Friday, 7 June 2013

Animal Crossing New Leaf

If Nintendo were ever to make a mobile phone or tablet game, Animal Crossing is the place to start. The 3DS just got its first massively addicting social game. In this age of cheap, ubiquitous mobile phone and tablet games, you can't help but wonder what Nintendo would make if the company were ever to enter the space. The future seems unlikely considering Nintendo's investment in Wii U and 3DS hardware. 

New Leaf is the latest in a franchise extending back to 2002 on the GameCube. It was an odd game to explain back then. You live in a small town, you collect fruit, you go fishing, you pay off loans on a home, you talk to animals that live in town and send them letters. It almost sounded like an MMO, but it wasn't online. The 3DS version emerges with the core of the game largely unchanged: you still live in a small, cute town, building a little home, collecting money and buying furniture, going fishing and digging for treasures and fossils, and living a generally relaxed little life. 

Farmville, and tons of freemium games after it, have communities that trade collectible goods and rare items. Animal Crossing, however, is a $39 game, but with no pay-per-item extras. It's all included, but you have to discover it, and pay your way out of house debt, and find ways to, become a mayor of your town and improve the atmosphere for your fellow residents. You might water plants one day, or plant fruit trees the next, or just find a random turnip-seller and see if you can make an investment that will pay off.

Animal Crossing is a persistent experience: days pass according to the real calendar, with surprise holidays and events. When it's night in the real world, it's night in your town. Stores open and close. There's only so much you can do in a single session. This game is meant to be revisited regularly, in bits and pieces, "pottering around,". You can visit the towns of friends and trade items, but only if you have a direct connection. Unlike games like LittleBigPlanet, you can't browse public worlds freely. The decision to share your town with a friend is a small, discreet action. It's like inviting a friend over for dinner.

A game like this is all too easy to imagine on a smartphone or tablet, a place where online connections are easy and hopping in and out of a game is a snap. If Nintendo were to dip its toes into mobile gaming, Animal Crossing would be the slam-dunk franchise to kick it off. Animal Crossing is a game that lasts forever. You can keep exploring and building, tinkering and pottering, long after you collect all items and pay off all debts and expand your home as far as it'll be expanded. It's a living world. It's perfectly kid-friendly: in fact, it encourages manners and etiquette. 

You just have to relinquish your concepts of quick-reward gaming. The game's slow pace and gentle feel, its nurturing tone, accumulate rather than press. You craft your work gently, like slow-motion Minecraft. Animal Crossing is like therapy. Maybe this is the sort of game Nintendo needs to make more of. Maybe this is the key to Nintendo's direction in an age of increased competition and more advanced hardware. By doing something simple, heartfelt, and surprisingly against the grain of most console games, it succeeds.

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