Animal Crossing 15th Anniversary | Reflecting on Animal Crossing

By John Son 15.04.2016 7

Animal Crossing for the GameCube was released fifteen years ago. Since then, we've seen three main title releases - one for each major Nintendo console release up to the 3DS - and two spin-off titles. A modest collection, then, but for an initially experimental game entitled a "communication game" by its makers, its popularity has grown rapidly over time, eventually peaking with Animal Crossing: New Leaf, which, by the end of 2015, had sold nearly 10 million units worldwide. To coincide with its anniversary, I take a look back and reflect on some of my own personal experiences with the series.
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I have over 520 hours logged on my copy of Animal Crossing: New Leaf, probably more than any game I've ever owned.

It was a joint effort, to be fair. Upon purchasing the game, my sister and I, despite being happy to disagree on most things, drew up an unofficial treaty so as to make the gameplay experience mutually beneficial for both of us. Among other things, some of the most significant agreements were that: we would not tamper with each other's accounts, we would not steal or blackmail, and we would respect each other's play times and do our best to share the game equally. It was a testament to our love for the game that for the year and a half in which we both played regularly, these unofficial rules were ironclad all the way up until the very end, where we finally made the decision to restart the game and move on.

Allowing ourselves to accept that it just wasn't as fun as it used to be was somewhat of an uncomfortable truth to deal with. It's a feeling most of us would have felt at some point or another - despite our situation, after having invested countless hours fishing, shopping, bug catching, hoarding furniture and building friendships with villagers, it was difficult to let go. Games just have a habit of doing that.

It was an inevitable decision, in retrospect; the final nail in what had been a long and drawn-out process of waning interest and increasing apathy towards the game. It had gotten to the point that, for the first time since I'd picked it up, days would go by without me even giving my file a single thought. I'd log on from time to time to check my mail, peruse around the shops and chat with a couple of villagers, but it always felt pretty perfunctory. Looking back on it now, it wasn't surprising that after a year and half of intense investment in this game, nature would eventually take its course. It's just the way things go; ashes to ashes, dust to dust, all things must pass, my heart will go on, and so on and so forth.

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The emotional aftermath of the deletion was something of a conflict between cold, logical indifference ("It was getting boring anyway," we'd say in a vain attempt at emotional detachment) and the dull pangs of regret not unlike the comedown after having wolfed down an entire tub of cookie dough ice cream in a vicious moment of wanton self-loathing. The novelty of experimenting with new files after The End (our aptly named town) was fun for a short time, but it just got a bit depressing after a while. Every new town the game produced only seemed to exacerbate the feelings of nostalgia and loss we felt towards our old file. We realise that our old town felt more like home than we'd ever given it credit for.

It was quickly evident that neither of us really intended to commit fully to a new town - the mere thought of doing so, of building absolutely everything again from the ground up, was nothing short of exhausting. Thus, the cartridge was soon relegated back into its box and put back on the shelf, before eventually being flogged off on eBay (as a teenager with little money, this was where most of the games I owned eventually ended up), and that was the last we ever saw of it.

Endings are difficult to get right. In my experience, they come at the risk of becoming unnecessarily painful and maudlin for the parties involved, resulting in a slightly more unpleasant experience than is strictly necessary - conversely, the detachment and emotional sterility of clean breaks can often be harsher than the situation warrants. In other (read: most) cases, though, they're simply not significant enough to justify thinking about them very much at all. The question is, then, what exactly happened with the game in the time leading up to the point of farewell that would even warrant such an ending in the first place?

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First off, despite having previously played Wild World when I was younger, New Leaf brought with it hitherto unknown wells of untapped potential that I had not considered before. Additions and enhancements in the gameplay aside, it was the enticing promise of escapism, and also exerting complete control over a small, enclosed universe that renewed my interest in the series - evidently, this is something that younger me failed to see the value of in games like Wild World.

The idea of escapism might be one of the reasons why the series has done as well as it has. While the idea of using games as a means of escape from reality is far from an original one, it is still relevant today and holds up just as well as it always has. Life-sim games are, of course, quite well known for this, but Animal Crossing especially has a unique particular kind of charm about it that has set it apart from the rest; it manages to be twee without being saccharine; relaxing without being inane; all while still maintaining a feeling that it doesn't take itself too seriously on the surface, despite being incredibly well-designed. It's all too easy to get sucked into the game's world and just while away the day by occupying yourself with some undemanding, stress-free task, while listening to the cheerful and easy-going soundtrack in the background.

In my own case, the feeling of escapism came about in a big way when New Leaf was released. School was the usual painful process it is for many teenagers, and it was definitely comforting to know that I had my own pocket-sized world I could retreat into whenever I wished. New Leaf was one of the first games I played with the conscious knowledge that I was using it to escape from the slightly less appealing aspects of real life, and it was also the first time I realised how effective games could be as both a stress reliever and as a mood booster. These are two particular qualities that can be said to define the series - there's no grand hidden meaning or depth behind the games themselves; it really is just uncomplicated, straightforward relaxation and charm that makes it so appealing.

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Conversely, perhaps another reason why the game had such an impact on me when it did was that it was my first taste of true obsession while playing games. Fishing, my favourite activity in the game, very quickly went from a quiet hobby to an impassioned mission to catch every variety. The excitement of catching a rare fish for the first time was incomparable, especially when I only had a few left to complete my catalogue and had, by then, seen enough sea basses to last me several lifetimes. Even the fact that the process was largely at the mercy of the random number generator didn't detract from the unbridled sense of pride and achievement that came with having reeled in a rare one.

Many days and nights were also devoted to the soulless and vacuous pursuit of money. While it is an important mechanic in the series, it's still perfectly possible to enjoy the game without ever becoming very wealthy (though, of course, money does bring with it slightly more options available). Though I am usually, without fail, in bed and asleep by half past ten, I would often play far past that and late into the night, poaching beetles and fish from Tortimer Island to flog them off at Re-Tail the next day. There was no real rhyme or reason for doing so, other than the fact that it was simply nice to have a lot of money in the bank. In such an open-ended game as Animal Crossing, it's kind of necessary for you to make your own goals to keep the game going.

Image for Animal Crossing 15th Anniversary | Reflecting on Animal Crossing
It could be said that all those hours spent playing the game were for nought. After all, what exactly do I have to show for all of it? Surely my time would have been better spent studying or writing or doing something else productive that would actually have tangible, real-world benefits? If the process of deleting my old file showed me anything, however, it was that time spent enjoying something is not time wasted at all - and honestly, without this in mind, why would any of us even bother picking up video games in the first place?

I like to think that Animal Crossing allows for a greater scope than other game series for people to take away whatever they want to get out of the game. Much like how visiting a friend's town can feel disorienting and unfamiliar, one person's personal relationship with the game might just be alien to another's. My experiences with the series aren't unique, nor are they the first or the last, but they're still undeniably mine. Perhaps that explains a little why letting go was such a bewilderingly sad experience in the end; the degree of individuality and personality the player can exercise on the game might in turn have a - however small - effect on the player. In the end, rarely do you go through an important phase of your life with something like a game, an album, an object or a person by your side and not be left with a lasting impression of the experience.

Looking to the future, it's difficult to know where Nintendo will take the series next. New Leaf retained much of the core elements of previous entries, instead building on the established formula and adding new features to make for what is probably the most definitive Animal Crossing game there is. Whether or not we'll see the series being taken down the same route remains to be seen, but here's hoping that whatever we have to look forward to, the series continues to grow and expand in fresh and innovative ways (let's not count Happy Home Designer and Amiibo Festival). For now, though, I'm fine just waiting out the time until the next release with the memories of my old save file. There are a lot of them. Thank god New Leaf came with a screenshot feature.

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I really would've liked a main series game on Wii U. Maybe we'll get lucky and NX will launch with one.

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Wild World was my only AC game, but me and my sis shared a file in the same way. We naturally just grew tired of it eventually, but it definitely got a lot of use out of us. It's funny, she was talking about playing it again recently, and wanting to start a new file, but I wonder if it will end up with the same feeling as you had, where it's just not the same as your old town and those memories you had.

My sis isn't really a big gamer, but she was really excited at the news that Nintendo would start making mobile games, and after being disappointed with Miitomo (it is a pretty boring thing tbh), she was saying how much she wanted AC on smartphone. And I agree. I think Nintendo could tap into a large portion of players that have either moved away from the DS/Wii era or find people that would never have considered buying a DS/3DS before with a game like AC. It's still got that social theme, and making it easy to jump from your own town to your friends' Miitomo-style would be a big benefit.

That's where the future of AC can and should go: mobile. Still have a new AC game on the NX or next Nintendo handheld, but do one for mobile, too. Either make an entirely separate brand-new game, or a F2P version of the next NX/handheld one that would bring all three platform userbases together to travel and trade - that would be cool.

( Edited 17.04.2016 14:27 by Azuardo )

You know, to be honest, I just never 'got' Animal Crossing. Whilst I could spend weeks on end tinkering with SimCity back in the SNES days, the concept of AC didn't quite gel with me. Then Happy Home Designer came along and... Smilie no, it didn't change my mind - it actually put me off the series even more. Horrendously tedious and basic.

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AC isn't something I'd go back to. Wild World was the only one I'm likely to play. The series is very much a case of once you've played it, you've played them all. The little things they add to each game aren't tempting enough to draw me back in. It was a nice time waster back in the day, but they need to push new ideas into it, more things to do, better ways and reasons to interact with your friends and visit their towns. I think a mobile-console-handheld triple release that allows all users to interact and travel to each other's towns is one step towards bringing more people together, but there needs to be reasons to do so and a lot more to do (unlike Miitomo - there is feck all point in travelling to someone's house in that).

I think it's something Nintendo fails to do in a lot of their franchises. They don't seem to get the opinions of fans on how they want to see series pushed forward. Too many games are copies of the last ones, with very few additions or new things to do, but AC doesn't seem to have progressed much at all from its very first outing. Someone can try convince me otherwise, but I haven't seen much evidence of it being worth buying New Leaf over Wild World.

( Edited 17.04.2016 15:26 by Azuardo )

Within the past month I've gotten really back into Animal Crossing again and have been playing a lot.

Overall I definitely prefer Animal Crossing as a handheld game over a console game. I generally play in short bursts and it makes it easy to check in on things when you can basically do so from anywhere instead of having to be at home in front of the TV.

My main problem with the series is that it never expands much. From the very first one to New Leaf, there's barely much change, really. There's been no big progression. Sure, they change things here and there, but for me, I've grown a bit bored of the formula, you basically do the same thing over again in each version. They're fantastic games, and really lovely to chill and play, but there's not really any reason for me to buy a new version unless they do something a bit more drastic in terms of changes.

I always felt the series had real potential to expand into other gameplay areas or maybe for more social features. I definitely feel an Animal Crossing application or game could work well on mobile, for sure and I'd bet it would sell a lot, too.

 

Sonic_13 said:

Overall I definitely prefer Animal Crossing as a handheld game over a console game. I generally play in short bursts and it makes it easy to check in on things when you can basically do so from anywhere instead of having to be at home in front of the TV.

This is why it'd work so well as a mobile game. (Almost) everyone has a smartphone these days, so for casual players like my sis, they'd love this kind of game and being able to check in multiple times daily to update their town and see what's new in the wee moments. I'm not saying just because it's a great handheld game that it should be a mobile game; just that because it happens to be such the perfect "small doses" type of game and that Nintendo is now tapping into the mobile market, this the perfect game to break through with.

Add to this the unfulfilled plans of actually being able to send emails/messages to your Animal Crossing town through your phones (it's difficult to find quotes on this now, since this was during the Revolution reveal about 10+ years ago), and clearly Nintendo knew it was logical to bring the use of phones into AC.

I think Nintendo could get away with basically porting New Leaf to mobile platforms, but they definitely have to and need to take it to new and better, more fun, places if creating a new handheld game (I agree it works best as a handheld title, but if they do another console edition, it has to be a dual release so that owners of both editions can interact with each other, a la Monster Hunter 3, Smash Bros U/3DS etc).

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