Last week, I obtained a 3DS for the ludicrously low price of $50. At this point, I had wanted a 3DS for a little over a year. I had developed a craving for Nintendo games after hooking up my SNES again for the first time in decades. Reliving my childhood with classics such Donkey Kong Country and Mega Man X, one of the greatest games that has ever been crafted by mankind, enkindled a desire to reintroduce Nintendo into my life. Animal Crossing: New Leaf has succeeded in doing that, and has washed the sour taste from my mouth left by the last generation of Nintendo hardware.
Before I can explain what it is about Animal Crossing that makes it so special to me, I would like to tell you the story of my relationship with Nintendo. For many of you, this may not be a totally alien tale.
I grew up with Nintendo. The SNES was where I spent most of my time as a kid, occasionally venturing to the Genesis to spend some time with that speedy blue hedgehog before his life spiraled from 16-bit excellence into sorrow displayed in glitchy, broken HD. Ocarina of Time is one of the first games that was something more than just fun, transcending the label of "just a game" into an experience that had a profound meaning. Super Smash Bros. Melee was one of my main activities as an adolescent. Nintendo has had a very deep impact on my life as a gamer.
However, Nintendo's strategy for games coming into the Wii pushed me away from not just their console, but their entire company. I respect Nintendo's desire to innovate and search for new ways to play, but it became very apparent that they weren't pursuing me as a patron anymore with the Wii. Their marketing was focused on families. Attempts to explore new and interesting directions for franchises like Star Fox and Metroid were virtually abandoned. The Mario Galaxy games were excellent, but not enough for me to hold onto the console. The final straw came with the release of Skyward Sword, which was nigh unplayable due to the incredibly irritating motion controls, which wrenched me out of the experience and made me focus on the actual act of playing, a carnal sin for game designers.
Within two years of buying the Wii, I had grown bitter toward Nintendo as a whole. It was illogical, but I actually felt offended by the Wii. Nintendo had abandoned me and my entire demographic to try its hand at the casual market. I had bought the GameCube and used that as my primary gaming machine for multiplatform games (though the wealth of PS2 exclusives pulled me further into the PlayStation fold). I, and many gamers who had been playing far longer than I have, helped make them what they were. For all intents and purposes, however, it seemed like they were done with us.
Within the last few months, something strange began to occur. I found myself paying more and more attention to Nintendo. The remake of Wind Waker, second only to Majora's Mask in my humble opinion, the impending releases of new Animal Crossing, Pokémon, Luigi's Mansion, Pikmin, Fire Emblem, etc. piqued my interest and substantially attracted my attention. It seemed that Nintendo was beginning to focus on things that I actually cared about once again. When the rave review for Animal Crossing: New Leaf by Audrey Drake came out, my excitement reached a fever pitch. Mere days later, the perfect storm occurred when a friend of mine purchased a 3DS XL and sold me his old handheld for a paltry fifty bucks (he disclosed that the select button didn't work, but that was a non-issue). Without hesitation, I paid him cash and picked up my copy of Animal Crossing and began my journey as mayor R. Caine* of Haven.
There are two main areas of appeal that create the snare of addiction that I find myself trapped in with New Leaf. The sense of progression and accomplishment in Animal Crossing coupled with the emergent customization ability that the player has as mayor of their own town and seasoned with just a pinch of Skinner Box methodology makes New Leaf fun and addictive, and will quickly make it a part of your daily routine.
We are introduced to New Leaf in the familiar train that ferries the player to their new home. The familiar train is occupied by the familiar Rover, a cat perpetually riding the rails since 2002. Through him, you choose your name, gender, and town name. After your conversation with Rover ends, you arrive in your new home, only to discover the twist that New Leaf brings to the Animal Crossing formula -- you aren't just a villager, you are the mayor.
The introduction to New Leaf is short and sweet. There is no indentured servitude to Tom Nook as in titles past. You are introduced to the people, ferried to Nook, who gives you a down payment to meet before your house can be built. After that, you are set free. The introductory sequence is actually far longer than it seems, not actually ending until you pay your down payment, garner 100 percent approval from your citizens, and earn your development permit. This open-ended tutorial gives you lower goals to meet, allowing you to familiarize or re-acquaint yourself with the core mechanics of the game (collecting, customizing, and earning) before moving onto the new things that come along with your mayoral power.
One of the core draws of the Animal Crossing franchises is your ability to customize your character, your home, and, to a limited degree, your town. New Leaf extends the customization options directly onto your town. You are the mayor after all, and your town is in dire need of development.
Development is incredibly rewarding. The very apparent and pleasing feedback that comes with upgrading your house or slowly filling your museum translates perfectly into the public works projects. Seeing your town slowly populated with fountains and cafes give it flavor. Building bridges in strategic locations make your town far easier to navigate. As time goes on, Main Street develops, opening more shops and giving the player more to see and do.
There is a beautiful elegance to the game design in Animal Crossing. What the player actually does has not changed drastically from previous games. As a player, you have the ability to use tools, talk to other animals, shake trees, and pick things up. That's really about it. However, the beauty of these simple actions is that the world created for the player affords so many opportunities to interact with the world. The brunt of complex activities is left in the background, affording the player a relaxing play experience.
The player essentially has free reign to do whatever they want in the world. The goal of the games has pretty much always been "make money to get more stuff." New Leaf gives the players so many opportunities to do that. Exploring other towns to gather rare fruit, fishing, late night beetle hunts on the tropical island, etc. all move the player toward this goal in varying degrees, and all feel so different yet deliver a rewarding and relaxing play. Every time you bring in a successful haul, you hear the rewarding jingle of bells depositing themselves safely into your wallet. With every payment you make into your public works or home improvement projects, you get to watch the numbers tick ever closer to zero, allowing the player to enjoy the fruits of their labor before moving onto their next project.
The feedback offered in Animal Crossing: New Leaf is what keeps the player engaged so heavily. The charm of the world and the characters coupled with the compulsion-driven need to pay down the costs of your project makes the entire game hugely rewarding and keeps me coming back for more time and time again.
Any complaints I have in regards to the game are minor, mostly concerning multiplayer. The slow processing over the 3DS' internet connection makes the load times for your friends coming into your town frustrating and ever so slightly disengaging. Though this is limitation of the hardware rather than the game itself, it still pulls me back from the experience for a few moments before I immediately become re-engrossed in my capitalistic quest to fulfill my vision for Haven.
While I am critical at heart, I am also a realist. Nintendo is not in the best of ways right now, but they are also not dying. They still have a large, dedicated fan base and the 3DS is wildly successful. Games like Animal Crossing: New Leaf are exactly why that is the case. You had my attention, Nintendo. You have it once more, along with my curiosity. Where you go from here? Only time will tell.
Stephen Buchanan is a contributing editor for The Gamer's Advocate and a Midwestern gaming enthusiast. He is a lover of the writen word with dreams of design and development dancing in his brain. Follow him on twitter @Papa_Poison
All images done by Jessica. Follow her @Kitt3h