Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Luigi's Mansion

Lugi's Mansion
U.S. Release Date: November 18, 2001
The GameCube Archives Score: 7.8/10

I've never been the type of person to buy three or four games in a month. That's because a. I've never really been the kind of person to have enough money to buy three or four games a month, and b. I am so OCD, I have to milk a game dry before I get to another's udders.
In regard to a., video games used to cost about $70, and my childhood allowance was $3 a week. This meant it took me six months to save up for one...and you can bet, when I bought Ducktales for NES, I played Ducktales for NES until I could beat it blindfolded with my ears plugged.
As for b., let's just say A Link to the Past never left my SNES until I had every heart, and Chrono Trigger until all my characters were sitting at level double-star (these are two affectations I've lost with time...I finally hit middle-class paydirt, and the ridiculous amount of time a modern game takes to complete has destroyed my desire to 100% every game I play).
The GameCube launched on November 18. 2001. I was so broke at the time, I wasn't even paying attention to release dates. On 11/17/01, on the way to see Monsters, Inc. with some friends, I saw a line outside the local Walmart. I hopped out of the car to ask this mass of strangers what they were doing.
"Dude, the GameCube is coming out at midnight!" they answered.
I'll just start posting pictures of the game now, so I can pretend like I have actually started reviewing it.
The GameCube. An item I once anticipated. Unfortunately, on 11/17/01, I had $10 in my college sophomore bank account, not enough to buy a GameCube (or basic groceries...I lived off of wheat bread and Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls that year). However, at that moment, I knew that at midnight, I absolutely had to get a GameCube.
I thought hard for where I could get some quick cash. It was 7 pm, so I needed this cash to be really quick. Suddenly, while looking at the name of the store I stood before, and remembering I once worked there (not the same location) in high school, an idea formed in my mind: Walmart gives its employees company stock. In high school, I worked at Walmart. I never pulled out my stock. Walmart owes me some money.
I found an old information card in my wallet, and called, asking that all of my stock money be immediately transferred to my meagre bank account. There was just enough money now to cover a GameCube, one game, and sales tax. I chose Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader for my game, and I picked a black GameCube. What a great night.
Er...sorry. Luigi.
Of course, that used up my funds for months. A few weeks later, a friend gave me Super Monkey Ball(A fun game I need to review). I used some Christmas funds to get Super Smash Bros. Melee (another fun game I need to review...I hear it's still popular). For the foreseeable future, my video gaming was covered.
The GameCube launched with 12 games, and up until a few months ago, the only two of the twelve I'd played were Rogue Leader (hey, I should review you, too, Rogue Leader) and Monkey Ball. Of course, on that late 2001 night, I also saw Luigi's Mansion next to the other launch games, but it looked very kiddie, and reviews were lukewarm. I gave it a hard pass.
However, over the years, people seem to remember Luigi's Mansion fondly. It's even become a franchise, if you consider two games over 17 years a franchise. As I dive deeper into and come back to GameCube's library, Luigi's Mansion seems like a great place to visit.
Except for this room...this room looks pretty scary.
One thing is immediately apparent upon firing up Luigi's Mansion--the developers really nailed a spooky atmosphere. Not like, terrifying to where you can't sleep, but enough to where my kid said, "This game is creepy." While the graphics are fairly simplistic, and clearly from the GameCube's first days, the game makers did a great job using lighting to full affect. Dark rooms are momentarily lit by lightning. Luigi's flashlight casts creepy shadows all over the place. Ghosts fade in and out of rooms.
The story utilizing this atmosphere is classic Nintendo simplicity. Luigi gets a letter in the mail congratulating him on his new mansion. He visits and realizes that the mansion is severely haunted, and that his brother, and general Nintendo protagonist, Mario, has been kidnapped. Luigi is given a ghost-sucking vacuum from the local spectral scientist, and tasked with eradicating the ghosts, and rescuing Mario.
All while being extremely terrified.
I don't know what got into Nintendo in the early 00's, but for some reason, they really got into putting vacuum cleaning backpacks on the Mario Brothers. Between this and Super Mario Sunshine, it's easy to forget that the only two actions the duo used to be capable of are "jump" and "run." In Luigi's Mansion, the titular hero can do neither. On a fictional level, you can thank the nutty Professor E. Gadd for providing Luigi with the Poltergust 3000 vacuum (he also created Mario Sunshine's F.L.U.D.D. system, making the link between the two games explicit), and on a reality level, you can thank early 00's Nintendo, whose for-better-or-worse restless creativity also caused Zelda to become a cell-shaded, ocean-borne cartoon, and Nintendo games to come on a mini-disc instead of the then ubiquitous compact disc...and also caused them to create a purple console in the shape of a small  cube. Yes, the GameCube-era is different, indeed.
Whatever the cause, Luigi's limited abilities are initially a bit frustrating. However, after the player finally comes to terms with the fact that Luigi can neither run, nor jump, the control scheme (which has two optional layouts) becomes intuitive. Luigi can walk in any direction in a top-down perspective, shake or pick up certain objects he finds, and vacuum. He's also got a flashlight for freezing ghosts in their tracks, and a camera humorously titled the "Game Boy Horror," which allows the player to look around 360 degrees, zoom in on objects, and perhaps detect one of the myriad ghosts' weaknesses. While the mechanic for vacuuming ghosts is simple, a bit of directional joystick toggling, the method for actually ensnaring them in the Poltergust's pull is a bit more complex...yes, classic Nintendo.
Often, the ghosts are between spectral and human planes, and the player's got to solve some type of room-based puzzle (i.e. lighting candles) or deduce the respective ghost's weakness (i.e., sucking up the food they were eating) in order to trap them in the Poltergust's flow. You can also earn some additional Poltergust powers, allowing you to shoot fire, ice, and water from it.
This being Nintendo, once a ghost is removed from his treasured room, the lights come on (satisfyingly revealing the rooms' intricate details), and an additional challenge is issued. Once the lights come on, the player earns the ability to catch that room's Boo. Boos are the classic round white Nintendo ghost, contrasting with the game's highly detailed original ghosts. These Boos must be collected to proceed further into the house, which has many rooms and multiple floors, each guarded by a unique boss, defeated in unique battles.
Not so bad in the light.
Again, if all of this sounds like classic Nintendo, it is. Take a simple concept, and allow that concept before unseen depth as the game progresses. Incorporate progression-allowing collection into the gameplay so that the player barely notices they are collecting something. Nintendo wrote the book on this. However, like most of Nintendo's franchise games from the GameCube era, Luigi's Mansion has some cracks in the foundation, in this case, slightly more noticeable ones that its brethren have.
For one, the game feels ramshackle at times...the rooms, while incredibly satisfying to gain access to and reveal, aren't laid out in the most intuitive way. While the player is given a map, the backtracking between floors becomes tiresome. This rears itself ugliest after a game is saved, and the GameCube turned off...because no matter where the player saves, they always afterward start in the mansion's lobby. The gameplay itself also lacks that certain Nintendo polish--there are many portions of Luigi's Mansion where it is impossible to not get hit, and Luigi's power meter is depleted through no fault of the player (he can collect scattered hearts to refill it). The way ghost bombs and other harmful objects bounce toward Luigi while he is being wraithfully tormented, coupled with Luigi's ungainly movements to escape damage, feel uncharacteristically sloppy for Nintendo.
But not as sloppy as this ghost granny's knitting.
While these issues may stop me from giving Mansion a high score, they don't totally hinder the game from being enjoyable. The fun, creepy atmosphere, coupled with Nintendo's trademarked goofy humor is a definite bonus. Certain elements, like a frightened, teeth-chattering Luigi humming along to the game's music, are charming on a level only Nintendo can access. Encountering each new and diverse ghost and room is exciting (the music room, observatory...and bathroom were my personal favorites), and turning the lights on after vanquishing ghosts to reveal the rooms' details and colors is truly thrilling. The sound effects are a pitch perfect balance of 70's horror film (minor graphical details, like Frankenstein movie posters, enhance that vibe) and Saturday morning cartoon. The music is a strange mix of orchestral elements and funk, which mostly works, and is truly oddball for a Nintendo-developed game.
Really, Luigi's Mansion, like nearly all of Nintendo's first party efforts for the GameCube, is an oddball. While this may not have always resulted in immediately satisfying gaming experiences, these games have stood the test of time--a classic doesn't have to be perfect, or even great. It just has to be fun.

Simple, but not necessarily ugly, with some nice details, and good spooky, yet cartoony atmosphere.
Music and Sound
It's weird, but it fits.
Truly genre-busting gameplay (is it an adventure...a puzzle game...a vacuuming simulator?) that doesn't always work, but is an overall enjoyable experience.
Lasting Value
You can collect in-game money to get a better picture of a house at the end...otherwise, it's about 15-20 hours, and you're done.


Monday, November 27, 2017

Star Fox: Assault

Star Fox: Assault
U.S. Release Date: February 14, 2005
The GameCube Archives Score: 7.5/10

Star Fox's 2002 GameCube debut, Star Fox Adventures, received considerable flak for being called "Star Fox," and not containing a plethora of space battles. Indeed, the game is not a third-person spacecraft shooter, but a streamlined, on-foot 3-D adventure game, with several brief, tacked on space-shooter segments. On the grounds that a Star Fox game is supposed to contain...not a whole lot of ground, Star Fox Adventures is a great failure. On the grounds of Star Fox Adventures simply being a video game, it is pretty good. No matter to the masses, though...Star Fox Adventures was predominately dismissed as not a real Star Fox game (fair enough, unless one considers the game's protagonist is Star Fox), and a Zelda knock-off (fair enough, if one considers the only criteria for "Zelda knock-off" as a 3rd person game not called Zelda, where you do stuff). Fans of the series and Nintendo in general asked for a more traditional Star Fox game, and nearly three years later, by way of Namco, their wish was granted...with conditions.

Yes, Slippy, the review is beginning, I didn't ask for commentary.

Star Fox: Assault, Star Fox Adventures' GameCube successor, is a return to combat-based gameplay. However, that gameplay does not take place entirely from the confines of a spacefighter cockpit. Roughly half of the game features space-based dogfights, sometimes on a fixed path, sometimes with full freedom of movement. These portions feel great, like Star Fox 64 on steroids, with better graphics, and a fully orchestrated soundtrack. The controls for these segments are intuitive, based on the schemes from previous Star Fox games. Barrel rolls and loops are just as easy and satisfying to perform, as well. Even the laser upgrades and bombs are the same. A game based entirely on this play style may have simply been a retread, but it would have been a highly enjoyable one.
However, retread is not something in which the creators of Star Fox: Assault were interested.

Yes, Fox, there are unwanted elements in the game discussed ahead. Again, you chatty anthropomorphic space pilots, I did not ask for commentary.

The other half of the game is split between on-foot shooting action and tank-based combat. Star Fox 64 featured some fun tank missions (and an awesome submarine one!), with controls diverting little from the space-fighter missions. Star Fox: Assault's tank-based missions don't connect as well. The controls are surprisingly clunky, with hovering and turning being a surprising pain. The control scheme isn't intuitive, and I found myself forgetting it sometimes in the middle of gameplay. The controls for the on-foot missions are a bit better, but those stages are largely unremarkable, and not all that fun. Star Fox running around on the ground in combat boots is far less incredible than Star Fox firing lasers from his Arwing space-fighter while doing barrel rolls.

That's not a knock on Fox's boots, though, which are both fashionable and functional.

A few missions give the player the choice between all three play styles. Flying is always preferable, even in the some of the less expansive, tight-quartered non-fixed path stages. Flying is always preferable, period.
It's almost like the developers heard players' complaints, decided to give them what they wanted, but got bored doing so. With the clumsy controls, the on-foot and tank-based portions feel as tacked on as the Arwing segments did in Star Fox Adventures, but those were about 3% of that game--the on-foot and tank-based parts are half of this one! Then, there's the fact that Star Fox: Assault only has ten levels, the least of any Star Fox game I can remember. This makes the game feel even more rushed. The development team would have been better off focusing all of their efforts on a space-fighter game, or taking more time to get the balance right between the three play styles they eventually decided to go with. Then again, the Wii came out 21 months later...maybe they just wanted to get this out on the shelves.
So with that said, is it worth seeking out this game?

Get it, it's an asteroid field with a bunch of stuff hidden in it...like is it worth seeking out this game, amid a field of other games? Shutup Fox and Slippy! ...You're obvious!

Yes, for multiple reasons.
Those space-fighter missions are a lot of fun, and many are multi-tiered, at least stretching out the gameplay time by a little bit.
This particular Star Fox outing is more story-based and cinematic than previous iterations, and even manages to work some emotion into the ending.
The graphics, while not on the level of say, Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, are bright, colorful, and detailed.
The soundtrack, an orchestral take on previous themes, with some new pieces thrown in, is excellent, if a little over-compressed. It reminds me of Christmas.
Sound effects are crisp (nice explosions!), and the voice acting is plentiful and solid...though I miss the British guy struggling to give Fox an American accent from Star Fox Adventures.
The team aspect of the game is well done, with Fox often tasked with rescuing his less-skilled CPU teammates...usually, the reliably incompetent Slippy Toad.

This game is very progressive, allowing the female, Krystal, to suck just as badly at flying as the male, Slippy. 

Several characters are carried over from Star Fox Adventures, and the previous game's world gets a visit, a nice gift to fans of that game. Also, players can re-attempt levels for higher scores on higher difficulties to earn some pretty cool bonuses. And finally, the game runs smoothly, the framerate rarely experiencing a hiccup, even when there are a ton of enemies, laser shots, and explosions on screen.
Lastly..."lastly" because I already said "finally," there's a split-screen death-match multiplayer mode--however, it's not going to set the world on fire. Just like Star Fox 64's completely superfluous multiplayer option, you're lucky to even run into your opponents, let alone get a chance to blow them out of the sky...or off the ground. Increasing the amount of players to four helps the cause, but not by much.

Hey, man, so uh, I guess I'll run into you at some point. I think you're below me. Just stay there, okay. This could be our only chance to shoot at one another.

Star Fox games are released once in a blue moon--the next console Star Fox game following Star Fox: Assault was released 11 years afterward! This one isn't perfect, but fans of the series can't afford to pass it up. If you're not a fan...there are better games, but if you dig action, Star Fox: Assault is at least worth a try.

Smooth moving, brightly colored, detailed graphics, though not quite pushing the GameCube to the peak of its powers.
Music and Sound
Great, if overly-compressed orchestral renditions of classic Star Fox music, and some excellent new compositions, coupled with spot-on sound effects, and well-done voice-acting.
When it's inside the cockpit of a starfighter, it's golden...when it's Fox clumsily driving a tank, or trying to weld a machine gun while prancing around on his paws, not so much.
Lasting Value
Main mission is surprisingly short, though high-score and additional difficulty level challenges yield enticing bonuses. Multiplayer is a non-starter.


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Star Fox Adventures

Star Fox Adventures
U.S. Release Date: September 23, 2002
The GameCube Archives Score: 8.0/10

I remember telling someone in the late 90's, "I'll take Nintendo and Rare over Sony and Squaresoft." I said this from a place of deep, Nintendo-fan pain, as I tried to console myself for the fact that the company who had  once made so many treasured games for Nintendo was then working exclusively for Sony. The only relief from this pain was the fact that Rare, a video game developer who seemed to pump out awesome titles such as Goldeneye and Banjo Kazooie like clockwork, was exclusive to Nintendo. And then, in the strange new world of post 9/11, they weren't. Nintendo sold Rare to Microsoft. Star Fox Adventures would be Rare's first game for the Nintendo GameCube...and their last game for Nintendo.

Who needs development studios, anyway, amirite?

And yet, shockingly, this isn't the only controversy surrounding Star Fox Adventures. The game actually began its life as Dinosaur Planet, a game in development for the Nintendo 64, which had nothing to do with Star Fox. It was changed to a Star Fox title at Nintendo's request, and eventually cancelled for the Nintendo 64 so that it could become a launch game for the upcoming GameCube. Many players were not only angered by the change--Rare suddenly having creative control snatched by Nintendo after so many years of great work--but by Rare's sale to Microsoft. On top of all of that, the first two Star Fox games were space shooters, but this was going to be a land-based adventure game! Reception to Star Fox Adventures unfairly suffered, and a meme that the game was nothing but a Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time clone, didn't help. I don't remember if any of these factors influenced me to completely ignore Star Fox Adventures' existence for nearly fifteen full years after its release date. Maybe I just didn't play it because of my neglect for my GameCube in general. Whatever the reason, I've played it now. Did it deserve all that vitriol?

"Hey, this doesn't look like space! This game must suck!"

SPOILER ALERT: Star Fox Adventures is a completely harmless game.
While the story might have worked better in its original, Star Fox-free state, it works just fine with Fox McCloud and friends tagging along. It's not like this is some complex, Shakespearean plot. There's a planet full of talking dinosaurs divided into tribes, and that planet has split apart due to the machinations of some sharp-teethed bad guys. The bad guys have also kidnapped a planet guardian named Krystal. Fox and his crew show up to set things right...and that's about it.
If anything, the story benefits from the humor of a fish-out-of-water "I'm in a hurry" Fox McCloud stuck dealing with a bunch of chilled-out dinosaurs. Fox is often humorously short and rude, and the fact that he is voiced by a Brit, faking an American accent, makes it even better. The game gives Fox a kid Triceratops sidekick named Prince Tricky, and I've heard that some people hate Prince Tricky, but those guys need to lighten up, because he had my seven year-old in stitches for the duration of the game.

I just cannot abide a triceratops sidekick in my game about an anthropomorphic space fox who can talk and fly a spaceship.

Rather than inflict the rest of the Star Fox crew on Dinosaur Planet's populace, favorites like Slippy and Peppy offer advice from the orbiting Great Fox starship. Honestly, this is comfort food for the long time Nintendo fan, and I'm not sure why anyone today would have a problem with it. Star Fox Adventures doesn't change the world, but it is quite fun, and a great technical display of the GameCube's graphical and musical capabilities.
First, it's bright and beautiful, full of color. Fox's fully-animated fur looks great, 15 years later. The dinosaur denizens are finely detailed and move well, including those on the opposite end of a Starfox beatdown. Graphical slowdown rarely if ever occurs. The environments aren't huge, but the interconnectedness of the game's diverse world is impressive, featuring all the grasslands, swamps, magma-drowned valleys, and snowy hills one would expect from a game of this sort. There are even a few graphical curveballs, like a smoky, crater-pocked moon-like area, and a palace full of columns of quivering water. Overall, this is quite a nice looking game, featuring some of the better visuals the GameCube has to offer, particularly amongst its sunnier, brighter games.

Don't go chasing them, Fox. I have heard that is inadvisable. The rivers and lakes you are used to are more recommendable.

From an audio standpoint, Star Fox Adventures contains a great surprise: a David Wise-composed soundtrack. Wise composed much of the much heralded, much beloved soundtracks for the Donkey Kong Country series, and while this particular score isn't among his best work, it's still a solid, enjoyable musical experience. The Star Fox Adventures soundtrack is less percussive and atmospheric than Wise's Donkey Kong work, displaying some world music and African influence, with some light, upbeat chanting thrown in from time to time. My only beef with the game's score is the brevity of the tracks, though I am noticing this trend as I go through most of the GameCube's catalogue--perhaps this is a result of the GameCube mini-disc's lower memory capacity? Like, for instance, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, tracks rarely top the two-minute mark before they loop.
Star Fox Adventures is fully voice-acted, and while some might find the character speech a little hokey, I enjoyed it. The voices highlight Rare's UK roots, with dinosaur voices ranging from posh British, to a thick Scottish brogue, while Fox and his crew speak in American accents. I particularly enjoy Fox's slightly rude, "I'm in a hurry" tone, particularly as he sounds like a Brit, struggling with a "cool American accent," ala Jax from Sons of Anarchy. Also, all of the normal atmospheric effects; water running, wind blowing, footsteps, monster yells, and explosions are immersive, and as they should be.
Star Fox Adventures' gameplay is where all the controversy falls. This is only the third game in the Star Fox series, but by the initial fan reaction, you'd think it had a three-decade history that was being violated. Yes, this is primarily a 3D, third-person adventure game. It does contains some spaceship on-rails shooter action, but those segments are brief, and simplistic.  However, it is unfair to review anything through the lens of what you wish it would be. You must review what it actually is. Star Fox Adventures is a very competently made 3D adventure, with tight controls, and some truly challenging puzzles.  It is not insanely difficult, yet it doesn't hold your hand, and you will, unless you are some kind of gaming savant, die a few times.

But not on the short, ridiculously easy Arwing sections, where you will only die if you go to pee, and forget to pause.

The controls are Zelda-inspired to the extent that the game is in 3D, and you can lock on to enemies. There are only so many ways to configure controls in a game like this, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is one of the most influential games of all time. Of course any 3D adventure worth its salt is going to take a page from it. Contrary to popular opinion, though, Star Fox Adventures is not a direct Zelda rip-off. It is inspired by Zelda, and that's it. Star Fox runs around with a fighting staff, learning new attack moves, and picking up items that help him to progress. As he attempts to save the dinosaurs' planet, he'll fight bad guys hand-to-hand, solve various conundrums, like crate and switch puzzles, and even race vehicles, and shoot down enemies while riding on dinosaur backs. In this way, the gameplay is actually a bit more diverse than Ocarina, though more streamlined, with a plot and path that is more linear. Star Fox Adventures stays fresh throughout its 15-20 hours runtime, though, with each gameplay element not quite overstaying its welcome before the game moves on to something else. Most importantly, Star Fox Adventures is fun.

Especially this leaf-raking portion.

It has just enough sense of discovery, and performing combos while wailing on bad guys with Fox's staff is a blast. Utilizing Fox's sidekick, Prince Tricky, to stand on switches and burn through briars is enjoyable, unless you are a cynical and cold-hearted jerk who hates joy. The control scheme, as it's influenced by Zelda, is intuitive, and the game's camera, generally the bane of these types of game's existence, never gets out of hand.
I think 20 hours completion time for a 3D adventure game is the sweetspot, but I am an old curmudgeon who is frequently confused when I'm told about modern releases, "It's really boring until you get about 20 hours in," I'm told about many modern games. That's nuts. There are too many games in existence to play each one for 300 hours apiece...unless the game is Breath of the Wild, in which case, I am sorry for being a huge hypocrite. Star Fox Adventures takes between 15-20 hours to finish, and once I gunned down the final boss, I felt neither tired of the game, nor shortchanged by a too brief experience. There is no multiplayer, and the game isn't really set up for you to go back and rediscover secrets and collectibles--it really is quite a linear experience. The hub area does include a store run by a delightfully cranky proprietor, but there aren't really many extraneous objects to purchase with the game's easily acquirable currency, though an offered in-store mini-game is continuously entertaining, mainly because it is fun to get one over on old Grumpy Pants. His name is actually just "Shop Keeper," but I like Grumpy Pants better, mainly because, ironically, the Shop Keeper doesn't wear any pants...though he does creepily wear a tunic.

One of the few collectibles is a cheat which makes the game's subtitles look like gibberish. You may want to pass on that.

If you're a fan of the Star Fox world, but not extremely anal about which gameplay style is featured within it, you should give Star Fox Adventures a spin--likewise, if you're a fan of early 00's 3D adventure games, or adventure games in general. With so much talk focused on what it is not, and less on what it actually is, I'll go as far as to say Star Fox Adventures is one of the Nintendo GameCube's hidden gems, though I'd stop short of calling it a classic. If you go into it with fair expectations, Star Fox Adventures will treat you fairly...er, now back to Breath of the Wild. I still have 500 more shrines to find.

Follow me, Tricky, I think Breath of the Wild is this way.

Bright, polished looking game, high in detail, but moves smoothly.
Music and Sound
Good David Wise soundtrack, some enjoyable voice acting, and fitting sound effects.
3D adventuring that works, even though it won't set the world on fire.
Lasting Value
Lasts just as long as it should, then it's done. Few extra items and cheats to collect, and no multiplayer.


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.