My Reaction To Nintendo’s Animal Crossing Direct

How does an update feel like so much and yet so little at the same time?

Animal Crossing: New Horizons exploded out of the gate when it was released in early 2020 and is currently the second-best-selling game on the Switch (ranked only behind perennial powerhouse Mario Kart 8 Deluxe), but at some point, you simply run out of things to do on your island: Scour the world for your dream villagers, remade your island in your image, max out your house size…and then what? There are only so many fish you can catch or villager photos you can get before things start to get a bit repetitive.

In Nintendo’s recent Direct presentation, the company proclaimed that they had a big update in store for the game, so big that they needed a whole separate Direct to talk about it all. The rumor mill kicked into high gear: What sort of content would be added? Would it be new new, or just leftover features from New Leaf? Would the Froggy Chair finally make its triumphant return? And would all this be enough to be lapsed ACNH players like myself back into the fold?

The answer ended up being affirmative to all of the above (including the chair)…except maybe the last one.

Honestly, for all the features that were added, there didn’t seem to be a killer feature that made me say “I have got to play this game again.” Mostly, I found myself saying “Oh yeah, I remember this from New Leaf; it’s about time the game got feature parity,” and while it’s great that some of these features returned, there was nothing here that I felt I just had to try out. Instead of bringing in features that might re-expand the player base, this felt like an update that catered to the hardcore AC enthusiasts, i.e. the people who were still playing the game anyway. If you’d already felt like you’d seen and played it all like I did, you won’t find much here to entice you into picking the game back up.

My detailed thoughts on the update are as follows:

  • Honestly, I’ve never understood Brewster’s appeal. You walk in, you buy a cup of coffee, you drink it…and that’s pretty much it. Occasionally another character would be around to talk to (and the new amiibo card functionality lets you invite other characters in), but otherwise I found the whole thing to be a bit boring (although in fairness, I never actually unlocked the ‘work at the cafe’ feature back in the day). It’s a long-overdue addition, but not something I’m overly excited about.
  • I was excited to see Kapp’n and his bizarre sea shanties return…until I discovered that he doesn’t take you to an island where you could partake in challenges with friends like in New Leaf, but instead pretty much duplicates the mystery island feature of Dodo Airlines. For all the New Leaf functionality they brought back, this was the one thing I was hoping for, because it actually gave people something to do together when they visited an island. Alas, it’s pretty much the one thing we didn’t get.
  • The return of the shop plaza is a welcome sight, because it finally gives you consistent access to characters like Sahara and Kicks without having to wait for them to show up randomly on your island. You may have to pay for the shops to arrive, but let’s be honest: You’ve probably got several gazillion Bells sitting around from the game’s broken economic system, so it’s nice to have a reason to have them. I’d call this the best “new” addition to the game.
  • The developers went way back in the archives to bring back group stretching from the original Animal Crossing game, and while it seems like a feature that will get old quickly, allowing players to participate themselves using motion controls is a great way to make it more interactive and engaging (and making it available anytime means that people will actually do it instead of sleeping through it). Still, it’s a minor addition that doesn’t add a ton of replay value in my book.
  • The return of island ordinances is a long-overdue feature that will improve the accessibility of shops and villagers. Some people simply have limited time windows with which to play the game, and things like the Early Bird and Night Owl ordinances will help let people enjoy the game on their own schedule. Again, it’s a welcome return, but not enough to entice me to return with it.
  • More storage space and house exterior options are great, but despite my hoarding tendencies I never actually ran into the game’s original 1,600 item limit, and I changed my house exterior all of once during my time with the game. Being able to reach 5,000 items and having more facade choices is a nice feature for the completionists and perfectionists among us, but I don’t number among them.
  • Oh hey, the gyroids are back. To be honest, I didn’t find much use for them in New Leaf, and I wasn’t waiting with bated breath to see them come back, even with extra customization options.
  • Things like cooking, room lighting, accent walls, and player options like new hair and reactions feel like natural additions and will give folks a lot of interesting options, but I don’t see anyone beyond hardcore ACNH players jumping back in just to try them out. My house decor hasn’t changed in a year and I’m still satisfied with it, so changing things up just for the sake of change doesn’t seem like a good use of time.
  • The camera functionality is Nintendo’s games are getting better over time, and giving shutterbugs more options via the Handheld and Tripod modes really helps you get extreme closeups and more-expressive villagers than the default controls. It’s a great feature for those that took lots of pictures beforehand, but once again, it may not be enough bring lapsed photographers back into the fold.
  • The storage shed and ABD machine are great quality-of-life features that let you access money and items when and where you want to, but they’re not going to give you a reason to play if you don’t already have one. Same thing with the ladder kits and tight-space navigation option. (Do I sound like a broken record yet? Don’t worry, K.K. Slider has some new records to replace the broken ones.)

After going through the free stuff, Nintendo hit us with a twist: Happy Home Paradise, a paid DLC update that basically adds Happy Home Desinger to New Horizons and let you endlessly customize homes and yards for various AC residents. I like that the home requirements are fairly minimal, allowing players to go wild with the theme and make the design their own, and the lack of limitations (at least the trailer didn’t mention any) and being able to customize common spaces like schools and restaurants gives the game some surprising replay value for master designers. (Also, the ability to carry over new features like partition walls and polishing over to the main gate gives you even more options for your own island!) At $24.99, it’s a reasonable price for an expansion that lets people who enjoy the customization part of Animal Crossing show their stuff.

…But I’m not one of those people, so I’ll likely pass on the DLC. Much like the free update, it’s geared towards the AC power users rather than casual players, and if you already feel like the game is played out, none of this will change your mind.

In objective good/bad terms, I’d say this was a pretty good update all around, making Animal Crossing: New Horizons the premier AC experience for the franchise. If you’ve already tired of the bug-catching and furniture-placing grind, however, there just isn’t enough here to warrant a return trip to your neglected island. If this were an “is it worth buying?” post, I’d say that the value you get from all this directly correlates with how much you’re playing the game right now: If you’re already playing a lot, it’s great, and if you’re not, it’s mostly window-dressing. (If you’re thinking of buying Happy Home Paradise, I’d recommend buying it outright relying on the overpriced Expansion Pass for the mostly-worthless Nintendo Switch online service…but that’s a rant for another post.)

It’s nice to see Animal Crossing: New Horizons getting some attention from Nintendo after all this time. It’s just a shame that what we get isn’t enough to warrant giving more of your attention to the game.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons: Is It Worth Buying?

Yes, I know I used the wrong button to take the picture, but I was distracted by Doc’s photobomb and the sheer awesomeness of my fake Salmon Run outfit.

COVID-19 can take away our in-person interactions, but it can’t stop us from traveling to exotic islands and chatting with anthropomorphic horses, darn it!

On the surface, Animal Crossing seems downright Seinfeldian, a game about nothing as you waste you time wandering about a tiny digital locale. Veterans of the series, however, know that the true joy of Animal Crossing lies in playing the long time: Bringing in new vendors, recruiting new residents, and generally crafting the idyllic community of your dreams. After spending roughly a week with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, it’s clear that this game comes the closest of all the games in allowing players to realize this goal.

There are not actually a ton of “new” features within New Horizons, but it’s the improvements upon existing features that really stand out. For starters, just being able to move around the island is much easier: You can craft items early on that allow you to vault across rivers and scale ledges, letting you get from point A to point B much quicker than in past series (no more following the river halfway across town to cross the one freaking bridge you’ve got). You’re also given a lot more control over where things go on your island: Not only will residents happily let you choose where you live (no more surprise move-ins nullifying a week’s worth of landscaping), but everything from the shops to the museum are moveable as well. (Eventually, though I’ve yet to unlock this, you will also gain the ability to build/destroy cliffs and re-route rivers, giving you mastery over darn near every grain of sand on the island!) Finally, visitor interactions can be restricted as well, keeping ne’er-do-wells from ruining all of your hard work. This not only gives you complete control over how your island takes shape, but also induces you to spend more time in-game laying things outafter all, anything you create now has a much lower chance of being ruined later! (Hmm…I’ve also noticed the New Horizons doesn’t give you those “you’ve been playing too long; take a break” messages like New Leaf did. Is Nintendo just trying to take over our lives?).

The biggest new addition thus far has been the crafting feature, which allows you to build furniture, tools, and other items out of raw materials found on the island.The good news is that raw materials of nearly every sort can be found in abundance (unless you do something really dumb like I did, which was immediately smashing all my rocks not realizing I could just whack them with a shovel to get iron nuggets), so you should always have the necessary materials on hand to complete your DIY projects. The projects themselves are fun to complete (you can even use the junk you fish out of the river to create decorative items!), and the customization kits you can apply afterwards let you give your items a personal finishing touch. (Instead of having a plain, boring rocking chair, I now have a darkwood rocking chair that reminds me of my grandmother’s old rocker.) The bad news, however, is that the price to pay for tool crafting options is tool durability, or more specifically the lack of tool durability: The nets, axes, and fishing poles you make (especially the flimsy early-game ones) are forever breaking on me, causing me to miss out things like rare bug captures simply because my net just snapped from catching a common yellow butterfly. I didn’t like the weapon-breaking mechanic in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and I don’t like it here because it forces you to waste time and space by continuously going back and crafting new or backup items. (Thankfully, this doesn’t apply to all tools: Poles and ladders don’t break because doing so could leave you stranded!)

The island-visiting feature returns from New Leaf, but it’s both more and less interesting than it was previously. This time around, islands are basically loot boxes for you to plunder, and while that can helpful from a resource standpoint (I had to get my iron somewhere after destroying all my rocks), I really miss the minigames from the New Leaf islands. Those games really broke up the monotony of the slow town buildup, and gave you something fun to do with friends (more on multiplayer later). Still, I liked how they doubled down on theming the random islands: I haven’t made it to the tarantula paradise I see on Twitter all the time, but I did land in emperor butterfly territory (4,000 bells a bug!) to replenish both my cash and iron reserves. (Having random villagers around to recruit is a nice touch as well.)

Speaking of money: Bells are again the main currency of the game, but there are also “Nook Miles” that you can earn for completing various tasks on the island (you even earn them if you get KO’d by a tarantula) and redeem for island visit tickets or special Nook Inc. items. When you eventually join the Nook Miles+ program, you are continuously given random tasks (selling items, spending money, planting trees, catching fish, etc.) to complete for small mile bonuses. It’s an interesting concept, but I’m not sure why they had to make the distinction between Bells and Miles, as they both essentially serve the same purpose. Why not just convert everything to Bells and base your economy on that? It’s a harmless design decision, but one that feels unnecessary.

Decorating your home is much more delightful now thanks to a couple of new additions:

  • The new room-arranging mode (where you just click and drag items to position them in your room) is a welcome addition, freeing you from the burden of manually dragging around furniture to get your house looking just right (and having to pocket items temporarily or push them out of the way to make room in the meantime).
  • Storage (and a fairly generous amount of it) is given to you automatically upon upgrading from a tent to a house, rather than forcing you to buy a secret storeroom from Tom Nook to hoard your billiard-ball T-shirt collection.
  • Placing items outside you house is allowed now, so you can organize your hammocks, lawn chairs, and birdhouses where they can be enjoyed in the wild (and save precious indoor space for other items).

The villagers themselves are interesting enough, but all of the personalities carry over from past games and can be a bit repetitive if you get two or more characters with the same one. Generally I find that no matter how crazy or strange I think a character looks at first glance, they eventually grow on me and I refuse to ever let them leave my island. I wouldn’t say they add a whole lot to the game, but they can be a nice distraction and a helpful source of items and resources in a pinch. (Hopefully they bring back the hide and seek games from New Leaf!)

Real people are far more interesting than NPCs, and New Horizons expands the number of players that can visit your island at once to eight, multiplying the amount of shenanigans you can get into. You can use the “best friends” option to separate known quantities from rando sketchies that might vandalize your island, further encouraging people to interact and check out each other’s creations. That said, the number of things you can do together are a bit limited so farmy friends (being the nice people that they are) gave me a whole bunch of resources to get started, but there wasn’t much we could actually do on the island. Also, the text chat functionality for the game is beyond clunky (you’re much better off using Skype, Discord, or whatever workarounds you’ve come up with to deal with Splatoon 2 communication). It’s cool to show off your designs and check out the work other folks have done, but I wish there was more interactive things you could do in-game. (I’ve heard mixed reviews about local multiplayer for the game, but I haven’t had the chance to try that out myself.)

My one major critique of the game is that is feels like it takes a while for things to really get going. Tools are released at a surprisingly slow rate, meaning you can’t fully explore your island for several days while you wait for your chance to craft vaulting poles and ladders. I understand that one of Nintendo’s modus operandis is to avoid overwhelming the player at all costs (think about that ludicrous 10-day unlocking period at the beginning of Super Mario Maker), but I’d kind of prefer them to give me all of the tools upfront and just let me play around. Otherwise, you find yourself bumping into walls all the time and wishing you could just cross this river or scale this height and see what else lay in waiting for you. For all the control Nintendo eventually gives you, they sure take their sweet time doling it all out.

Overall, I’ve enjoyed my time with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, as it once captures that “one more _____” magic that the Switch’s best games (Mario Kart, Splatoon, Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey) all bring to the table. You can easily lose yourself for hours doing nothing but chopping wood and catching butterflies, all the while building an Instagram-worthy paradise for all your friends to marvel at. In this time of social distancing and curve-flattening (Editor’s Note: Stay home and wash you damn hands), Animal Crossing is the sort of chill interactivity we all need more of right now (even if I’d prefer activities that are more, you know, active). I know I ragged on the lack of excitement in The sheer scope of customization and control given to the player let’s you engage as much or as little with your island as your want (I didn’t even touch on the custom design functionality in the game, mostly because I’m not much of an artist and thus haven’t tried it yet), letting you craft the exact experience that you desire. Given that the calendar for 2020 still seems a bit sparse and we’re all going to be stuck indoors for a while,spending $60 to build a coronavirus-free utopia and get a reasonable facsimile of human contact is a worthwhile investment for Switch owners.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I still need to build some furniture for that last house lot…

My Reaction To The Animal Crossing: New Horizons Direct

I’ll be honest: I really hope this game is more exciting than this presentation.

After a surprisingly long wait for Nintendo news, the company finally delivered an information bonanza by dropping a 25+ minute presentation regarding their latest flagship release, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It was finally time to learn more about life on a desert island stuck under Tom Nook’s thumb, and given the horsepower jump from the 3DS to the Switch, the result promised to be epic.

After watching the presentation, however, my feelings on the game are a bit more mixed, albeit through no apparent fault of the game itself. One one hand, the quality-of-life updates and new customization options look fantastic, and promise to finally let you build the island paradise of your dreams. On the other hand, however, the presentation itself was so dry and uninspired that it never truly generated any excitement or momentum, and the promise of future updates didn’t feel as genuine in the wake of some of Nintendo’s recent failures (*cough* Super Mario Maker 2 *cough*). It’s a good thing I was already interested in this game, because this Direct didn’t register at all on my hype meter.

Let’s start with Part 1 of the presentation: Did we really have to sit through sixteen-and-a-half minutes of everything we already knew about the game? Sure, it’s cool that we can arrange furniture outside and play with multiple people, but had so much time truly passed since the reveal that we needed a deep-dive into each and every feature like this? There were a few new features hidden in the details, but honestly, all of them felt like regressions: Tom Nook’s daily announcements generated flashbacks to those Pearl/Marina segments in Splatoon 2 that I can’t skip through fast enough, and getting attacked by the local wildlife isn’t exactly my idea of fun (avoiding the darn bees was bad enough, thank you). By spending so much time rehashing previous reveals, Nintendo sucked the air out of the room right from the start and made it hard to stay engaged. I expect atmospheric mistakes like this from Sam Hunt singles, but not from AAA Nintendo franchises.

It’s too bad the presentation started so slowly, because there are some serious QoL upgrades here that address many of the problems I had with Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Not only are you given more ways to traverse the terrain (pole vaulting across rivers, using portable ladders to scale cliffs), but the array of terrain-customizing tools here is simply astounding: You can re-route rivers, tear down bluffs and build them back again, and lay out predetermined house lots so new residents don’t destroy your carefully-pruned fruit tree lots (this is already the most fun you’ll ever have sitting on a zoning board). Landscaping options abound (you can build your own paths and sandlots now!), trees can be moved directly instead of going through the standard logging/planting cycle, and tool use is restricted to best friends so visitors can’t ruin all your hard work. (And all this is on top of the most glaring omission from New Leaf that is finally rectified: The ability to change your skin tone!) You may only get one island per Switch, buy you’ve got everything you need to craft a home base that fully expresses your personality.

Beyond these updates, however, there didn’t seem to be a lot of new exciting features offered here. Much of the future update section seemed dedicated to re-adding old features from New Leaf, such as the museum, the clothing store, the campsite, recurring events like fishing and bug-catching tournaments, and so on. It makes the game out to be nothing more than New Leaf with a new coat of paint on it, and while it’s a customizable, high-quality coat of paint, it’s not the massive forward leap we saw between, say, Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild, or Mario 3D World and Mario Odyssey. In this way, Animal Crossing is a lot like Pokémon: The steps between generations feel a bit incremental, and everyone we complain if there favorite Pokémon/villager doesn’t make it into the game.

Admittedly, people are pumped enough about Animal Crossing: New Horizons that it really doesn’t need its trailers to generate much buzz at this point (all they need to do is not screw things up). That isn’t an excuse to get complacent, however, and while New Horizons offers a new experience in the form of the Switch’s HD output, it comes across as more of a lateral step than a forward one, as if it were a simple HD remaster of Animal Crossing: New Leaf. I’m still planning on picking this one up, but my expectations are a bit more tempered after today’s presentation, which wasn’t one of Nintendo’s best. Much like Pokémon, however, as long as AC:NH mostly delivers on its relaxing life-sim premise, people won’t complain too much.

Why Does Nintendo Make Saving Game Data So Hard?

Can we talk about save data for a moment?

The big issue riling up the game universe right now is Nintendo’s seemingly-draconian policy to limit players to a single island that is locked to a particular console. There hasn’t been a specific reason given for this, but when discussing why cloud saves would also not be a thing for AC: NH, the rationale seemed to be to keep the player from messing with time:

“In an interview last year, producer Higashi Nogami confirmed that New Horizons wouldn’t make use of the [cloud save] feature, since doing so would potentially open the door to players manipulating the game’s internal calendar.” Kotaku

Time-traveling has been a “feature” in Animal Crossing for a while now, as players warp forwards or backwards to finish projects, reap rewards, and undo moments of bad fortune (“why did [insert name of favorite animal here] move away? Whyyyyyyy?!“). You could argue that it’s a violation of the spirit of the game, but in truth, it’s been a mostly harmless way for players to optimize their enjoyment of the game.

Now, Nintendo might have totally legitimate reasons for wanting to nip this sort of behavior in the bud (for example, maybe they will be synchronizing special events globally and require a consistent calendar to do it). Still, locking down game data this hard seems a bit over-the-top to me, and it’s not the only game I have an issue with on this issue.

  • Splatoon 2 doesn’t support cloud saves because Nintendo is worried about ‘save scumming‘, where players could reload old data after losing a rank and thus be at a rank undeservedly (“I lost my X rank? Not anymore!”)
  • Pokémon Sword and Shield doesn’t support cloud saving either, as players could simply revert to their backup after a trade to duplicate a Pokémon or item.

Nintendo’s concern over these possibilities is understandable, but personally I don’t think it outweighs the potential for losing all of your hard-earned save data in the event that your Switch breaks. People can get pretty attached to their multiplayer rank, Pokémon, and Animal Crossing villagers, and to lose all of this to a hardware failure would be pretty painful, especially when we have the technology to avoid this already at our disposal.

If someone cheeses an X rank out of Splatoon 2 and winds up on my team…I’m honestly okay with that. (As much as I complain about my teammates in ranked solo queue, I’d probably never notice the difference.) Similarly, if someone created an army of super-clones in Pokémon and cleaned my clock in an online battle…so what? People in the truly competitive scenes might have a different opinion, but such outcomes wouldn’t bother me. What would bother me, however, would be seeing my 1,500+ hours of Splatoon and painstakingly-crafted A-line in Pokémon Sword go up in smoke if my Switch crashed down onto a hardwood floor.

When it comes to Animal Crossing, I tend to get attached to the first group of characters I get, and never never never want them to go away. (Fun fact: The reason I haven’t picked up New Leaf in so long is because I lost a beloved villager before I could convince them to stay, and it annoyed me so much that I walked away from my mayoral post forever.) If I lost an entire island in an instant, one that I’d spent days/weeks/months organizing to my exact specifications…well, let’s just say my language would be reduced to only four-letter words for a while.

So no, I don’t agree with Nintendo’s position on cloud saving for Animal Crossing and a bunch of my other favorite Switch games. Letting players protect their investment of time and sweat in case of an emergency seems far more important than locking down folks from abusing the system. (Come to think of it, I have the same opinion about government social programs: I’m not as concerned about fraud as I am about someone getting denied help when they truly deserve it.) Nintendo is making save data management harder than it needs to be, and while I don’t hold out a ton of hope than they will change their ways, I’m going to keep complaining about this problem (and investing in bulletproof carrying cases for my Switch) until they do.

Could Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp Come To The Switch?

Don’t look now, but I think Nintendo has already released its Animal Crossing title for the Switch. It just hasn’t released it on the console yet.

As part of its mobile gaming initiative, Nintendo announced Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp for iOS and Android devices last month. It’s an interesting take on the AC series, and incorporates a number of exciting new elements (item crafting, explicit friendship levels) along with some sad-but-necessary ones (microtransations…). As I watched the Direct presentation, it felt like the Big N was introducing a new, fully-featured Animal Crossing entry, unlike stripped-down games like Pokémon Go and Super Mario Run. It looked like a game that could have just as easily wound up on the Switch as on smartphones.

Then a crazy thought popped into my head: What if that was Nintendo’s plan to begin with?

Cross-console games are nothing new in the industry (heck, it feels like every game ever existed is getting a Switch port these days), but Nintendo’s tendency to keep its IPs to itself has kept it from joining in on this trend. Even when the company began to branch out onto mobile devices, its offerings were simplified versions of its games (Pokémon GoSuper Mario Run, etc.) that were heavily-customized for mobile hardware. Pocket Camp, however, doesn’t really fit that description: All of the important features of Animal Crossing (resource harvesting, villager interactions, home customizations) are present and accounted for, along with item crafting and the other cool features I listed earlier. If I had to guess, I’d say this a Switch or 3DS game that got redirected when Nintendo put together its mobile strategy, and one that could easily be brought back to Nintendo hardware in the future.

Fans have been clamoring for an Animal Crossing Switch title ever since the console was announced, and porting over Pocket Camp seems like a straightforward, economical way to satisfy these demands. But what would have to change to make this a reality?

  • Map Layout: The game’s map is broken down into small sections for individual tasks (bug catching, fishing, shopping, and so on), likely to account for the resource constraints of smart devices. New Leaf, on the other hand, featured a (mostly) unified world, so for a Switch version, some of these separated areas would likely be expanded and combined.
  • Control Mapping: The Switch’s touch screen is only available in portable mode, so Pocket Camp‘s controls will need to be remapped to the Joy-Con buttons. Motion controls offer an intriguing possibility as well: Imagine swinging your arm to catch a bug with your net or cast a line with your fishing pole!
  • Price Structure: This is probably the biggest obstacle to a cross-device game. Microtransactions are a fact of life in the mobile gaming sphere, and Pocket Camp is no exception: The game is free to play, but real money can be spent to obtain crafting materials or speed up building times. Nickel-and-dime strategies like this, however, are not well-received in the traditional console market, which means the game would likely come with a $40-$60 upfront price tag. Furthermore, no one is going to pay $40-$60 for a game they can play for free on their phone, so Nintendo would have to come up with a way to induce players to invest in the game’s console version (Extra features? Larger maps? Discounted or more-prevalent Leaf Tickets?). If done right, however, this could actually be a boon for Nintendo, as they would give players the flexibility to “pay and play” however they wish.

Yes, there would inevitably be some backlash from fans who want their own dedicated version of Animal Crossing rather than some cheap mobile port, but overall I think there are enough positives here to warrant bringing Pocket Camp to the Switch in the future. Nintendo’s 2018 Switch lineup still has some room for a blockbuster title or two, and Pocket Camp looks has the potential to be the true New Leaf successor fans have been clamoring for.

The Transformative Power of Animal Crossing

In the face of a Nintendo Switch shortage, I’ve started expanding my 3DS library in order to get a proper portable gaming fix. The first of my new acquisitions is 2013’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and while I’ve only played the game for a few days now, I’m starting to think Nintendo may have much more than a simple life sim on it hands.

On the surface, New Leaf is about building and running a town full of citizens with very different needs and desires. Nothing in the game happens terribly quickly (except house building, where a structure can go from bare ground to a finished product in a mere 24 hours), and as someone with a background full of more-traditional games, I can only catch so many fish and shake so many peaches off trees before I get bored and jump back to games with more immediate challenges and rewards, like Splatoon or Super Mario Maker.

As I continued playing, however, the game started to feel like it had a deeper purpose than just being a simple life sim game. More specifically, it felt like Nintendo was trying to shatter the old “loner playing in a dark basement” gamer stereotype by using Animal Crossing to teach players proper socialization skills.

A crazy thought, you say? Perhaps…but consider the following:

  • Example 1: One of the initial residents of my town was a rabbit named Dotty, and on day two of my adventure, she asked me to visit her house to talk about improving its decor. I quickly agreed to a time…and then promptly forgot it and went off on a quest to gather insects and seashells. An hour later (in the middle of a Splatoon Turf War, in fact), I  realized that I was an hour late for the meeting, and quickly jumped booted up my 3DS and rushed over to Dotty’s cottage.As you might expect, Dotty was not happy, and she expressed her irritation to me in no uncertain terms. Sure, I managed to re-befriend her by complimenting her outfit a few times, but I still felt really bad about it, so much so that I wondered, “If I play games to feel good, why the heck am I playing this game if it makes me feel bad?”

    Suddenly, it dawned on me: You know, if someone had done this to me in real life, I’d be pretty cheesed off about it too. I thought back to the times where my forgetfulness had put me in similar situations, and decided that I needed to come up with a better method for remembering appointments, like actually keeping a calendar or something.

    In short, I brainstormed a self-improvement strategy because I missed a meeting with a fictional character. How transformative could an incident like this be with Animal Crossing‘s target (read: younger, more impressionable) audience?

  • Example 2: My town clerk Isabelle kept pestering me to write letters to the other residents, as they would enjoy hearing from their new mayor. I’m not much of a letter writer (or an email writer, for that matter), but I finally decided there had to be some cool reward for writing, so I dashed off a few random letters and left them with the post office.The next day came, and…nothing. I didn’t hear a single thing about the letters, and none of the recipients mentioned them as they walked around. What the heck? I wondered. What was the point of those stupid letters? I spent a whole twenty seconds on each one—didn’t anyone appreciate them?

    Soon, the lightbulb went off: I haven’t written a thank-letter in at *least* six years…how many people are left wondering how I feel when they give me something? As luck would have it, I had a stack of thank-you letters sitting on my table that I’d meant to fill out and mail after last Christmas, and realized I needed to send those things out, late or otherwise.

    Once again, I drew a real-life lesson from a fake-life encounter. At this rate, I’ll be a better person in no time!

Maybe I’ve finally gone off the deep end, but after all the articles I’ve read about the introduction of the autistic muppet Julia on Sesame Street and the benefits of introducing children to such a character at a young age, I’m starting to think that Animal Crossing could have the same kind of impact on its players. At its core, Animal Crossing is a place where players of all ages can learn how to interact with a plethora of different characters by trial and error, and be rewarded for good behavior while minimizing the consequences of bad decisions. While I doubt Nintendo has put the kind of thought into the design of its NPCs that went into creating Julia, I feel like the baby steps they’ve made in that direction were made intentionally.

Despite the climbing age of the average gamer, a lot of children are introduced to video games at a fairly young age (and I would guess that Nintendo’s audience probably skews younger than Sony’s or Microsoft’s). The problem is that a lot of games are isolating experiences, and even encourage players to ignore the rest of the world and focus completely (which in turn can lead to the awkward loner stereotype I mentioned earlier). Animal Crossing, on the other hand, is the rare mostly-one-player game that encourages players to communicate with others and understand their feelings, and developing that sort of empathy feels more important now than ever before. (There are a lot of elected officials in the D.C. area that could use a refresher on this stuff…)

I don’t know what moved Nintendo to create the Animal Crossing series, but the more I play this game, the more I think the world is better off because they did.