Feature: The Humble Origins of Animal Crossing

How an obscure little N64 title grew into a hit franchise for Nintendo

The hype and excitement for Animal Crossing: New Leaf across the web is reaching a critical level. Hitting North America on 9th June and Europe on 14th June, it begs the question whether some people might literally explode as a result of not being able to contain their excitement. To think that a game series, where the main focus is that there really isn't any focus whatsoever, has got so many of us gamers frothing at the mouth in anticipation is perhaps a tad bizarre. Only Nintendo could muster up a title where you carry out what should be mundane tasks, make idle chit-chat with anthropomorphic animals and not only make it fun, but make it so much fun that it practically flies off the shelves and into people's systems.

Since its global debut on the GameCube, the Animal Crossing series has been a considerable success for Nintendo. Animal Crossing: Wild World for the DS stands out as the true champion of the series, selling an astonishing 11.7 million copies during its lifespan, but each title has been a multi-million seller. Moreover, Animal Crossing: New Leaf has already flown past the 3 million mark in Japan alone.

But how did the Animal Crossing series grow to become the massive moneymaker it is today? Interestingly, the franchise wasn't an instant hit for Nintendo, and rather its success came about as a result of some good business sense and a bit of luck.

In case you weren't aware, the GameCube wasn't the first Nintendo system to receive an Animal Crossing game; that honour actually goes to the Nintendo 64. Released exclusively in Japan in 2001, Dōbutsu no Mori (which translates as Animal Forest) had the misfortune of arriving towards the end of the N64's lifespan. This was a key factor, as the game's limited chances of decent sales were essentially what motivated Nintendo to port the game to the GameCube later that year.

A criticism often heard in recent years regarding the Animal Crossing series is that there isn't enough innovation between titles. However, looking back at Dōbutsu no Mori now actually shows just how far the series has come along.

The core gameplay is essentially the same as the later GameCube port which both Europe and North America also enjoyed. One of the N64 version's most impressive features is, funnily enough, the real-time clock system. Unlike the GameCube, the Nintendo 64 did not feature an internal clock, meaning that a special clock had to be built into the Animal Crossing cartridge itself. It may not seem like a big deal, but this was innovative at the time and shows that despite now being obsolete, the humble cartridge was a versatile format when it needed to be.

With that said, the limited storage space offered by the medium meant that the original game has far fewer features than its GameCube counterpart. For example, it might surprise you to learn that Mayor Tortimer, despite being a million and one years old, does not in fact appear in the N64 version. Nor does Kapp'n, the Able Sisters and Blathers. In comparison to the 3DS version, Dōbutsu no Mori is a very quiet place to live. Therefore, when it comes to starting your new town in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, our advice would be that you don't take your new mayoral powers for granted.

Thankfully, the game's transition to GameCube saw it expand into a much more wholesome experience. In a way, you could say that Dōbutsu no Mori actually released at the right time in the N64's life; it essentially gave Nintendo a sound business reason to make a GameCube version. What if it had released during the height of N64's popularity and still saw disappointing sales? Would Nintendo have been as keen to have revitalised it on a new system, let alone release it to a worldwide audience?

With regards to the series' eventual global success, a lot of praise should be attributed to Nintendo Treehouse, the localisation division of Nintendo of America. The GameCube version's solid sales figures in Japan gave Nintendo the confidence it needed in order to release it in North America. When translating the Japanese version of the GameCube game, the Nintendo Treehouse team had to adjust the game to suit Western customs and traditions, which meant creating new holidays and items. The end result — as we all know — was exceptional, so much so that Nintendo of Japan actually translated the NoA version back into Japanese and released it as an updated version called Dōbutsu no Mori e+.

Looking back in retrospect, it's crazy to think that a simple N64 game releasing at an inopportune moment in the system's lifespan would result in a series that has now grown to take the world by storm. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to think that Nintendo ported Dōbutsu no Mori to the GameCube just so it could make a better return on its investment. If anything, the Big N — like with nearly all its major franchises — always knew it was on to a good thing with its peculiar communication game. All it needed was a chance to give Animal Crossing enough exposure in order to reel in the players, and as the series' history has shown us, that's exactly what the Japanese games giant did.