Within five months of its Western release and just under a year of its initial release in Japan, Animal Crossing: New Leaf has managed to rack up over six million sales. While undoubtedly a hotly anticipated title, it is nonetheless an astounding figure for a handheld game, particularly in a climate where many were quick to announce smartphones as the new evolution of mobile gaming. As one of those six million sales myself, I thought I would give my thoughts on the title, and question just where it fits in with modern contemporaries.
Animal crossing is a game reliant on the player. It doesn’t do much to offer the kind of spectacular set-pieces and compelling story we’ve become accustomed to recently, and doesn’t even really give much in the way of missions or checkpoints to aim for. There’s a definitive beginning of course, the player’s initiation as Mayor of a perpetually quaint and cosy seaside village is a charming little ceremony, but aside from that the world is set out for you to create your own objectives. There’s no looming apocalypse, no alien threat or love interest to strive for. There is simply a cluttered little haven of cottages and wildlife for the player to mould as they see fit, and there is plenty to mould, no doubt about that. In the absence of a story, you’re left with a town to run and a population of animals to keep happy. From the beginning there is an even greater emphasis on choice and freedom than previous titles in the series. Tom Nook no longer forces you into employment, but simply suggests ways by which you can earn ‘bells’, the currency you’ll be hoarding like a miser worthy of a Christmas Carol. You don’t have to listen to his advice at all, as there are a plethora of ways to do so, but it does offer a guiding nudge for newcomers. What happens next is an experience that you make entirely your own. Some may focus on filling their museum with all the available bugs, fish and fossils, some will seek to expand as quickly as possible, and pump money into the local businesses to help them blossom and grow, some might even just want to make friends with their villagers. It’s a clever mechanic to release these possibilities bit by bit as villagers speculate over what additions to the town they’d like to see, or even upcoming events that are planned by a real-time calender system. Play the game on Halloween for example, and you can go ‘trick or treating’ for candy. Animal Crossing has always seemed to aspire to be a companion rather than an outright adventure, and it’s interesting to see this appeal to so many people.
The elephant in the room for the 3DS has of course been the ever-growing success of apps, and there were many who dismissed the handheld as outdated and overpriced when compared to the slew of $1.99 titles that can be bought for your phone. It stands on a precarious middle-ground between home console and portable device, bridging the gap between two very different kinds of experience. This year it earned its place yet again though, and strength of sales from the 3DS alone has been a huge boost to Nintendo as they continue to struggle with the Wii U. In another life, Animal Crossing may indeed have even existed as an app. It shares some similarities with the hugely successful wave of management games on a small scale such as ‘Pixel People’ or ‘Tiny Tower’, in that it encourages checking in on a regular basis to maintain the game world and reap the most rewards, albeit on a much broader scale. It requires a certain level of commitment, as neglecting the game results in progress slowing to a near-standstill, and those who put in the most time will more than likely have the most to show for it. Comparing it to the bite-size commitment of smaller, less expensive apps almost seems to negate a meaning for Animal Crossing to exist at all, but it’s more than just the expanded features that set New Leaf apart.
The tone of Animal Crossing has never been anything like the massive growth of an airline or an entire city that can be seen in similar titles. On the contrary, it never really grows any larger than what could be considered a village, emphasizing a break away from the urban environment and encouraging the player to instead enjoy the calmer moments of life. New Leaf is there as a refuge, a quiet break in the busy schedules that portable consoles were made for. It can be seen as the modern equivalent of a Zen garden; a place to be cultivated and appreciated under your control. It follows along with your day, so whether playing on the morning commute, at lunch or in the late evening, there is always an opportunity to take a walk through your very own forest, be it by sunrise or moonlight. Villagers will come and go, and New Leaf does a wonderful job of making you care about this fact. When your best friend in the town questions spreading their (often literal) wings and moving on, you feel a sense of panic that drives you to ask them to stay. Micro-transactions don’t even poke their head around the door here, and that is vital for the pacing of the experience. There will never be a ‘wrong’ way to play, the world is what you make it. The only way the game will ‘punish’ you for playing is if you sprint through forested areas. This will inevitably damage flowers, tear paths through your grass and even scare away wildlife, so the player is again encouraged to slow down and make the choice to get into a different, less immediate mindset. Strolling through your town in Animal Crossing is a calming experience, and a fairly literal break from the battlefield sprinting we’ve been inundated with lately. As such, it’s easy to see why many continue to play the title on a regular, often daily basis to this day. Whether for ten minutes, or a full day of renovation and exploration, Animal Crossing presents the player with a quiet little slice of existence that they can dip into for as long as they like, and now with a digital copy all they have to do is open their 3DS. It requires commitment, yes, but does nothing to make that a chore. You don’t play just to get through and earn another reward, your village can be a place that you want to visit every day, even if only for a while. That, I feel, is something very special indeed.