Nintendo’s reign of videogame cuteness continues with Animal Crossing: New Leaf. While other systems and companies may focus on dismembering and machine gunning human drones (and done quite well I might add), Nintendo has carved out a place for itself as the Disney of videogames. They pile adorable anthropomorphized characters onto players in even greater numbers than the anime section of Comic-Con. It all started back in the 8-bit days and the big N never gave up, whipping up new cutesy franchises any time they got a chance. That brings us to Animal Crossing, the “aw cuuuute” version of The Sims developed for the N64 in Japan before dropping onto every other system that the company cranked out since. Animal Crossing: New Leaf brings this special brand of cutie-pie world building to the 3DS and while’s it’s a pleasure to play, the title is a bit of a misnomer. There’s nothing that new here. This is very much a classic Animal Crossing experience that won’t win over any new players, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.
Since this is business as usual in Animal Crossing-land, there’s not really a story, but I’ll try to describe the closest thing to a story it offers. Get ready because this is going to be long. You play as the character, meme, or Mii of your choice who steps off the train in Animal Crossing country and after a few misunderstandings and coincidences is appointed mayor of the city. Well, that’s all for story and it takes only slightly more time to play through than it did to read that sentence. This game and series aren’t about storytelling though, it’s all about world immersion and the Mayor concept is just enough to make this title bigger and more distinct than its predecessors. The Animal Crossing games have always been based on freeform, nonlinear play rooted in building up homes and characters, then using them to interact with a fully developed cutie-pie world from the designers. By making the player a mayor in New Leaf, you have a whole city at your fingertips to design as you choose. Obviously you can’t turn it into an apocalyptic wasteland, but other than that the possibilities are wide open and you could very well sink your entire life into your little virtual world if you felt so inclined.
Gameplay itself is essentially broken up into little tasks and mini-games (fishing, farming, making friends, serving coffee, etc), each designed in a simple-to-grasp, yet fun-to-explore way that makes even the most mundane activities addicting. Characters from previous games pop up with continued life stories if you enjoy the Animal Crossing continuity, but if not, it’s not essential. Everything is so simple and accessible you’ll fall into the game’s trap immediately. You can interact and play with seemingly everything in the Animal Crossing world, and in a new addition to the series that even spreads to online multiplayer. Now you can explore your friends’ homes and play mini-games with them anytime thanks to the magic of Wi-fi. And in a creepy/creative addition, you can even visit strangers’ homes through street pass. It’s another small edition that makes a big impact, opening up an already immersive world to create a mini-universe. Presumably the inevitable Wii sequel will take this to the next level with an entire virtual Animal Crossing planet that can be visited and traversed at any time through a console.
The graphics also get a nice n’ sweet boost in the edition. Simplicity is still the root of the design, but characters are a bit more diverse in their design (and in this case that can be as simple as one being taller than the others…honestly that’s a big visual boost to the series if you can believe it). Most impressively, the landscape is presented with a constant rolling horizon line as if the world of Animal Crossing was set on a rolling pin. It’s simple, but looks beautiful in 3D and actually encourages players to go with that eye-straining visual splendor. Other than that, there’s not much to report visually. It’s simplistic and cartoony, but pretty and pleasing in all the right ways.
It’s tough to review a game like Animal Crossing: New Leaf because it’s not a linear experience that can be broken down into small components and judged. Nope, this is all about world building and immersion, encouraging players to keep coming back so that they can make more friends through altruistic generosity while collecting items as payment (which include a number of amusing Nintendo in-jokes ranging from a tri-force or Metroid helmet to a tiny Virtual Boy). If you have no patience for that kind of experience or need to kill something every 30-40 seconds to feel like you’re getting the most out of a video game, then Animal Crossing will feel like a warm n’ fuzzy slog. There’s been no attempt on Nintendo’s part to really change what works about the series, but if you’ve been seduced by Animal Crossing’s life-sucking charms in any of the previous incarnations, then New Leaf is sure to make you feel giddy and suck hours away from your life once more. Nintendo created something unique when they created this game many moons ago and even now there’s nothing else like it (for better or worse, depending on your point of view).