“It’s hard to describe. I’d say it’s like a Sims game but with animals.”
When people find out that I love video games and ask me what my favorite one is, the response I get when I say “Animal Crossing” is usually one of bemusement and/or bewilderment. Those unfamiliar with the franchise often inquire about what the series is actually about, and that’s a pretty tough question to answer.
I first became aware of Animal Crossing back in 2002 when it made its debut on the Nintendo GameCube console. I distinctly remember standing in Electronics Boutique (R.I.P.), seeing it on the shelf and asking the cashier what it was. She replied, “It’s hard to describe. I’d say it’s like a Sims game but with animals.”
Well, that was enough to sell me. The game even came bundled with a memory card that promised a “Special Present.” The box art and description were almost too cute, even for me, but I approached the game with my arms folded, daring it to entertain me. And at first, it didn’t.
Once the setup screen is out of the way, the first major character you encounter upon starting the game is a raccoon named Tom Nook. He would eventually — up until 2013’s New Leaf — become the face of the franchise, and I never quite understood why. He came off as a demanding, unfriendly jerk and didn’t really do a good job of explaining the game to players which, after all, was his purpose. I did a lot of burying fruit, planting flowers and other mundane tasks, and about fifteen minutes into the game, I was wondering where the fun was hiding.
But once freed from Tom Nook’s “tutorial,” the world of Animal Crossing started opening up. The comparisons to The Sims became evident, and I was encouraged to expand and decorate my virtual house, meet the neighbors, and socialize with them through various interactions that ultimately affect their lives, too.
It may be taken for granted now, but there were also several aspects of Animal Crossing that were groundbreaking for their time. Utilization of the GameCube’s internal clock, for example, would have an effect on the environment, changing things such as lighting, weather, and seasons based on the time and date of playing. One of the taglines boasted that this was a real-life game that plays “even when you’re not there,” and it certainly felt like it because — with the internal clock at play — animal citizens would reference how long you had been away and comment on whether they missed you or not. Sweet, right?
Animal Crossing also gave way to special and holiday-themed events throughout the year, such as snow day’s, fireworks on the 4th of July, and meteor shower’s. Your animal friends would remember your birthday, and occasionally pop by with a gift. All in all, nice touches that took the game to a whole different level and have remained with the series to this day.
A Link to the Past
Every budding franchise needs something grabbing, and having a game that needs a fair share of explaining wouldn’t be enough. The initial hook that garnered attention was the ability to find and play original NES games within your house in Animal Crossing. Games like Pinball, Donkey Kong, Excitebike, and hidden gems The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros (both of which were never officially made available and need a cheat device to unlock). Predating the Virtual Console on the Wii and Wii U, this marked the first time in what is now a mainstream fashion, that classic games could be played, full-screen, on a then-current console. And it was mindblowing. Sadly, NES games would not turn up in subsequent entries in the series.Coming Into Its Own
Animal Crossing’s first and second sequels, Wild World on the Nintendo DS and City Folk on the Wii, were both successful and only cemented the charms of the original. With both systems launching internet ready, visiting other peoples’ towns and seeing their houses and meeting their residents became a draw and further padded the layers of fun and intrigue. And while the two games were very similar to one another, they were proof to many that Animal Crossing worked better on handheld consoles, becoming an on-the-go addiction for many — myself included.
One of the best aspects of the franchise is its use of original music. Each hour has a different theme, as do many holidays and special events. The music, which ranges from hip and trendy to folksy and chill, is entirely memorable. Even now, I have an entire playlist of nothing but Animal Crossing music from all the different entries and it always brings a smile to my face.
Of course, I can’t talk about music without mentioning AC’s resident musician, K.K. Slider. He appears every Saturday night in various places depending on the game, and he always delivers music for the animals.
A New Leaf and New Life
Arguably, Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the 3DS solidified the series’ position as big-time franchise for Nintendo. It is proven to have boosted sales of the handheld and has went on to sell over 9 million copies worldwide and counting (not too shabby for a game that still confuses a lot of outsiders).
New Leaf introduced a few new wrinkles that many fans have embraced: the ability to construct unique designs and extras in your town as the Mayor, thrusting customization to new heights, and the introduction of Isabelle — your trusty secretary who also happens to be your town’s biggest cheerleader. As much as I love the other games in the series, I would have to pick New Leaf as best Animal Crossing game to date.
Nintendo seems to have realized the popularity of the series as well. 2015 brought an immense amount of marketing to the franchise, from amiibo cards (used with the 3DS spinoff Happy Home Designer) that invoke memories of those Game Boy Advance eReader cards that were incorporated with Wild World, to its own amiibo figure line (used with the less-than-well-received amiibo Festival game on the Wii U), to an appearance in Mario Kart 8. And even with all of that, I’m still anxiously anticipating the next full entry on Nintendo’s next console with baited breath.
I believe that Animal Crossing was, at least until Splatoon in 2015, the last big original Nintendo IP to take off and become a huge success. I think it is more than worthy to sit alongside Mario, Zelda and Pokemon. Its fan base continues to grow with each release, and it is often one of the most requested titles for any new Nintendo console launch. I have spent more time than I care to admit playing through the series, and I still can’t fully explain what it’s about to friends when they ask. But I’m okay with that; it’s part of what makes Animal Crossing so warmly unique.