Animal Crossing: New Leaf
by Polly

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Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the latest iterative release of Nintendo's virtual life simulator where you live in a town with animals for neighbors. In 2002, when the series made its western debut on the GameCube, there wasn't anything quite like it on the market. Sure, there were other life simulators like The Sims and Harvest Moon that let you create and manage virtual people and their lives, but Animal Crossing's shtick was that the world was completely governed by real-time. If it was 4:00PM in the real world, it was also 4:00PM in Animal Crossing-world unless you were a dirty time traveler, and in that case DO NOT SPEAK TO ME! 

Anyway, there was a certain charm to the game world mirroring time and events in the real world, such as holidays and seasonal changes, but what kept Animal Crossing fresh was its intense focus on collecting and completion and its undeniable personality. The leisurely pace with which it could be played also helped make it feel like less of a game at times and more of a fun toy you spent about an hour with for the evening to relax. No pressure to reach any kind of end game. You made your own goals and decided when it was finally time to move on from the little virtual town you'd called home. 

Surprisingly, the game was a success and spawned two sequels on the DS and Wii, which focused largely on the same core gameplay mechanics and hooks with a few new features tucked in here and there. Beyond the online connectivity featured in Wild World and City Folk , the series hasn't strayed far from the winning formula, which is kinda what you expect from Nintendo these days.

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New Leaf  predictably sticks to the game plan, only slipping in a few neat bells (haha...hahahaHAHAHAHAHA!) and whistles on top of what's already there. If you've played any kind of Animal Crossing before, you'll be right at home as soon as you fire up the game, and if this is your first trip into a virtual life among frogs, monkeys, and bears (oh my!), the gentle and almost excruciatingly slow learning curve will get you up to speed in no time.

From a player standpoint, the only real change in New Leaf is that you're the mayor. This responsibility adds the most customization to your world that the series has ever seen, letting you build pretty attractions for your town, answer to the rather simple needs of your people, and set ordinances which change how long shops stay open or increase the amount of money you earn from selling items.  It's fairly simple stuff that addresses a lot of issues found in previous entries of the series where the real-life time mechanic could be problematic.

Working late hours and not being able to play during the day is as simple as enacting the Night Owl ordinance to keep shops open later. Can't play all that much, but still wanna have the bells to get Tom Nook off your ass? Make shops pay more for the items you sell them. Just wanna put the game down for a couple weeks and not worry about coming back to a town full of weeds and roaches? Enact a beautiful town ordinance that keeps your flowers watered and weeds from growing. 

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Being mayor simply adds a lot of convenience to a series not known for being very convenient, but unfortunately offers no meaningful change to how you approach it. You're still going to be doing the same things you've always done: Collecting furniture, running errands for your neighbors, snagging rare fish and bugs to fill up the museum, and spending massive piles of bells to upgrade your pad and unlock new shops. These core mechanics will no doubt still be fun for those of us that have enjoyed the series, but anyone that found themselves tired of the idea with any of the previous releases probably won't get much out of what New Leaf has to offer. 

I spent a damn good amount of time with the original Animal Crossing. I did about as much as any sane person could in that game over the course of about a year and enjoyed the experience. I skipped out on Wild World and City Folk because I didn't really feel I needed more of that in my life at the time. I've now been the mayor of Sockston for two weeks (peer-pressure is a son of a bitch, lemme tell ya.) and feel I've seen the bulk of what New Leaf has to offer, and I have no intention to stop playing the game anytime soon. That said, I feel I've had enough time to assess what right and wrong with the latest iteration. And so, I present to you...

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Things happening in real time is still rad.

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It was awesome the first time I ever played Animal Crossing and it's even better here because I have a bit more say in how my days unfold thanks to the ordinance system. The summer solstice was just the other day in both the real world and Animal Crossing world, and seeing that represented in my town with some cute little events in the town square, along with the sun not going down until 6:00AM the next morning was just stupidly cute and fun. 

There's just something really silly and obsessive about knowing there's going to be a meteor shower in my town some night starting at 9:00PM and opening my 3DS and seeing it actually happen, or having a neighbor invite me over to their place at 6:30PM because they just wanna hang out for a few minutes. I know that one of my neighbors has a birthday this week, and I honestly rooted around my catalog for five or so minutes looking for something I could wrap up and bring to them on that day.

Even though you know it's just a bunch of variables and event programming, one could just innocently believe that even while their 3DS is turned off or in sleep mode that their little town is still happening and there's just something that's still so undeniably cute about that concept. 

The social experience

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I love visiting my friends' towns and letting them visit mine as much as I can. Be it to just hang out with them, have a look at how their personal houses are developing, running around and hitting them with my bug net, or exchanging items, visiting your friends is probably the series' strongest feature. 

Other than some minigames, there's not a whole lot four people can do in one town other than hang out, bug hunt, fish, and trade items. It's the least action-packed way you could spend playing an online game with friends (aside from maybe idling in PSO lobbies), and for reasons that somehow escape me, I just never find it boring. 

There's even a "Dream Suite" public works project you can build that will enable you to visit friends' and strangers' towns even when they're away, and you can get up to whatever you want to in there without it ever negatively affecting their real work. 

If you're getting this game, get yourself some friends and get to the train station as fast as you can. You won't regret it. 

Fun and simple minigames

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Animal Crossing isn't the most action-packed game out there, and the controls can admittedly be a tad unwieldy at times when it comes to accurate movement. That said, New Leaf still manages to throw in a solid pile of minigames for you to play by yourself or with your friends, each with a few levels of difficulty, that manage to work fairly well within the confines of the game's engine and the fidelity of control offered to the player. These games are best experienced in multiplayer, where you can co-op with friends. Your chances of completing each one get much higher, and a lot of hilarity is sure to ensure with the more people you have. 

Minigames are timed tests which have you doing fairly standard things you already do while playing Animal Crossing, such as hunting bugs, shooting down balloons with a slingshot, and collecting things. An extra layer of complexity is added on top of those mechanics to keep things interesting like filling a gigantic flower bed with one specific type and color of flower, scavenger hunts that involve looting a number of houses for specific types of furniture, and a match game where you have to dig up two of the same type of item just to name a few. 

Along with adding a little bit of action to an otherwise not-very-gamey game, you'll get to play with a lot of toys you may not have access to and see furniture and wildlife you probably won't be seeing for quite a while due to it being tied to exclusive events or being out of season. Playing around on the island is a great way to break up the tedium that can set in while going about your daily routine in the main game. 

Collecting shit is still fun!

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Animal Crossing plays on your need to always have STUFF! More STUFF! More NEW STUFF! YOU MUST HAVE ALL THE MORE NEW STUFF!  Shops restock daily with new STUFF for you to browse, villagers are always sending you on fetch quests or errands that usually result in more STUFF, you can visit your friends' towns to look at and take some of their STUFF...it's just STUFF STUFF STUFF! STUFF-A-GODDAMN-GEDDON!

Your first few days will be a bit trying as you'll barely have room for your STUFF, but as you play more and expand the available room in your house, you'll soon have lots more available space for your STUFF. Acquiring more STUFF means you get to spend hours upon hours decorating and rearranging your house with all your STUFF until every space is filled in exactly the way you want it to be. As you discover more STUFF, suddenly all of your STUFF will need to be re-arranged again, or hell, why not just get rid of all your old STUFF for newer, shinier STUFF to razzle-dazzle out your whole pad all over again?  

Whether you're an obsessive-compulsive collector that simply has to have every single item in the game cataloged (good fucking luck with that, chief!) or are on a never-ending search for that PERFECT set of STUFF that you simply must have (GIMME ALL DAT METROID STUFF!), this is the game for you. Having friends to keep an eye out for all that STUFF you want makes the whole premise even better and will only make your time spent with the game feel all the more rewarding as you help one another achieve your various STUFF-related goals. 

Pattern customization options are ridiculously neat

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Pattern customization isn't new to the series, but the ability to easily share custom clothing, wallpaper, pathway, and furniture design patterns by quickly snapping or uploading unique QR codes blows other installments in the series out of the water. The possibilities are almost endless, and since the game has been out in Japan for quite a while, there's already a healthy community of folks sharing their custom designs and intensely creative use of patterns. 

Does nothing the Able Sisters offering in town suit your unique fashion sense, or you wanna don the look of your favorite movie/Japanese Cartoon/videogame character? Need a wallpaper that really makes that set of furniture pop?  How about some unique cobblestone patterns to lay down throughout town for a nicer pathway to your favorite places? The answer is really just a few clicks away

Just as one could easily lose hours and hours decorating and redecorating their home, the customization options that custom patterns allow only drive that kind of madness to unheard of levels.

This game is un-god-damn-bearably cute

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For the last year or so, I've considered Kirby's Epic Yarn to be the cutest goddamn game ever committed to disc. Animal Crossing: New Leaf falls just a tad short of that lofty title, but it's not for lack of trying. 

It's hard to find something about this game that won't rot your friggin' teeth out with how adorable it is. Your character is almost always smiling as if nothing has nor could ever go wrong in their life, and even when they do make a frowny face, you just wanna somehow push through the screen of your 3DS and give them a big ol' mushy hug. Even a week full of rainy days isn't enough to make the game's bright and cheery color palette any less eye catching. 

The visuals, music, and sound effects are chock full of insidiously cute detail, and the localization is packed with some of the most friendly, clean, and lighthearted humor you'll probably ever see in a game. Just catch a few fish and read the accompanying dialog or take a boat ride with ol' Kapp'n to hear one of his songs and tell me I'm wrong. YOU CAN'T! BECAUSE YOU'RE ALREADY AT THE EMERGENCY ROOM IN A DIABETIC COMA! 

Isabelle

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Secretary of the Year ALL FUCKING YEARS! WHY CAN'T I HUG HER?

HER HAIR BAND IS A BELL COLLAR HHHHNNNNGGGGGLHGLHGLHGLH!


Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold, and so we move onto...

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The slowest start in series history

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If Nintendo games are known for anything these days, it's excessive tutorializing and expecting their audience to have the common sense and learning capabilities of an empty soda can. New Leaf is no different. Your first week with the game will likely turn into a slog at some point because the game takes far too long to get started and open up new things. The new features of the game aren't that complicated and the base mechanics are simple enough to grasp, so there's really no need to gate the content as much as New Leaf does, especially given the sheer amount of content there is, and it's even more excruciating since the game takes place in real-time. 

The interface

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Beyond some stylus controls that make moving things around much easier, Animal Crossing's interface has not changed one iota since since 2002. New Leaf uses the same inventory screen, text boxes, and catalog anyone familiar with the series would recognize by now, but none of those things have seen any type of improvement whatsoever. 

There's simply no excuse for how cumbersome and annoying New Leaf's inventory still is. You're still limited to 16 item slots which can fill up fairly quickly doing your normal daily rounds, and though you can stack up to nine of the same fruit on top of one another, this task HAS to be performed manually each time you pick up one fruit. There's no reason fruit stacking shouldn't happen automatically, and at this point in the series it's bewildering that there's still no way to upgrade the amount of space you have in your backpack given how upgradeable everything else is. 

The game can get pretty bogged down with having to run back and forth accessing your global storage to swap items around as well as unskippable text boxes when entering and exiting shops and other establishments. With all the improvements to UI design we've seen over the years as well as the addition of a touch screen that should be making your job easier, New Leaf still manages to feel dated and clunky on all accounts, and I can only assume it's simple ignorance and unwillingness to let go of tradition that keep Nintendo so buried in the past.  

Online connectivity is badly designed

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If there's one thing we all know Nintendo for, it's certainly its grasp of how the internet works and integrating it as smoothly into their platforms and games as possible right? Of course it isn't, and though the connectivity options New Leaf provides are fun, they are in no way easy to interact with. About the only thing the game's online interface does right is letting you add in-game friends to your global 3DS friends list. You also don't need to swap friend codes in order to play with others already on your 3DS friends list. 

The rest of the online feature's problems are caused by the game's incredibly dated and unintuitive interface. Though you have a friends list in-game, there's no way to tell if your friends' towns gates are open at all from that list. You have to talk to the porter at the train station that spews the same five unskippable text boxes of dialog, wait through a lengthy save process, wait for your 3DS to ping the internet, and wait for it to search for available towns to visit until you can actually tell if your friends want company. It's the same lengthy process to open your gate and let others in as well. All that effort is wasted if the list pops up blank. Sure, you could always write a message to your friend asking if their gates are open, but the bottom line is that you shouldn't have to. 

Chatting with an on-screen keyboard isn't the best input method, but it's the best the system has got, so I'll cut it a little slack. What I can't look over is how criminally short the text entry field is, which will require you to send two or three messages in a row to get a complete coherent thought through. This process is even worse when communicating with someone on your friends list because once you send a message, the on-screen keyboard closes, and you have to scroll through your friends list once again, find that person, and click their name again to continue your message. All of this could be easily fixed with longer text entry fields and giving friends list priority to people who are online. 

Probably the biggest issue with the online portion of the game is disconnects essentially mean you lose everything you did during that particular session. There is no way to manually save if you're online whether you're a visitor or host, and the only time the game does seem to save involves being on Tortimer's island and playing minigames. Three times now, I've lost about an hour's worth of item collection, progress, and minigame reward medals because of a hiccup in the connection with somebody. You're really throwing caution to the wind when playing online, and it would be wise to make sure you're not doing a lot of important things while you're connected, lest you lose it all because somebody's internet farted. 

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So, there you have it. All of what's good and bad about Animal Crossing: New Leaf from my dumb perspective. I think the game's great and I still have enough love in me to keep playing it for a good while, but Nintendo's bull-headed refusal to adapt to the times and give more than two shits about convenience will no doubt shorten the amount of time I'd like to spend with it. 








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