Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing
U.S. Release Date: September 15, 2002
The GameCube Archives Score: 9.2/10.0

When I decided to dedicate a blog to GameCube reviews, and to refocus my retro gaming more on this poor square system I have long neglected, it was easy to decide which game I would tackle first--the one I was still playing. Admittedly, before last year, I hadn't touched Animal Crossing since 2003. My town data from that original file was long ago mysteriously erased, presumably by my sister's now ex-stepsons.  However, my son's Animal Crossing curiosity was recently piqued by Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, which features a character from Animal Crossing as an available fighter, as well as a game stage focused on the Animal Crossing world.  Eventually, I responded to his "What's Animal Crossing?" queries by dusting off my poor, forgotten GameCube, and popping in the old Animal Crossing miniDVD. More than a year later, we are still playing it.
Animal Crossing is the kind of game where you never die, or receive a game over. It begins with a train ride where you name your character, decide their gender, and name the town you are visiting. The train arrives in that town, and you, a human of whichever gender you chose, hop off to start a new life.
The town, populated by various clothes-wearing, talking animals, will have a random layout, but will always be located in a coastal countryside, with a Post Office, General Store, Museum, Wishing Well, Sewing Shop, Light House, Beach, and Town Dump, and bisected by a river that leads to a pond, that drains to the sea.
Once you're off the train, you find that the town General Store owner, Tom Nook, can offer you a small home, but that you will have to work for him for a short while, to help pay it off. Once you complete his short list of odd jobs, which include planting flowers and trees around his store, delivering several items to people in town, and introducing yourself to all of the town's citizens and its wizened turtle mayor, you are free to do whatever you want.

I wish my real-life town had a wizened turtle mayor.

This short portion of the game works as a subtle tutorial. From here, the player's options open up in almost unlimited directions. Want to make your house bigger? Sell shells, catch and sell fish or bugs, pick and sell fruit--the methods of making a profit in Animal Crossing are near limitless. You can continuously pay Nook for a house upgrade until you're eventually living in a mansion--and he expands his store accordingly!
Want to focus on friendships with the townspeople? Talk to them every day, do favors for them, and write them letters. The better off your town is, the more animals will flock to it. While only fifteen villagers can live in a town at a time,  the game makers created over 200 different animals, with differing personalities. If one of your town's villagers feels neglected, or succumbs to wanderlust, they'll move out, and another animal will take their place.
Of course, the player may not care about making friends or being personal--Animal Crossing has plenty of room for digital introverts. The town's museum contains a respective room for insects, fish, painting, and fossils. At the start of the game, these are all empty. Guess who gets to fill them? The player can dig fossils from the ground, and search for paintings at the town store or through trading--they can also catch fish and insects, but fish and insects are seasonal. This means that certain species of the dozens present in the game can only be caught during certain times of year, and at certain times of day.

The day I caught this frog will live in infamy.

Collecting doesn't just pertain to these museum items (all of which can also be sold in the town store for a profit). Tom Nook offers different items everyday, including carpet, wallpaper, furniture, and appliances. As your house grows in size, you can customize it with these items. You can also trade for rarer ones, or visit one of the town's myriad traveling salesman to get rarer items. To get even more rare ones, you can patiently wait for one of the game's many holidays. While such Western mainstays as Halloween and Christmas are present, and feature the whole town celebrating, the game features holidays unique to Animal Crossing, as well, like harvest day, and the cherry blossom festival, along with many others.
These, and all of the seasonal fish and insects are possible because of the game's real time clock. Whatever time and date you have set in your GameCube's internal clock is the time and date in Animal Crossing. Therefore, the sun rises and sets as it does in real life, and early-riser villagers are out and about in the AM, while late-rising ones wander around the village at night. Open your real life Christmas presents, then fire up your GameCube, and open the digital ones you received on Animal Crossing--because if you've set your GameCube to the correct date, it's Christmas in your village, too. The weather is seasonal, as well, with the grass browning in fall, snow falling, and coating the ground in winter, grass coming to life and trees blossoming pink in spring (amidst frequent rain), and everything looking green and vibrant in summer.
This all comes together to create an addictive atmosphere, with gameplay changing daily. While Animal Crossing rarely makes for sessions of over an hour at a time, one could certainly play for 30-minutes every day for years, and never have the same experience twice. With all the house decorating options, and the ability to plant flowers and trees all over town--including fruit trees planted from rarer fruit that must also be collected--as well as the power to chop down unwanted trees, and pull up unwanted plants, the player can makeover their house and town to their heart's delight.

I wish the people in my real-life town would erect igloos in winter. Also, I wish my real-life town experienced a winter.

Lest I forget, you can also customize your villager's wardrobe. In addition to clothing designs for sale at Nook's store, the player can design their own with the versatile designing tool at the town tailoring shop. This design, of which many can be saved, can even be applied to carpet, wallpaper, clothing or your umbrella...because yes, this game even has customizable umbrellas.
Surely, this would have been enough gameplay for any other developer, but Animal Crossing was developed directly by the creatively restless Nintendo.  Therefore, the game expands when additional players and/or accessories are added. Astute players will immediately notice that Tom Nook built four houses in the town square the player moves into. That leaves three for up to three other players, who can join in as three new human villagers on the same game file.  Back in the day, those three players were my brother and two cousins who were often over, resulting in not only a livelier town, but the option to give and sell items to each other (of course, only one can play at a time!). Or, say another friend has Animal Crossing, and has created their own town on their own memory card. Snag that friend's memory card, put it in your GameCube's second memory slot (with your memory card in the first), and you can visit their town. Different towns feature completely different layouts, different indigenous fruit, different items at Tom Nook's store, and of course, different animal villagers.
Have two memory cards of your own? Create a second town of your own, and your villager can bounce back and forth between both. You'll even start to see some of your villagers move to the second town, and some second towners move to your first. But why stop at two towns? You could technically make an infinite amount of towns with an infinite amount of memory cards.
But wait, there's more!

This penguin is quite aware of my long-winded bloviating.

Of course, Nintendo would also want to stretch their "communication game" beyond basic GameCube Hardware. Using a Game Boy Advance Cable, your GameCube can communicate with your Game Boy Advance, unlocking and allowing the player to venture to their own town island on the GameCube. The island layout is randomized just as each town's is, but every island includes a beach house, customizable island flag, new fruit, and one of 18 possible islanders--that's right, 18 unique characters who only live on the island, in their own home. The island effectively gives you a second house to customize, and a new neighbor to either befriend or torment. I did not exercise this facet of the game the first time through, but I did this time with my son, and it opened up the world of the game even more--especially when we visited the island on the second town we created and realized there were still 16 characters we could not meet. Visiting the island also opens up a simple, but enjoyable mini-game, playable on your Game Boy Advance when you leave the island on your GameCube. In addition to the island, there is also the option to make clothing designs directly on your Game Boy Advance with the Game Boy Advance cable, using the same tools offered at the tailoring shop.
Again, this would be enough, but for the obsessive, there's an even deeper (and for obsessive collectors, very dangerous) rabbit hole in which to dive: eReader cards. The Game Boy Advance features an obscure and little-used accessory called an eReader. This allows collectable physical cards to be scanned, which then "downloads" additional items or information into your game. Animal Crossing is one of the few games to utilize the device, and by utilize, I mean that Nintendo produced nearly 400 Animal Crossing eReader cards, which could be purchased in four-card packs for several dollars, and can now be purchased on online auction sites like eBay for several dollars a card. Every in-game character has a card, which can be scanned to receive a unique letter and gift from that character--and some of these gifts are only attainable through eReader cards. Some of these cards contain unique designs, only available through the cards (or I guess, if you have insane skills, you could make the designs in the in-game tailor shop). These include some really cool-Nintendo-centric artwork, like an 8-bit Mario and Link, which you can plaster on your clothes or home (in the game, of course).

Okay, penguin, that's enough out of you!

Then there are the town-tune cards, which allow the player to download a unique town tune for the town music board. I forgot to mention the music board, but this is another awesome element of the game, as the player can write their own short melody, played by the bell-clanging town clock every hour, and as an intro for each character the player encounters--and each in that respective character's unique voice! Many of these melodies are taken from songs played by town troubadour, KK Slider, one of my favorite elements of the game--KK visits your town every Saturday night, and plays one of his many, many songs, which can then be loaded into your in-game home music player, and listened to any time the player wants. "Getting KK's song" has become a Saturday ritual in my home, and after a year, we still haven't gotten them all. This is one of my favorite elements of the game, and speaking of...
There are also a few eReader cards that contain NES games. Yes, full NES games, which you can play in your real-life home through your in-game home anytime you desire--but thankfully, like KK's songs, you don't have to have an eReader to acquire these NES games (of which there are more than a dozen!). They can be won in Tom Nook's monthly raffle, purchased from one of the town's wandering salesman, received as a gift during a holiday--no eReader needed!. Also, in one of Animal Crossing's myriad secrets, you can give Tom Nook a special code (easily procured online) to receive these NES games, which include Donkey Kong,  Excitebike, Tennis, and PunchOut (which requires some memory card-swapping acrobatics) among many others. Nintendo not only gave players a great game with Animal Crossing, featuring an exhaustible amount of features, but included these awesome games from its storied history for free! Considering the fact that these games are currently sold in Nintendo's eShop (if you are reading this in the 2010's) for money, the value found in an Animal Crossing miniDVD is incredible.

IGrunci will rise.

There are even more facets of gameplay that I'll leave to the reader to discover, but is all this gameplay worth it when Animal Crossing, a GameCube game, is just visually a port of a Japanese Nintendo 64 game?
It's true, Animal Crossing was actually initially released on the Nintendo 64 in Japan, late in the console's life cycle--too late to make porting it to the N64 in America profitable. This is why the game was instead released in America for GameCube. However, on a gameplay level, so many additions were made for this American GameCube version, the game was then RE-PORTED to Japan on the GameCube to take advantage of them. Still, these are just Nintendo 64 graphics with the blurriness cleared up. They are nothing you would ever want to showcase the GameCube's incredible-for-its-time hardware on, but at the same time, they aren't exactly an eyesore. The art, character, and town design are simple, but truthfully, the game as it is does not demand more from them. They work, even if they do nothing, and I mean nothing, spectacular.
Music is very central to the game, however. While the audio-quality is obviously nowhere near orchestral standards, the game's compositions are lovely. There is a different theme for every hour of the day (9 PM, FTW!), the music relaxing and simple, but not boring. Animal Crossing also features a memorable main motif that is featured in several of the game's hourly themes, but it is never run into the ground. The game's piano-based opening title music is also iconic, reminiscent of Vince Guaraldi.
Finally, the aforementioned KK songs are sung in his hilarious dog-annunciation, but when the recordings he gives you afterward are placed in your game house's sound-system, the arrangements are different, and definitely upgraded (KK Crusin, FTW!), especially if you've purchased a high-end stereo from Nook instead of a raggedy boombox. As far as sound effects go, atmospheric effects, like water flowing and bugs buzzing are just fine. The animal villagers themselves speak in a humorous, sped-up phonetic English that fits the game surprisingly well. Also, you can collect various musical instruments--play them in your home, and they play the town theme you've composed...and if your stereo is playing, they'll be on rhythmic time with whatever song is playing. You can also dig up and collect buried sound-making statues called gyroids. There are dozens of different types, named after the type of noise they emit, and they "sing" along with whatever song you've chosen, as well.
Speaking of gyroids, the player receives his own personal one that lives outside his house, and saves the player's progress (among other actions). There is also a game character solely dedicated to lecturing the player who turns off his game if they forget to save--just another one of the game's countless extra details. As I ramble on-and-on, I am realizing just how much thought and care Nintendo gave to this game.
Obviously, with this much to do, Animal Crossing can eat a lot of time. If you don't mind a game where you kill nothing (except unfortunate trees and flowers), and are never killed, you could feasibly play Animal Crossing forever. The simple fact that my 7-year old still demands that we cue it up daily, despite the fact that we've been playing it for over a year, and despite the fact that he is surrounded by much more technologically advanced offerings, is proof that for a dedicated audience, Animal Crossing has something to offer for quite some time...maybe forever.
Thanks, GameCube!

These are upscaled Nintendo 64 graphics, though they aren't an eyesore--in the simplistic style presented, the town and its citizens don't look all that bad, but they also don't push the GameCube's advanced hardware in any way.
Music and Sound
Animals speak in cute, sped-up "computer reading English phonetically" voices, over some classic, chill Nintendo tunes and immersive sound effects.
A big town to explore, experience, and make-over, along with an upgradeable house, and tasks and animal friends galore, all expandable by additional memory cards, a Game Boy Advance, and an E-Reader.
Lasting Value
You could play this game for an hour a day for years.


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