As a Nintendo franchise, Animal Crossing probably won't be mentioned in the same breath as Mario, Zelda, or even Metroid, but that doesn't mean it should be discounted. It's a rare game that eschews action and combat and has earned a hard-fought niche. Animal Crossing: Wild World was a huge success on the original Nintendo DS, selling over 11 million copies and becoming one of the system's biggest hits. Many people picked up the system to have a portable version of the GameCube original. Animal Crossing: New Leaf was set to match that even before its overseas release. The Japanese version was the first Nintendo 3DS game to sell over two million copies, and as of this writing, it has sold over three million copies in Japan alone. The American and European release can double or even triple those impressive sales numbers. That's not bad for a game with no guns or swords.
If you've ever played an Animal Crossing game, you know what to expect from New Leaf, which returning fans may find either comforting or frustrating. It's more of the same, but that may be for the best. There aren't many games like Animal Crossing on the market, and New Leaf is the best the franchise has to offer in a convenient portable pack. There's a huge batch of minor mechanical improvements, but many will only stand out to longtime fans. Character customization has been upgraded to let you alter more of your character's articles of clothing, there are more types of fish, insects and villagers, the interface has been cleaned up so it's easier to carry fruit, there are new stores, etc. However, beneath that, it's very much the same game.
If you haven't played Animal Crossing before, your avatar moves into a cheerful town of wacky animal-people and you live there. There aren't any dark secrets, hidden monsters threatening the town, or dark and dangerous mysteries to explore. You spend your days fishing, collecting fruit, buying and selling clothing, attending concerts, and countless other minor activities. You can improve the town, build relationships with other characters, and turn your house into a fancy mansion. Whatever strikes your fancy is the name of the game, and each day introduces something new. The controls are simple, since it's a game about relaxing in your town with your cartoon friends.
Animal Crossing isn't SimCity. Heck, it's not even The Sims. Failure is not really possible, and success is measured by what satisfies the player more than what satisfies the game. There are goals, but they're more of a casual suggestion than a demand, and there's rarely a time limit. The exception is the occasional festival, where you must complete a task relatively quickly to qualify. You need to pay off your debt to Tom Nook to improve your house, but for a loan shark, he's a remarkably nice guy. If you want to spend your days planting new trees and harvesting fruit, you can. If you want to spend your days making fancy clothing patterns to trade to other players, you can. You're certainly encouraged to branch out and explore new things, but you never actually have to. Making money is more of a side effect of existing in the town than something you need to do to survive. You can eat, but you don't need to. You can sleep, but it's entirely unnecessary.
This makes Animal Crossing a remarkably relaxing game. If you can't thrive without adversity, you may have a tough time getting settled with this game. On the other hand, if you're someone who loves goofing around in a game, New Leaf was made for you. I spent the first few days in town looking for fossils for the museum and collecting seashells to convert into money so I could get my first house. After that, I took up gardening and created groves of fruit trees to harvest. It was a few days before I bothered to check the mayor's office to see what the townspeople wanted.
That brings us to the biggest new feature in New Leaf. When you first wander into town, you're declared mayor by the confused townsfolk, who are eagerly looking for a replacement. In keeping with series tradition, you get all the fun aspects of being mayor without much of the frustration. All of the complex duties are handled by your assistant, so most of your involvement is speaking to townspeople, making decisions about the layout of the land, and issuing ordinances that alter the townspeople's behavior. Most of these duties are cleverly disguised methods of customizing your game. The ordinances let you alter the schedule. If you play the game later in the day, the Night Owl ordinance allows you to keep stores open later and keep the town active after the sun goes down. Public works let you open new buildings or change how the town looks. As with everything in Animal Crossing, they require an investment of Bells. You'll need a lot of money to get all the improvements or issue all the ordinances, but before long, you'll have the town running just as you like it.
New Leaf makes good use of the 3DS's many features. Custom clothing patterns can be converted into AR codes, which can be scanned to transfer to other people. Other players can use the Internet and local wireless to visit each other's towns. You can even have multiple people live in the same town on the same device, although only one can be the mayor. Newcomers probably won't notice that you can better customize your home placement or alter the layout of the town more readily than you could in the previous title. The portable format also is perfect for Animal Crossing. You can close the 3DS and pick up at any time without interruption, making it a perfect game to play for a few minutes throughout the day.
New Leaf's art style is a slight improvement over the previous entry. The proportions of the characters have changed to accommodate more clothing options, and a lot of the environments have gotten a much-appreciated visual update. As with most Nintendo first-party games, the use of the 3-D effect is top-notch. The added depth helps make the visuals "pop," although the simplistic art style prevents it from being as striking as some of the other 3DS games, like Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon. The amount of customization more than makes up for that, though. The music is cute and atmospheric, doing a good job of setting the relaxing atmosphere. It may not be a visual powerhouse, but New Leaf remains charming and cheerful.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the definition of "more of the same," but that's not a bad thing. You're getting more of the same Animal Crossing, the familiar formula has been improved, and the new features add to the fun. If you're worn out on the formula, it's unlikely New Leaf will win you back. On the other hand, if you've been away from town for a while, New Leaf is easily the best of the Animal Crossing games to date, so it's a great time to return. It's a bit disappointing that it plays things so safe, but it's hard to argue with the results.
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