Franchise Festival #94: Animal Crossing

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be paying a debt of gratitude to the history of Animal Crossing. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

Table of Contents

Background
Dōbutsu no Mori/Animal Crossing (2001/2002)
Animal Crossing: Wild World (2005)
Animal Crossing: City Folk (2008)
Animal Crossing: New Leaf (2013)
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020)
Spinoffs

Background

Katsuya Eguchi graduated from Japan Electronic College in 1986 with a degree in computer graphics and a longtime passion for arcade games. Eguchi soon moved from Chiba to Kyoto to join Nintendo, contributing level designs to the studio’s most technically impressive title yet: Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988/1990). Still, the challenging transition from a town in which he had an extensive social network to a city in which he had no friends or family represented a culture shock that would heavily influence Eguchi’s directorial work on one of Nintendo’s most influential new intellectual properties (IPs) of the 2000s.

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Dōbutsu no Mori / Animal Crossing (2001/2002)

Dōbutsu no Mori (“Animal Forest,” 2001) began life as a prototype for the doomed Nintendo 64 Disk Drive (64DD) peripheral, as the 64DD’s internal real-time clock had inspired staff to experiment with games featuring temporal elements. Unfortunately, the collapse of the platform amid abysmal commercial performance in Japan forced Nintendo to shift development to a cartridge format early in development. The company’s expensive solution to this issue, a processor added to every copy of the game that calculates the passage of time, ensured that Dōbutsu no Mori would never be localized overseas in its original format following its original 2001 release.

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Some events and buildings, like the pictured bell house, are present only in the original Dōbutsu no Mori. Source: Animal Crossing Wiki

In a 2008 interview with Edge, co-director Eguchi outlined the extent to which his experience as a fledgling programmer in the 1980s informed the game’s central concept:

Animal Crossing features three themes: family, friendship and community… But the reason I wanted to investigate them was a result of being so lonely when I arrived in Kyoto! Chiba is east of Tokyo and quite a distance from Kyoto, and when I moved there I left my family and friends behind. In doing so, I realized that being close to them – being able to spend time with them, talk to them, play with them – was such a great, important thing. I wondered for a long time if there would be a way to recreate that feeling, and that was the impetus behind the original Animal Crossing.

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Rover makes some pretty alarming suggestions about the player character. Source: AdamzoneTopMarks

The game begins in a first-person perspective, as the player answers questions posed by an anthropomorphic cat named Rover on a train taking them from their home to a distant town. Answers to Rover’s questions determine the appearance of the player’s avatar. The player character receives a house from shopkeeper raccoon Tom Nook upon their arrival in town, and is given two primary goals as a new resident: accumulate enough currency – bells – to pay back their home loan and expand their residence’s size. The game progresses in real-time as players meet neighbors, take part in holidays, and complete low-stakes sidequests. There is no conflict or narrative, and the emphasis is instead placed on living a fulfilling simulated life alongside myriad charming non-player characters (NPCs).

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Tortimer may be mayor, but you get the impression Tom Nook runs the show. Source: MobyGames

Gameplay includes fishing, catching insects, digging for fossils, harvesting fruit, and chopping down trees from a top-down perspective. Collectibles contribute to filling up lists that track the fauna of the village, customizing the player’s house, selling raw materials for bells at a shop, and altering the randomly-generated topography of the town. Tools to make these tasks more efficient, including better fishing rods and shovels, can be purchased at the same shop where the player character sells their goods. The player can also find emulated Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) games to install in their home and play.

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That house isn’t going to furnish itself! Source: MobyGames

When certain conditions are met, new villagers will join the six present in town at the start of the game. The game’s 186 animal NPCs are grouped into six broad personality types – normal, jock, peppy, lazy, snooty, and cranky – but have unique dialogue and birthdays. A town can only contain a maximum of fifteen NPCs at a time, so old residents will move out and be replaced by new residents as time goes by. Retaining preferred residents requires fulfilling their requests and engaging with them on a regular basis. Since the game advances in real-time regardless of the console being turned on, it is possible for players to log back in after a lengthy absence to find that residents have moved away and their town has become overgrown with weeds.

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Weeds and bugs proliferate when the player is away from his or her game, though the harsh words of neglected neighbors are the hardest part about returning.  Source: Fernleaf Flynn

Nine months after its initial release on the Nintendo 64, Dōbutsu no Mori was re-released on the Gamecube in Japan under the name Dōbutsu no Mori+ with updated content. In addition to minor cosmetic changes, the roster of arcade games is expanded, new NPCs and items make their debut, the player can customize wallpaper and clothing patterns, and a handful of significant new facilities are available. The latter include a museum to catalog fossils and an island to which the player character can be ferried on a boat captained by a kappa named Kapp’n. Animal Island features items and villagers which can’t be encountered otherwise, as well as second-screen interactivity on the Game Boy Advance (GBA) via the Gamecube-Game Boy Advance Link Cable. The overall graphics and Kazumi Totaka-composed soundtrack, on the other hand, were left more or less unchanged in the transition from Nintendo 64 to Gamecube.

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Given its outsized role in all other series entries, it’s surprising to consider that Blathers’ museum is absent from the series’ Nintendo 64 debut. Source: MobyGames

Since the Gamecube included an internal clock, producing an English-language version of Dōbutsu no Mori+ was a more commercially appealing prospect for Nintendo. Still, the sheer volume of dialogue presented a challenge. Nintendo of America’s ever-ambitious Treehouse localization team, under the management of Jeff Miller and Leslie Swan, successfully translated the entire script and even added new holidays familiar to Western audiences in less than one year; localization for Europe took two additional years due to similar cultural issues. Players outside of Japan finally got to experience one of the medium’s most relaxing titles yet when it launched as Animal Crossing in North America on September 16, 2002 and in Europe on September 24, 2004. Contemporary reviews were generally quite positive, noting that the game’s previous-generation visuals did little to dampen the enjoyment of living out a virtual existence among animals, while more recent critical retrospectives have highlighted an unresolved internal tension between “consumption and naturalism.”

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Mayor Tortimer helps the player celebrate Founder’s Day, one of numerous in-game events tied to real-world calendar dates. Source: jvgsfeff

Surprisingly, Dōbutsu no Mori’s international release was not its final version. Lest Nintendo’s local fans feel that they’d been left out, a still-further expanded edition of Animal Crossing was translated back into Japanese and published as Dōbutsu no Mori e+ in 2003. This Japan-only variant, which remains the most complete version of the game, has not been localized or re-released at the time of writing in July 2020.

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Animal Crossing: Wild World (2005)

Development on Animal Crossing’s Nintendo DS sequel was guided by a decision to avoid anything that could be considered region-specific. The three long years that the prior game had taken to reach Europe, an increasingly important market for Nintendo, after Dōbutsu no Mori’s initial publication in Japan weighed heavily on the studio’s plans for growing its first new IP of the 2000s. In his new role as producer, Eguchi and a team led by Animal Crossing co-director Hisashi Nogami incorporated multicultural influences from around the world to prevent the series from becoming bland when regional localization choices were removed.

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Kapp’n plays the same role as Rover had in Animal Crossing, though with more pirate chatter and fewer accusations. Source: AdamzoneTopMarks

Animal Crossing: Wild World begins in a car rather than a train. Former boat captain Kapp’n, who now has a job as a driver, asks the player questions to determine their avatar’s appearance in the manner of Animal Crossing’s Rover. In contrast to the series’ debut, the town’s name and arrangement are similarly altered based on the introductory conversation.

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Wild World introduces constellations, which the player can create and add to stars on the top screen’s night sky. Source: Wikipedia

Once they have arrived, the player’s experience is quite similar to the preceding game. Tom Nook loans them money to create a house and most of their early hours are spent at a part-time delivery job to repay that debt. After their initial goal is accomplished, players can focus on fulfilling neighbor requests and filling up a museum run by absent-minded owl Blathers. Given the move from Gamecube to DS, the most noteworthy change is interface-related: inventory and menu manipulation is handled using the lower touchscreen.

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At the Able Sisters’ tailor shop, players can use the touchscreen to design their own patterns for the first time. Source: MobyGames

Online elements are made possible with the inclusion of internet connectivity in the DS hardware. While transfer of items between players was possible in the Gamecube’s Animal Crossing using multiple memory cards on a single console, players can now instantly trade items with one another or invite up to three other players to visit their town using the platform’s Wi-Fi Connection feature. These elements became less accessible when Nintendo shut Wi-Fi Connection down in 2014, but could still be activated either by using the DS’ local connection service or unofficial player-run servers.

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KK Slider is one cool dude. Source: ohomemquevirousuco

Wild World’s new soundtrack is composed by Totaka, who is again represented in-game by the guitar-playing dog KK Slider. Players can visit the cafe and hear him play unique songs at 8:00 PM every Saturday night. With regard to its visual design, Wild World introduces a new approach to depicting the characters’ town. Rather than a straightforward top-down view, as had been present in Animal Crossing, the landscape is now perceived as a “rolling log” that occupies the lower half of the screen. This allows the player to see the sky above them as the town scrolls into view. The “rolling log” visual style would be used in every subsequent series entry through Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020).

Animal Crossing: Wild World was more critically and commercially successful than its predecessor, due to the vast install-base of the DS, selling nearly 12,000,000 copies by 2016. Eguchi’s plan to reduce localization overhead was vindicated with a near-simultaneous publication in Japan and North America in November/December 2005 followed by a European release only four months later. It was then re-released on the Wii U Virtual Console service in 2016, though this version naturally lacks the multiplayer elements present in the original DS edition.

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Animal Crossing: City Folk (2008)

Little changed in staff leadership between Wild World and the Nintendo Wii’s Animal Crossing: City Folk: Eguchi remained the producer, Nogami remained the director, and Totaka remained the lead composer. This is unsurprising, since the game retains its predecessor’s underlying engine in spite of the transition from portable to home console platform. A two year development process began in December 2006 and primarily focused on integrating the Wii’s WiiConnect64 online functionality. The greatest hurdle to the series’ first planned simultaneous release in North America and Japan was an estimated 4,000 pages of text, but Nintendo Treehouse again delivered an excellent translation that maintained the quirky character of the original game without any delays.

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Players can interact with animals in City Plaza or visit a variety of shops. Source: FullMetalSmash

City Folk is the least significant update to the Animal Crossing formula so far, differing very little in its core gameplay and setting from Wild World, but it does feature a handful of notable additions. WiiConnect64’s constant internet connection allows players to visit friends’ towns online and receive gossip from villagers who move between towns. A new City Plaza accessible via Kapp’n’s bus, while small in terms of overall explorable area, enhances the series’ scope. Shifting stores from the player’s hometown to an urban hub likewise allows for a wider customizable play area to be filled with new villagers.

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Gracie’s boutique is home to the trendiest seasonal furniture and clothing. Source: Animal Crossing Wiki

While most neighbors are drawn from earlier series entries, two major new characters make their debut in the City Plaza. Phineas the Sea Lion appears at random to distribute cosmetic items like pinwheels and bubble wands while Kicks the Skunk shines the player character’s shoes, altering them to reflect their hair color or clothing. Some returning characters have new roles, like Gracie the Giraffe’s high-end fashion boutique. Redd the Fox continues to distribute a combination of legitimate and fake works of art, as he had in Animal Crossing and Wild World, though he now operates his racket out of a store situated in City Plaza’s back alley.

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Christmas returns to Animal Crossing with City Folk‘s Toy Day. Source: barolb

City Folk – released as Animal Crossing: Let’s Go To The City in Europe – serves primarily as a direct continuation of Wild World, and even includes the ability to transfer data from the DS to the Wii if a player owns the preceding title. Critics praised the reintegration of regional holidays and refined presentation while noting that it was the least innovative entry in the series so far. While a large-scale production run ensured that copies remain easily accessible to enthusiasts over a decade after City Folk’s initial release, the shuttering of Nintendo Wi-Fi Connect in 2014 renders the creators’ original vision impossible to replicate at the time of writing. As with Animal Crossing villagers, time inescapably moves on.

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Animal Crossing: New Leaf (2013)

Hisashi Nogami moved on to other Nintendo IPs following City Folk, contributing to the Tomodachi and Super Smash Bros. series before taking on another leadership role as producer of Splatoon in 2015. In his absence, City Folk sequence director Aya Kyogoku and sub director Isao Moro co-directed the 3DS’ Animal Crossing: New Leaf under the leadership of series producer Katsuya Eguchi. Their goal, in response to criticism of the franchise’s previous installment, was the implementation of meaningful changes to a stagnating if reliable formula. This led to an uncharacteristically long development period, which began before 2010 and extended well into 2012. The game would finally be released on the 3DS in Japan on November 8, 2012 before coming to worldwide audiences in June 2013.

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Isabelle aids the player character when he or she becomes mayor. Source: MobyGames

Changes are apparent as soon as the game begins, as players have the opportunity to choose between four town layouts for the first time. Customization continues with the player character’s appointment as mayor of his or her town, replacing Tortimer the Tortoise, and the associated opportunity to make consequential community decisions once they have received a 100% job approval rating. These range from producing public works projects like bridges and a campsite to promulgating town ordinances like altering store hours to offer later or earlier service (the Night Owl and Early Bird ordinances, respectively). Isabelle the Dog, who makes her debut in New Leaf as the player character’s secretary, would go on to become the series mascot over the following years.

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Public works projects are similar to the Community Projects and Town Fund projects of Animal Crossing and City Folk, but are much more numerous and feature an optional celebration once complete. Source: Animal Crossing Wiki

The complexity of player characters’ impacts on their towns is reflected in an expanded online component. A player can use Luna’s Dream Suite facility to visit other settlements in a dream setting. These include both friends’ towns – accessible by inputting a password – or those of random strangers. Any player can upload a version of their town to show off their flair for city planning.

The accumulation of bells remains a perennial concern even though Tom Nook’s role as the local loan shark has been de-emphasized. Bells are required for town ordinances, home upgrades, and the purchase of a breathtakingly diverse array of clothing items. The player can acquire these by collecting and selling items or by taking on a job at the local cafe once it’s built; unlike earlier games, the player can’t accept a part-time delivery position from Tom Nook. A Main Street district fulfills the purpose of City Folks’ City Plaza but is accessed by walking rather than the use of public transportation.

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Tortimer Island lets players join one another in real-time for minigames like a bug-catching race. Note that character models are now taller than they were in earlier titles. Source: MobyGames

Since Kapp’n is free from his bus-driving duties, he returns to his original role as a sea captain. Kapp’n will ferry the player character to Tortimer Island upon request, where he or she can compete in minigames with friends using wi-fi or collect unique fish and bugs. This location, which only becomes accessible once the player has paid off their initial home loan, also serves as the residence of the town’s former mayor.

Gameplay is otherwise relatively similar to preceding titles, as the player engages in pleasant dialogue with new town residents and tries to keep them happy by making the town suit their needs. Even so, most neighbors eventually move away and are replaced by one of the series’ increasingly deep roster of characters. Blathers’ museum returns as a repository for the player’s assorted collectibles while a variety of stores offer myriad cosmetic updates to the player’s home and personal appearance.

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Isabelle and Digby, among others NPCs, can pose in real-world images taken by the player with his or her 3DS once the Welcome Amiibo expansion is installed. Source: Animal Crossing Wiki

A major update in 2016 called Welcome Amiibo made the game compatible with cards and toys that had respectively been sold to promote and interact with spinoffs Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer and Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival since 2015. Players visit an in-game campground area, run by new character Harvey, and scan their figurines or cards using the 3DS hardware to invite a villager to join their town; 50 villagers who had not appeared since the series’ inaugural title were made available through this mechanic. Additional features, like new minigames and a photography mode in which players can add Animal Crossing characters to images taken in the real world, are also included in the free downloadable expansion. All retail copies of the game published since 2016 come with the Welcome Amiibo content pre-installed.

Note: Cover art sourced from Animal Crossing Wiki

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Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020)

Animal Crossing’s fifth core title is the series’ first without the day-to-day involvement of its creator: Eguchi moved up to the relatively hands-off position of general producer while Nogami returned to replace him as producer and Kyogoku took on her first solo directorial role. The franchise’s profile had risen exponentially in the preceding five years due to New Leaf’s broad popularity and the release of mobile spinoff Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp in 2017, so Nintendo believed that its latest release would be its most commercially successful so far if it was equally tailored to new and long-time fans. As public awareness of deleterious studio crunch culture grew, due in part to muck-raking investigations penned by Kotaku reporter Jason Schreier, Nintendo delayed New Horizons from its planned 2019 publication to ensure a healthy work-life balance among staff members. This decision proved unfortunately prescient, as the much-anticipated escapist fantasy would launch worldwide on March 20, 2020 in the midst of an historic pandemic.

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Rivers no longer pose a barrier to progress! Source: Animal Crossing Wiki

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is more conservative than New Leaf, taking its cues primarily from that game. The player can customize their avatar, home, and even the surrounding town as they accumulate bells from completing in-game tasks and selling items. New neighbors move in as hidden objectives are met and are then replaced over time as the town grows.

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The NookPhone is an elegant update to earlier titles’ interfaces. Source: MobyGames

A handful of elements differentiate New Horizons from past titles, however. The player’s avatar begins the game by moving to a deserted island courtesy of travel agency Nook Inc., setting the stage for even more sweeping level customization than had been possible when joining a pre-existing town in New Leaf. A new currency called Nook Miles, accumulated through engagement with in-game mechanics like pulling weeds, was added in an effort to appeal to new players more familiar with the reward loops of mobile games. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp’s crafting system likewise makes the leap from a mobile environment to a dedicated video game console, allowing players to combine found objects to produce items like furniture. This de-emphasizes the marketplace without entirely eliminating it.

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Tools and furniture can be crafted if the player finds the right items throughout his or her island. Unlike in Pocket Camp, no microtransactions are present. Source: MobyGames

More iterative changes simultaneously make the series’ familiar mechanics more accessible than ever. Robust character design settings finally allow players to make their in-game avatar look more like themselves – or how they would like to look – than ever using a wide variety of skin tone and hair options. Players can visit others’ towns and even host parties for entire groups of friends. Streams can now be pole-vaulted over, while a multitude of communication and inventory manipulation options are available using an in-game NookPhone. All of these improvements come at a cost to the player character, of course, as the bell economy is as active as ever and Tom Nook is ever-eager to provide services that the player must later repay in full. Though the feature had debuted in New Leaf, the most efficient means of securing bells – playing the “Stalk Market” by collecting turnips on Sunday and then selling them to Timmy and Tommy Nook’s Re-Tail shop once their price has peaked during the week according to a seemingly random algorithm – is made more engaging through the vast expansion of the series’ online community; websites like turnip.exchange and social media platforms like Twitter have been awash in discussions about this fictional investment system since the game’s release.

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Up to eight players can gather using the internet or local couch co-op. Source: Game Rant

Efforts to make New Horizons the series’ most popular entry yet were more successful than the studio could have imagined. Launching as it did, when much of the world was confined to the domestic sphere due to COVID-19, ensured that the community-oriented game was a rare way for isolated individuals to connect with one another in a shared, joyful experience. New Horizons sold more copies than any prior series entries in only six weeks. Even as players host virtual graduations, Hong Kong democracy protests, and Pride celebrations using the game’s multiplayer functionality, anticipation remains high for planned updates in the months and years ahead.

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Spinoffs

The appearance of eight variations on Animal Crossing’s avatar character in Super Smash Bros. 4 (2014) under the name Villager heralded the start of a busy three years for the series. The first of three spinoffs released during this period was Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, which was respectively published for the 3DS in Japan, North America, and Europe in July, September, and October 2015. Happy Home Designer was directed by New Leaf co-director Isao Moro and serves as a fleshed-out exploration of the ongoing Happy Home Academy (HHA, Happy Room Academy [HRA] prior to New Leaf) mechanic from Animal Crossing’s core entries. While the HHA/HRA evaluated players’ home customization and awarded points that the player could put towards purchasing a model home in the main series, Happy Home Designer instead requires players to design homes for Animal Crossing characters to their specifications. The absence of any town-building components means that the game is focused exclusively on home customization.

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Residents jump for joy if the player successfully conforms a home to their whims. Source: MobyGames

The franchise’s next spinoff, Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival, was released worldwide in November 2015. This Wii U digital board game was announced at the same time as Happy Home Designer and was produced primarily as a vehicle for already-designed Animal Crossing Amiibo figurines. While it superficially resembles Nintendo’s Mario Party (1998-2019), gameplay emphasizes turn-based multiplayer exploration of a village rather than minigames. Amiibo Festival reviewed well in Japan but was panned in North America as a shallow excuse to sell toys.

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It’s cool to finally play as one of Animal Crossing‘s adorable characters, but Amiibo Festival‘s board game mechanics leave much to be desired. Its best alternate mode – Desert Island Escape – was later added to Animal Crossing: New Leaf: Welcome Amiibo. Source: Metro

Animal Crossing’s final spinoff, at least at the time of writing, is Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp (2017). This mobile release is surprisingly faithful to core franchise entries insofar as the player creates and controls an avatar who customizes their surroundings while interacting with quirky animal neighbors. In contrast to the main series, however, the environment is shrunken from a full town to a locale inspired by New Leaf: Welcome Amiibo’s campground.

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You’d be forgiven for assuming that Pocket Camp is a standard Animal Crossing title at a glance. Source: MobyGames

As indicated above, Pocket Camp introduces crafting to the franchise for the first time. This allows players to produce furniture using components harvested from the campground or other areas, like explorable Sunburst Island and Saltwater Shores. Microtransactions enable the player to obtain Leaf Tickets that reduce timers on building projects and obviate crafting component requirements. While comparatively slow gameplay encourages the player to spend real-world money on this in-game currency, it is also possible to obtain Leaf Tickets by completing tasks for Isabelle or other neighbors. Reviews were largely positive, but the game’s most important contribution to its franchise was the introduction of an entirely new group of players to one of Nintendo’s most charming IPs.

Conclusion

In roughly twenty years, Animal Crossing has grown from a niche Japan-only Nintendo 64 title to Nintendo’s best-selling game of 2020. In spite of online elements being shut down over the years, regular updates to more recent entries and a slow but steady release of sequels has exposed millions of new players to the easygoing virtues of village life. Given the series’ humble origins in Eguchi’s sense of isolation following his 1986 move to Kyoto, it is perhaps unsurprising that a game focused on building virtual communities should be so comforting during the 21st Century’s darkest year. Players can always look forward to greeting their friends – be they real or virtual – within the cozy confines of Animal Crossing.


What do you think about Animal Crossing? Who are your favorite villagers? How about your favorite town upgrades and ordinances? Do you like to see the series embracing larger-scale multiplayer in its latest entry? How much do you still owe Tom Nook? Let’s discuss below.

Here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:

  • #95: Dragon Quest – July 17
    • Includes an interview with USGamer‘s Nadia Oxford
  • #96: Steamworld – July 31
  • #97: Heroes of Might and Magic – August 14
  • #98: The Sims – August 28
  • #99: F-Zero – September 11

Please also be sure to check out the Franchise Festival podcast, where I’ve been going in-depth with the history of the Legend of Zelda series twice a month alongside my co-hosts Spencer and Hamilton. It’s available online and wherever you get your podcasts!