Say what you want about Animal Crossing, but my character can carry a shark in her pocket, and that’s pretty hardcore. The charm of Animal Crossing New Leaf is one that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. The cross-generational appeal is not the only part of the game that knocks down barriers. Animal Crossing games appeal to people who are long time gamers with huge collections and also to people who spend far less time holding controllers. The format welcomes those new to games, but is also challenging enough for people who are veteran gamers. How does the game manage to do all that with so little? It focuses on simple joy.
Each time a new Animal Crossing was released, new features were there, but scarce. New Leaf is the first game to come along and really challenge the idea that there is little innovation in the series. It seems Nintendo was listening to the suggestions of players who wanted even more to explore. Instead of being just another villager, this time you are the mayor of the town. (Don’t worry, Tortimer is enjoying retirement.) As such, you get to make decisions not only about your own living space, but for the entire town.
Goals in Animal Crossing have always been on the tame side. You save up enough money to pay back your ever-increasing loans with the adorably shady Tom Nook. You do this by catching bugs, finding exotic fruit to plant in your town, and fishing, generally. While you’re still plundering the land as before to earn money, there are many new species to collect, and the new museum offers a breathtaking aquarium worth filling. Even with the basic goal progression mirroring previous games, (but isn’t that the way of most series), the goal of the game does not define the limits of gameplay. Other games in the sandbox style offer players a large area with many experiences not dependent on NPC involvement. Animal Crossing instead provides players less choice in their actions, but the interactions prove more meaningful. You’re met by a cast of adorable creatures, both old favorites and new faces. Villagers in New Leaf seem to have more depth and respond in a myriad of new ways to differing situations.
Earning Bells (money) in the game is much faster than a sea turtle’s pace, especially when players sail off to the Island. This doesn’t mean the game is easier, however, since there are many more things that will cost quite a few Bells. Each town has a Main Street where the businesses eventually open. Most of the events in the game occur over specific amounts of time, or based on the focus of the individual gamer. Since the game occurs in real time and things like shop inventory are limited to a daily basis, this encourages shorter, daily visits as opposed to binging on the game for hours. However, if you don’t have the time to jump on every day, you still have the option of skipping forward and backwards with the town clock. Just remember that time travel does affect certain things in the game, sometimes in a negative way. If you’re concerned about this, you can always pass a city ordinance. As Mayor, you can pass different ordinances that affect the town in numerous ways. You can also focus on public projects that your villagers suggest, which require Bell donations. Yes, your townsfolk (and even visitors) can contribute, but most of that funding will be coming from you, the player. That said, developing a thriving town takes Bells, effort, and time. There is great satisfaction in the gradual progression as each new discovery builds the overall sense of wonder the game has to offer. New Leaf unlocks more elements the longer it is played, with new things to discover during different times of year and on holidays. This means the game can hold value that lasts beyond hours, weeks, and even seasons.
Many of the new features of the game focus on a concept that has always played a large part in the series: customization. This time around, players have more control over their outfits. Not only are players able to draw pixelated versions of their favorite designs they create or find online, they can also scan QR codes. QR codes uploaded to the game with the 3DS camera are used to customize clothing, wallpaper, the environment, and even furniture. Clothing styles for boys and girls are not limited to gender, which is a wonderful advancement that can’t be overstated. However, in a game that features personalization of the player’s avatar so heavily, it’s a shame that characters are only offered a single skin tone. Players may tan on the Island, but these effects are limited to small time periods. The lack of variation in skin tone provides an alienating experience for people who want to create an avatar in their image but are restricted to a character that does not resemble them.
New Leaf also offers a variety of multiplayer options. Players can visit friends’ towns, collect homes in the HH Showcase, and even visit distant towns by using the Dream Suite. Club Tortimer allows random players to meet up and play on the Island. Leave your 3DS in sleep mode while you walk around. You can scrounge up homes to explore using StreetPass, and there are items for sale in the game using the 3DS Play Coins. (This is pretty much the only way to get a hold of the Nintendo nostalgia items.) New Leaf does a fantastic job of not only expanding what their game means, but doing so in a way that utilizes the features of the 3DS and feels so much more fulfilling than previous versions.