Animal Crossing hype feels like it’s at an all-time high. The announcement of the new game for Switch as well as Isabelle’s presence in Super Smash Brothers Ultimate has slaked the thirst of many fans who were begging for some kind of acknowledgement from Nintendo. For a time, Animal Crossing seemed like the Mother 3 of modern franchises – after years of teasing and disappointment, I’d begun to think it was ridiculous to expect a new game in the near future. The Direct eased a lot of worries and did so in the goofy spirit that the series is known for. Seeing all of the excitement for the new game and just how fun the trailers were made me reconsider my own feelings about a series I had dismissed as little more than a casual, easygoing collector sim that wasn’t geared towards “serious” gamers like myself.
To understand my initial thoughts about Animal Crossing, we have to go back in time. Way back. Back to my college days, when my wife was not yet my wife and, more relevant to this story, she was not yet a 3DS owner. Destiny and I had a buddy who had picked up Animal Crossing: New Leaf for his 3DS. For whatever reason, it didn’t end up being his cup of tea. So he was looking to sell, and Destiny wanted to buy. She borrowed the game from him to see if it would be up her alley, and once she was sure she would like it she purchased it from him. This was all done using my 3DS, because she didn’t have her own at the time.
Destiny would borrow my 3DS regularly to play the game. Checking on her town, gathering peaches, doing events; it’s important in Animal Crossing to regularly be a part of your digital community. While New Leaf is perhaps more forgiving than other titles in the series, prolonged absence can mean that weeds start growing, projects go unfinished, and residents get dissatisfied with life in a town that has no mayor. Now a time came when we were about to be separate for a week or so – I want to say it was spring break but honestly I don’t clearly remember the time frame, and Destiny can’t either. Regardless of why we were apart, going our separate ways meant that we needed to make a decision about who got my 3DS during the break. Not that much deliberation we into it: Destiny’s perspective was very much “this belongs to you and you actually have games to play.” She asked, though, that I take care of her town in Animal Crossing in her stead. Not just a cursory turn-the-game-on sort of care, either: I needed to shake the trees, dig for fossils, and play events just as if Destiny were playing the game herself. I agreed, and so began my first week with Animal Crossing: New Leaf.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a game all about being the mayor of a small community where animals live. You arrive in the town and are mistakenly assumed to be the new mayor. Despite the misunderstanding, you embrace your mayoral duties with little more than a tent to call home. Being the mayor of the town (which you get to name at the beginning of the game) is a pretty simple gig when it comes right down to it. Rather than dealing with all the political nonsense of the community, you spend your days collecting bugs, digging for fossils, and decorating your house. Your economic contributions to the budding community help more animal residents to move in, and talking to them allows you to form relationships with them (NOT the steamy kind) which generally results in the mutual exchange of presents.
Now a note about my wife: she is a highly organized person. She loves lists and well-made plans. So naturally when she left her tender community in my messy hands she made sure I had a very specific task list to help me through the experience. I had a to shake all of the trees in town, hit all of the rocks with a shovel, dig for every fossil I could find, and she had specific numbers that I should expect to meet each day. “You should find X number of bells in the trees each day, there should be X number of fossils,” etc. It made things easy for me, as I knew exactly what I needed to do whenever I turned on the game, but going through each day like a checklist felt more like doing chores than playing a fun video game.
It’s important to know that at the time, I was in the middle of a game myself. It was either a playthrough of Fire Emblem Awakening or a Nuzlocke run of Pokemon Y – I don’t remember which. The game itself doesn’t matter so much as the idea that I really wanted to be playing that game. This added to the chore effect of my Animal Crossing experience. Sure, I was voluntarily playing this game in the sense that I happily told Destiny I would keep the town running in her absence, but doing something as a favor isn’t the same as doing it out of a genuine desire for the experience. Every moment I spent playing New Leaf was a moment I wanted to be playing a different game, and the checklist of trees to shake and rocks to break took that chore sensation and amplified it significantly.
One good thing did happen during my time with the game: a special event called the Festivale. Animal Crossing has all kinds of special events that happen throughout the year. Some are annual, some are seasonal, but regardless there are plenty of special days where something cool is going on that can help you make extra money or land unique furniture and other prizes. For all I knew, Destiny wouldn’t have a chance to participate in Festivale again for the next year, so when feathers started falling from the sky I knew I had a mission to complete.
During Festivale, a dancing peacock called Pave comes to town and requests for you to collect the feathers falling from the sky. There are a bunch of different feather colors, and if you collect three of the color he is asking for, he gives you a special piece of furniture. I wanted to do my best to get as many of the presents as possible for Destiny, so I spent quite some time collecting all of the colored feathers and particularly looking out for rainbow feathers. While I’d quickly gotten bored of the other tasks in the game, this surprising event not on my chore list kept my attention and gave me a bit of joy in an otherwise mediocre gaming experience.
If you asked me after my week with New Leaf if I enjoyed the Animal Crossing series, I would have told you no. The simple task of collecting seemed pointless and boring, the perceived inability to form relationships with the characters meant I had no other goals to work towards, and the fact that the game ran in real-time felt agonizingly slow compared to the pace of adjacent simulation games like Harvest Moon. Who wants to wait a whole in-game day for an event to take place? Or actually have to concern yourself with playing at a specific time so that the shops are open?
Fast forward a few years to 2018. A few things have changed since I was an awkward post-teen trying to make my way through college. I am now an awkward young adult trying to make my way through a career in the justice system doing statistics, the two subjects I studied least during the course of my secondary education. I have a wife, a son, and way less time to play video games than I used to. I also understand those games differently, and value different things in the games I play. So when Nintendo announced a new Animal Crossing game using a funny trailer that shows off all the lovable things about the personality of the series, I decided it was time to give New Leaf a second chance.
After updating to the Welcome Amiibo version of the game and starting a brand new town (which I called Sad Town specifically so the game would eventually say the phrase “Ian, the mayor of Sad Town”), I jumped into the world of Animal Crossing again. This time, playing the game wasn’t stopping me from enjoying another title I was trying to play. I was motivated specifically to play something relaxing and cheerful, and not playing as an act of service to anyone, except perhaps myself. And rather than trying to compare Animal Crossing to other experiences, I wanted to measure the game on its own merit, based on what the game said it wanted to accomplish.
My first day in Sad Town, I did all of those things which I found dissatisfying and boring before. I shook trees to find a few bells or a piece of furniture. When I made enough money to get a shovel I busted up rocks and dug for fossils. I caught bugs for a bug-catching competition and got the first place trophy, along with a spiffy caterpillar couch for my new tent. I spoke with the residents and listened to their advice on how to accomplish things in the game. And when I had done everything I could conceivably do that day, I put the game down and moved on to working on a blog post, then watching a Let’s Play while I cooked dinner. The next day when I picked up the game, my house would be ready, and I’d have plenty of new fun tasks to complete to spruce the place up.
Animal Crossing is not a game about action. It isn’t in a rush. It doesn’t measure your accomplishments in meters or gauges. There’s no grand storyline rife with murder or political machinations. But Animal Crossing doesn’t want or need to be these things, not in a world where there are hundreds of games to scratch those itches. Instead, Animal Crossing is a game about a small community. It’s talking about the weather to your neighbor. Walking down main street to visit the same family who has owned those shops for as long as anyone can remember. Finding joy in the discovery of something new, and spending time on nothing more than making your home as cozy as you want it to be. Animal Crossing is unique not just in the quirky characters and fun personality, but in the way that it asks you to stop and smell the roses.
In a world where I only have an hour, maybe two, to play a game on any given night, those things sound pretty good to me.
I have not stopped loving the sprawling worlds of open-world adventure games. Nor have I stopped loving the critical thinking challenges posed by strategic roleplaying games. I certainly haven’t stopped loving nuanced writing and thrilling storytelling. But after a long day at work, an hour commute, and trying to potty train a toddler, there’s an appeal to collecting peaches instead of trying to rack my brain to figure out puzzle solutions or remember where I met that elf that will sell me mythril.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf is proving to be exactly the game I need right now. One that allows me to turn my brain off instead of on, to enjoy the simple things, and to laugh instead of furrow my brow. My second first impression of New Leaf, formed during a different time in my life, is one that is positive and appreciative. Looking back, it’s easy to see how playing the game out of obligation rather than desire – particularly during a time when I was very excited to be playing something else – could bias my opinion against it rather than giving it a fair shake. I’m glad that I was motivated to give it a second try with a clearer head, because I’ve enjoyed what I played so far. Animal Crossing is a perfect dose of easygoing small-town fun, and I for one look forward to wiling away many days in the company of its residents.