Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Animal Crossing (Gamecube Review)

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.


Friday, February 24, 2017

Rediscovering the Nintendo Gamecube

As far as inanimate objects go, there aren't many things I love more than video games. I'll never forget being woken up from a childhood nap early one afternoon by the bloops and bleeps of my father's Atari 2600. I knew as soon as I saw him taking out the colorful bricks of Breakout that I had found my thing. As the 2600 waned, I asked for a Nintendo, saved my money a few years later for a Super Nintendo, bought my cousin's recently released Nintendo 64 a few years after that. While I remained loyal to Nintendo, I vastly enjoyed Sega's output (I've got all their systems but the Saturn), and even enjoyed some Playstation. I waited in line on November 17th, 2001, til midnight at the Siegen Lane Wal-Mart, to buy the new Nintendo Gamecube on release night (I also went on a ten-mile hike and saw Monsters, Inc. in the theater earlier that day--it was an all-time great one!).
However, something strange happened to me during the George W Bush administration--for a short time, I fell out of love with video games.
I don't know what it was. I can't blame getting married, or having a child (if anything, having a child is what brought me back to them!). It started with some kind of general malaise I picked up in in college. It started, unfortunately, during the tenure of the Nintendo Gamecube.
I did have some genuinely great experiences with the Gamecube, but compared to those experiences I had on previous systems, they were few and far between. During the Gamecube's run (2001-2007), I only played through seven games, with short, incomplete runs on a handful of others. When Gamecube was discontinued, I didn't even buy a Wii. I skipped that entire generation of systems. It was only about five years ago that my passion for video games reignited. I then gave much love to my Nintendo 64, the system I had the most games for. I also played the heck out of my Dreamcast. However, something soon became apparent to me:
The neglected stepchild of my video game consoles is the Nintendo Gamecube. Of all the systems in my collection, I own the least amount of games and have the least amount of love for it.
But why?
By all accounts, the Nintendo Gamecube's library features a handful of the most heralded games of all time, and many other great ones. Metacritic, a review aggregation website, has a chart ranking games by an average of every major review written since the site's inception. Of the top 19 critically acclaimed games released in the 21st century to date, three belong to Gamecube, second most of any system games have been released for in that time period. This includes the PC, PS2, PS3, PS4, PSP, Nintendo 64, Wii, Wii U, XBox, XBox 360 (the only system with more top-ranked games), Gameboy Advance, Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS, and many more. That is ridiculously good.
And yet, my rejection of the Gamecube isn't a unique experience. Its main competitor, the Playstation 2, sold 155 million units. Nintendo only sold 21 million Gamecubes, DESPITE the fact that the PS2 is technically less powerful. Even the X-Box, Microsoft's first foray into console gaming, sold more. Why didn't the world love the Nintendo Gamecube?
Why didn't I love it? When I look at my experiences with it, I should have an incredible fondness for that awkward little box.

1. Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader

I bought this title at launch, and played it as soon as I got home...which was very late. Of the twelve Gamecube launch games, I only own, and in fact, have only played one other to this day, Super Monkey Ball, which was fun, but apparently not fun enough to get me more than halfway through it. This begins a trend: in earlier days, I took beating a game I purchased as a point of pride. I beat and 100 percented (yep, just made that a verb) almost every game I purchased before buying the Gamecube. As you'll see here, as my passion petered out, I completed far less. But I did complete Rogue Leader in short order, taking away the impression that it was visually splendid, but offered little more in the gameplay department than its decent Nintendo 64 predecessor. A few weeks later, a friend showed up at my apartment with a gift: the previously mentioned Super Monkey Ball. Truth be told, it may not have been the fun-factor that drew me away from Super Monkey Ball early--it was most likely Smash Brothers.

2.Super Smash Bros. Melee

Shortly after it was released, Super Smash Bros. Melee took over my Gamecube. My cousin essentially moved into my compartment and we unlocked every character and stage. However...something was lacking in the experience. Myself, that cousin, his younger brother, and my younger brother played the Nintendo 64 original against each other until our hands were bloody--and sometimes that blood wasn't our own. Our competitions were so fierce they sometimes ended in fistfights. The Nintendo 64 owned four-player multiplayer. Something about this Gamecube version just didn't stoke the fires as hotly. Maybe it was just my life stage. Maybe the controls, and the more chaotic stages just didn't feel as right. Whatever the case, while I completed the didn't complete me. It immediately got placed back on the shelf...and then my Gamecube just sort of languished for a few months. It's not like I was playing anything else slide away from video games had already begun (and arguably started when I quit Donkey Kong 64 on the final boss...a boss I've since annihilated). That fall, I purchased Super Mario Sunshine. I was offput by the strange new "water-sprayer" dynamics of the game. I just didn't feel like the Mario I loved. It also seemed to lack the polish of previous Mario games. I've never completed it. This could have been the end of my Gamecube, but lo, on the horizon

3. Metroid Prime

Metroid Prime is one of the greatest video games of all time. tied for second on the Metacritic list I mentioned above. I wasn't the biggest Metroid fan before purchasing it, but the ridiculously high reviews piqued my curiosity, and I purchased it on release week--Metroid Prime then owned my 2002 Winter Break. My experience with Metroid Prime mirrors the one I had with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time just four years prior (in the fall of 1998): complete immersion. I quickly felt myself lost, submerged in Metroid Prime's depths, and I didn't resurface until the game was completed. That was, to this day, one of the most special and singular video game experiences I have ever had. This, if anything, should have made the Gamecube a system I revered. I am pretty sure I hugged my Nintendo 64 after Ocarina...why the cold shoulder for Gamecube?

4. Animal Crossing

If my time with the Gamecube had a "golden period," I'd say it was the 2.5 years between Metroid Prime's release and the summer of 2005...if a golden period can be categorized as a time I played through 4 games in 30 months. Animal Crossing came for me at a moment I was really attempting to lie low and chill, and it's a great game to play for an hour a night for a few months...I bought Animal Crossing shortly after finishing Metroid Prime, paid my in-game loans off by spring, and then let my brother borrow the game indefinitely. I remember having a lovely time with the game, but then immediately moving on because a sort-of-big title was being released that March: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. I love Zelda games so much, but I felt about Wind Waker the same as I did with Mario Sunshine: it just didn't feel like Zelda, and it didn't seem as polished as previous titles. To the shock of my close friends and relatives, I didn't even complete Wind Waker, stopping 3/4 of the way through, during a fetch quest I didn't feel like completing (Last year, I played through the Wii U Remaster and really enjoyed it). Truth be told, at that time, a good friend gave me a PS1. I'd had Chrono Cross, the sequel to my favorite game of all time, Chrono Trigger, in my possession for several years, with no method to play it. As soon as the PS1 was in my hands, my Gamecube started accumulating dust. Chrono Cross took over my video gaming world...

5. Hunter: The Reckoning

...but not for too long, and there's a "literally" coming up in the next sentence. Literally two hours after I beat Chrono Cross, on a late summer 2003 afternoon, two of my best friends came over and a new tradition was born: Game Night. For some reason, the game of choice for this trio was Hunter: The Reckoning for the Nintendo Gamecube, owned by Daniel, one of the two friends. I'll be the first to say that Hunter: The Reckoning is not a great game. However, for a game three friends can play together while eating pizza and chugging coffee and M&M's at 3 am, you can't do much better than Hunter: The Reckoning, for the Nintendo Gamecube. The multiplayer cooperative zombie and monster-killing action might be sloppily executed, but that's almost half the fun. Those were some of the best nights of my life. Daniel's copy eventually bit the dust, but I bought a new one. All these years later, on the rare occasion that the three of us are in the same zipcode at the same time, Hunter still gets the job done. Over the rest of 2003, and throughout 2004, we played through the game many times. It seems, from my near outsider perspective, like this time period was the Gamecube's heyday. During this 18-month era, I did buy some games, like F-Zero GX, Sonic Collection, and Beyond Good and Evil, but I didn't finish any of them. However, my video game life wasn't completely narcoleptic--I did play through Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on the PS1 a few times, and wow, what a game!

6. Metroid Prime 2: Echoes

During this period, I also bought several PS1 games that I didn't complete, either. I was also watching quite a bit of X-Play and other video game programs on the then new, now defunct G4 channel. I was certainly still interested in video games...just more as a passerby than a partaker. However, when Metroid Prime 2: Echoes was released, I knew that I had to complete it. I bought it, spent several sleepless night progressing through, then found myself dead-ended by a game-ending glitch. I contacted Nintendo, and was sent a memory card several weeks later with a file progressed just past the glitch. While I appreciated the gesture, the fire was gone. I mechanically finished the game, which is great, but not as great as its predecessor, and wondered if I was through with video games. Then came the Gamecube's pièce de résistance

7. Resident Evil IV

Capcom shot themselves in the foot with Resident Evil IV. Every Resident Evil game they've released since has been negatively compared to it. It's also on the Metacritic list I mentioned above. It is one of the greatest video games every released. It is easily in my top five.
Imagine this: you are unemployed. You have no friends. You aren't sleeping. You have no prospects. Your only two friends are your cat and a video game. For me, in that exact situation, that video game was Resident Evil IV. Finding myself in the above situation seemingly without warning, I was forced to survive. Resident Evil IV is the greatest "Survival Horror" game ever made, perhaps because it focuses more on the former. That isn't to say it's not scary--those evil priests' chants still haunt my dreams. But suddenly left with seemingly nothing but Fats the cat and Resident Evil IV, I have never connected on a metaphysical level with a game like I have Resident Evil IV. I played through it over and over again, running for my life, conserving ammo, searching for sanctuary, struggling to find places to hide, and often, when I knew I had the resources, going berserk on my foes. Since the foes in my real life were intangible, it was incredibly cathartic to have evil hoards into which I could pour my aggression. In some ways, my 2005 was that damn guy holding up the chainsaw on the game cover. But as I do with Resident Evil IV, I now look back on that year fondly. You would think this would have endeared the Gamecube to me forever. However, I gave all my love to the game, at the time a Gamecube exclusive, instead of to the console itself.
And that was it. Despite another Zelda game on the horizon (also played that Wii U remaster last year, and enjoyed it, as well), and a huge back-catalogue to pull from, my Gamecube went into storage for nearly a decade. All my video games did. I felt like I didn't need or have time for them anymore. But slowly, they started coming back into my life:
A few rounds of SNES here and there.
A full-fledged recommitment to my Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast.
A full-bore obsession with my Sega CD.
But my poor Gamecube still collected dust.
I've been asking myself recently, why not show my Gamecube some love? Hasn't it given me some of my most memorable gaming experiences? It has more than a 500-game library. It carried on Dreamcast's sunny, "it's a new millennium and everything is awesome" vibe, even as our nation looked back at the ashes of the twin towers, and forward into war.
The Gamecube didn't do anything wrong, and yet I've neglected it its whole life.
It is time to finally love my Gamecube.
Now, its time to go from the passerby who saw a lot of cool games from a distance, to the player.
And thus, I am launching yet another blog, this one dedicated to the much neglected Nintendo Gamecube.  I'll be playing through and reviewing games I've never before given the time of day to, and even revisiting some old classics that I have.
Welcome to the Gamecube Archives.