For modern adults, the idea of owning a house has become somewhat illusory over the past twenty years, a feat enabled only by an economic miracle or the bank of mum and dad. Similarly, the concept of living in a society where your only worry is an unwanted gift from an adorable frog named Cousteau has vanished as we hurtle towards a disorienting dystopia. It’s no surprise then that Nintendo’s Animal Crossing series has been so appetising in the time being.
First debuting in 2001 and progressing to sell more than 30 million units worldwide, millennials have proved themselves more than willing to accrue housing debt by stuffing their bells into Tom Nook’s bottomless apron pocket. Really though, who cares if our escapism involves such irony when there are dinosaur bones to dig up, bugs to catch and friendly neighbours to please!
To herald the start of a new decade, there’s a new Tanuki scheme on the block in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, one which promises a lucrative vacation package and a means to make those essential repayments on the move thanks to the portable power of the Nintendo Switch. With seven games in the franchise already, here’s an Animal Crossing history lesson to get you up to speed with this weird and wonderful series ahead of the next installment.
A moving mission statement
We can thank an unlikely ancient peripheral and a thoughtful soul for the inception of the Animal Crossing franchise. The game first reared its head as Animal Forest in Japan, dropping in April of 2001 onto the Nintendo 64.
The concept for the game was enabled by the real-time clock (RTC) system baked into the 64 disk drive and the advent of rewritable storage.
This short-lived but influential peripheral gave rise to Animal Crossing’s 24-hour approach. The 64DD allowed Animal Forest to simulate the passage of time in-game which provides the unique, personal approach that the games are known for. Being able to write the passage of time to memory afforded players the ability to engage in extremely wholesome activities like watching their plants grow, enjoying seasonal events and fostering relationships with other villagers who inhabited the town.
Animal Forest was then ported to GameCube and renamed Animal Crossing a few months later in December of 2001, arriving in North America in late 2002 and the European Union in late 2004, with Western holidays grafted into the mix thanks to an intense localization effort.
it all started with Cherishing those that you love
Yet it wouldn’t have made it into the hearts of many without the pensive mind of Katsuya Eguchi, who came up with the concept after moving to work in Nintendo’s Kyoto office at just 21 years old following his upbringing in Chiba Prefecture.
This coming-of-age pilgrimage across Japan resulted in Eguchi having to say goodbye to his loved ones, which made him realise the tremendous importance of spending precious time with the people you care about. This brainwave led Eguchi to attempt to remix this raw feeling into a video game and the Animal Crossing series was born.
Reflecting on the success of the series in 2016, Eguchi notes that Animal Crossing was “unprecedented gameplay” at the time, which worried the developer who found it difficult to explain what kind of game it was without any tangible reference point, which is cute given its subsequent worldwide success.
A formula for calm
The hallmarks of the series were established with the first game in 2001 and they have stayed fairly rigid (for good reason) throughout the many sequels. The game follows the player character who moves to a new town to live on their own amidst a series of cute animals who they can share messages with and give gifts to.
It simulates what should be a difficult social environment and complements it with a relaxed score and focus on mindful activities like bug-catching and interior design.
Animal Forest introduced a clever emulation system into the game NES title you can find in the world and play in their entirety. It also introduced Kapp’n’s ferry service via the Game Boy Advance Gamecube link cable (good luck digging that one out!) and who could forget everyone’s favourite angry mole, Mr. Resetti, who was brought to the world’s attention with the first game in the series, a now-iconic character who chides the player for resetting the game without saving.
If you’ve fallen foul to his rants, just know that he is vindicated in his concern and you should feel ashamed! At least you’ll know for next time…
If you’re unfamiliar with the series in general, the main means of progression in the game is tied to upgrading the size of your home so you can fill it with your growing collection of furniture. This involves a series of loans that grow in scale, agreed upon with – you guessed it – Thomas Nook. The Animal Crossing games provide such a solid and reliable feedback loop that none of them have aged really poorly, meaning going back to this first entry on the GameCube will always be a source of warmth and happiness for those with nostalgia for their original town. Just be prepared to pick up a LOT of weeds…
Portable pen pals
Technically four years after the release of the original game but only one or two ahead of its western debut, Animal Crossing: Wild World brought the social simulator to portable devices with a stellar Nintendo DS entry in 2005.
This was my personal entry point to the series and it remains a firm favourite for many fans, funnelling the charming gameplay into a bite-size package that naturally upped the ante when it comes to the cute factor.
Wild World was a useful escape vent from the anxieties of day to day life and introduced a few new mechanics, despite being a mostly incremental upgrade from the original. Most important was the introduction of multiplayer. Wild World was the first to leverage the power of Wi-Fi to allow players to visit each other’s homes and towns, with up to three friends able to run riot in your little patch of the world.
Wild World improved upon the character customization system and added considerable nuance to the villager AI, making interactions more personal and sentimental. The Nintendo DS stylus was a natural fit for inventory management and a host of new activities and tools like the Slingshot and Watering Can, gave players more reasons to keep up their repayments to Nook Enterprises. Of course, the introduction of multiplayer services to Animal Crossing did not arrive without some teething problems.
The most famous issue was known as the Red Tulip glitch, a failed gift from Nintendo that resulted in a corrupted letter and an item that, when placed in a house, would erect an illusory, impenetrable barrier which could block exits and potentially break the game. An apology for the grave mistake was issued shortly after via an in-game letter from Nintendo which was filled with a boon of bells. Oops! Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi service was taken down in 2014, leaving players trapped in time.
From the country to the city
Come 2008, the Animal Crossing series’ middle child arrived in City Folk, a bespoke entry for the Wii that felt a little out of place. City Folk developed upon Wild World’s commitment to multiplayer by leveraging the Nintendo Wii’s Wi-Fi capabilities to allow players to visit and explore towns together, drawing eternally inappropriate faces on Blanca, the terrifying mysterious cat who lacks a face. Seriously!
Unfortunately, none of the cute attempts at iteration in City Folk could pull people from the charm of Wild World”
City Folk also used the Wii Speak accessory to allow for robust voice communication when playing together and supported text chat via a keyboard peripheral. It was all fairly ambitious for the time, especially the in-game auction house which allows players to list and sell their items over the internet. However, when it came down to the actual game, the updates were even more incremental than Wild World and offered little in the way of new experiential gameplay.
There was some considerable whiplash to shift from the pocket-sized replayability of Wild World to the more sluggish Wii-based City Folk. Fans were used to being able to play the game on the move, so the switch back to console required some buy-in, and I personally just kept up with my outstanding DS debt instead of investing further in the Wii version. This was somewhat mitigated by the ability to graft your Wild World character into City Folk, but even then the benefits were spotty, and in my own experience, all of my friends were already too engaged with Wild World to care.
That’s the odd thing about Animal Crossing games – releasing them in a yearly cycle or too close to one another without meaningful changes is foolish. Given that the game has such an established and successful feedback loop, updates are bound to be incremental if the developers haven’t found a way to reinvent their approach. Players get sentimental about the friendly relationships they’ve fostered over the years, so getting them to pivot to a new discrete game is difficult without meaningful innovation.
There needs to be considerable distance to allow players to appreciate novel changes to the highly addicting feedback loop of kindness. In this case, the ‘city’ aspect of City Folk was already somewhat established in previous games – all it did was give you access to a few new stores, or rehashed tent shops you’d seen before in a disparate part of the map. One cool part of the game that has gone on to influence the rest of the series are the Distributed Items – means for Nintendo to gift players items based on seasonal events.
These included a GameCube dresser, a Cucumber Horse (don’t ask) and a hilarious promotional voting poster featuring everyone’s favourite grandpa turtle Tortimer, right on time for election season. Unfortunately, none of the cute attempts at iteration could pull people from the charm of Wild World, though it did go on to sell millions of copies regardless.
Turning a new leaf
After a hiatus of five years, Animal Crossing came back in 2013 to supplement the release of Nintendo’s popular portable, the 3DS. New Leaf was a natural fit right out of the gate – an iterative spiritual successor to the original portable powerhouse Wild World.
Crucially, it delivered on the promise of a true Animal Crossing sequel by adding tons of new features, including the ability to play a role in building new structures in your town to improve the life of your fellow villagers. This added responsibility and extra layer of systems in place could be seen as overwhelming by some, but New Leaf heaped on the charm to make up for getting in the way of the serenity that underpins Animal Crossing’s appeal.
It reworked City Folk’s town into a more reserved and manageable Main Street, introducing a gardening and shoe shop, new developments on Kapp’ns Island and of course, Club LOL, an entertainment venue where K.K Slider could sling his fire beats to animal patrons. The character of K.K is an Animal Crossing hero, a free spirit fighting against music corporations with his acoustic poetry. He’s based on Totaka Kazumi, the legendary sound designer responsible for Animal Crossing’s heartwarming score.
Players could also share patterns and visit the houses of their friends via the Dream Suite, alongside new villagers with a more diverse range of personalities. New Leaf’s cultural hegemony over the past near-decade has been persistently propped up by excellent memes and die-hard fans. A lot of the love from fans is afforded to Isabelle, the most important Shih Tzu in video game history who also happens to be the town mayor in New Leaf.
Isabelle would later go on to demolish countless video game icons in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate using her fishing rod and stylish presence alone. Speaking of in-game lore, Tom Nook’s sons Timmy and Tommy famously joined the family business in New Leaf, opening Nookling Junction as their dad steps out of the picture to manage his real estate empire. A magnate in the shadows – so it goes…
Diversifying Nook’s portfolio
Due to its undying popularity, instead of working on a new game for the Wii U, Nintendo revitalised New Leaf with the Welcome Amiibo update in 2016, which allowed players to use amiibo cards and Nintendo characters to unlock exclusive furniture items based on games like Splatoon and The Legend of Zelda. It was a good reason to return to your town if you weren’t still picking out weeds and delivering presents on a daily basis.
The spin-off years came quickly after the runaway success of New Leaf and resulted in a few interesting side games for fans who wanted to engage with the characters they’ve been bonded with in a different context.
The first was Happy Home Designer, a 3DS sidecar that built upon a hallmark of the series: interior design.
In HHD you step away from running the town and become an actual employee of Mr. Tom Nook, fulfilling build requests from villagers, attuning furniture sets to certain personality traits and learning to please friends with your trained sense of style. It retained the empathetic ethos of the series by focusing on helping others. It also used Nintendo’s wildly popular Amiibo technology to accrue new clients for Nook’s Homes.
Speaking to USGamer, the game’s director Aya Kyogoku said that the team “wanted the company to make Animal Crossing Amiibo, so that’s why we made a game that works with them,” and we thank Aya every day for her commitment. Without HHD we wouldn’t have our desks full of adorable animals!
Later in the same year came Amiibo Festival for the Wii U, a Mario Party spin off which featured many beloved characters. Unfortunately, despite some clever mini-games like the strategic Desert Island Escape, it wasn’t well received and ended up being a more successful vehicle for Amiibo figures.
Trying to turn Animal Crossing’s charming gameplay into a competitive board game led to a detached and unsatisfactory experience… where Mario Party succeeds by pumping out adrenaline and enabling healthy competition, Amiibo Festival was simply too charming and safe for its own good.
Nintendo’s pivot to mobile in the latter half of the past decade also gave rise to Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp in 2017, an attempt to port the game’s charm to mobile.
Whilst initially stoking excitement, opinion soured as players realised that it fell prey to some of the more predatory aspects of mobile gaming. The giant catalogue of furniture was inspired but the tasks needed to craft it were woefully mundane and required an incredible amount of patience.
Then came the Leaf Tickets, a randomised means to obtain unique furniture which could be purchased with cold hard cash. This shone a blinding light on Tom Nook’s capitalist ruse and unfortunately, the advent of microtransactions earned the game a bad reputation as it started to rely all too heavily on monetary investment from players. It turns out that Tom Nook’s cutesy grift is charming until it’s actively trying to rip pounds from your pocket…
An island getaway
After a ropey seven years of anguish where die-hard players have clung desperately to the charm of New Leaf, their prayers have finally been answered and a serious evolution is finally right around the corner. Animal Crossing: New Horizons will land on March 20th, 2020, the first meaningful entry in the series for the better part of a decade.
With a robust crafting system, hundreds of quality-of-life improvements and a developed character customization system, the game is riding high on the success of the Nintendo Switch, which like the DS and 3DS before it is hoping to prove itself as the perfect portable base for the daily routine of playing a game like Animal Crossing, which hasn’t fared so well on static consoles since the original GameCube release.
In a first for the series, up to eight players will be able to explore and mine an island for resources at one time, and the game will auto-save, which unfortunately relieves the beloved Mr. Resetti of his existential purpose. According to the developers, this won’t be the last we see of him in New Horizons, so we can expect the manic mole to pivot into a different role.
With the most advanced toolset yet, New Horizons planning to be the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate of Animal Crossing games, with a litany of systems and a cavalcade of charming characters. Let’s just hope too many additional systems don’t spoil the reserved charm of the gameplay loop we know and love. I think I speak for everyone when I say that it’s an island getaway that we could all really use right now!