping choons here. What we get are traditionally blinkety-bop Nintendo ditties which are remarkably hummable you’ll often find yourself cooking dinner or straining the greens and whistling a tune, only to realise you heard it playing in your village that morning. You can pop about 50 tunes into your CD player/Hi-Fi/gramophone (whichever one you buy to suit your décor), and the town tune changes every hour to keep things fresh.
Welcome to Hellview.
Again, this isn’t the game to show off your new surround sound getup, but that isn’t what it’s meant to be. It sounds like a cop out thing to say but, dammit, it’s true. The music is tinny and chirpy and I love it.
There’s nothing really like Animal Crossing. The Sims is probably the closest thing you’ll find on the Cube, although the console versions are pretty limited compared to the PC edition. Other than that, you can hold out for Harvest Moon or Giftpia, another Nintendo-published title, developed this time by Skip, which is another typically “alternative” game, out now on import. It’s due for a US release in a couple of months and is DEFINITELY one to look out for if you’re an AC fan.
Nothing’s going to change your mind about this game if you won’t look past the front-end. It simultaneously represents everything that is wrong with Nintendo’s attitude, and everything that makes them the greatest developer on the face of the Earth. This is a game that will take at least a year to play through once. Between visiting your friends’ villages by travelling across memory cards, trading items across the net or on message boards, unlocking all the NES games and playing through those… this is a game that you can truly play forever. Sooner or later the sheen will wear off and it’ll be something you just pop in for maybe 20 minutes a day, but I guarantee you WILL want to play it every day, just to keep an eye on things.
Ville Valo rules.
There are so many must-have titles on the GameCube, and this is one of them.