Something peculiar is happening on social networks at the moment; lots of people are talking about a Nintendo game. We see bursts of activity on sites such as Twitter when a Nintendo Direct is taking place, of course, but there's a sustained focus on this particular title among various gamers. Whether it can quite be described as "viral" is another point, but a search of #acnl on Twitter returns a lot of results, and that only shows those that have bothered to use the hashtag. Many with various chums on their 3DS Friend List may also notice the orange light at the top right of the handheld flashing more and more, too, as various systems boot up and launch Animal Crossing: New Leaf.
A sales phenomenon in Japan, early suggestions are that the title has started strongly in the West. Nintendo has referred to an impressive start in North America, while the UK launch saw it chart second in its debut week, only falling behind PS3 blockbuster The Last of Us. It's been critically acclaimed, too, with high scores across the media spectrum of Nintendo sites, multi-platform equivalents and national newspapers. It seems that whatever the game touches turns to gold, or perhaps we should say bells.
But how is Animal Crossing having such an impact? Perhaps it's all about the portable platform, with DS predecessor Animal Crossing: Wild World outperforming its GameCube and Wii equivalents in sales. As a title that demands regular, short visits, a portable system is perfect for jumping in for a quick visit or two, or even just to shake down some trees and catch some bugs; With New Leaf Nintendo has also added StreetPass, SpotPass and QR code functionality to gradually be discovered.
And yet it's a tough title to pin down and describe, with plenty of reviews dishing out high scores and then grappling with the question of how to explain why it deserves such a glowing recommendation. Great credit for this much surely go to the original designers, on one score, but then Nintendo's localisation team. For example, your town is populated with varied, quirky and in some cases neurotic animal characters, and that population only grows with time; it's a peculiar game to experience when an exercise-obsessed hamster asked for an opinion on his fashion sense, but that's exactly what happens.
The in-game economy is also cleverly judged to appeal to obsessives and casual Mayors alike, while discovering the various tricks to accumulate wealth quickly drives many to guides or asking for help online. By operating in real time, too, it's a title that is perfect for contextual chat with other gamers, around topics such as the best times to indulge in certain activities, visit particular spots and more.
While at its core a single player experience, New Leaf is perhaps the first in the series to become a social force externally — we can't even imagine how a New Leaf Miiverse community would have gone down if the 3DS version of the platform had been ready. We've already mentioned Twitter, but even here on Nintendo Life it's a phenomenon on the forums. At the time of writing the 3DS forum has multiple posts for trading items and QR codes, and a large long-running thread that appeared when the title was announced in 2010. It's also a game that, pre-release, was consistently top of the list in terms of most visited game pages on the site.
For those that take the plunge, the intricacies and variations between towns is enough to prompt lengthy chats about what fruit is available on the trees, what awesome ornament you picked up or even how you're getting on in a contest. The past weekend's bug hunt filled many Twitter timelines with ongoing commentaries on the latest critter caught, and a high number of celebratory pictures of Villagers celebrating first place.
The great social aspect is in the online play, however, which first featured in Wild World on the DS. Visiting friends' towns is an obvious highlight, and though voice chat is absent — which could be for the best — the use of text chat in the form of speech bubbles is quick and easy. Charm is once again the word, and when the gates are opened visitors are trusted to behave and show care for the host's town. Assuming those on your Friend List have the right spirit — though the "Best Friend" option allows you to shortlist those you trust — it can be an endearing exchange where you trade items and explore each other's creations.
And then there's the island, where you can collect goodies, of course, but also borrow and buy items and take part in mini-games. You could go to the island alone, but hopping in the boat with ditty singing Kapp'n is most enjoyable in the company of others, while the "tours" are a lot of fun with four charging around popping balloons, finding animals and so on.
New Leaf's social aspect goes further, of course, with the LOL night club, Happy Home Showcase and DreamSuite all enhancing the ability to see what others have been doing and share items. Throw in the ability to share screenshots by visiting i.nintendo.net on your 3DS browser — screens are taken by holding L and R — and, once again, it becomes a game that can be shared perhaps unlike any other Nintendo title.
Yet none of this is particularly revolutionary, and social games have become particularly popular on Facebook in recent years. Pinpointing exact reasons for the enthusiasm around New Leaf is difficult — everyone has their own reasons — but we can guess at some. It could be the polish of the experience, as Nintendo has clearly developed and evolved the AC eco-system and structure over the years. There's the presentation and character portrayal, with it being entirely possible to become emotionally attached to NPCs, while the customisation and outfits to players and their houses are a lot of fun to see in action. Perhaps it's the fact that it offers up some aspects of what's made online social games boom in recent years, but with the player having greater control and not being spammed by extra charges. Animal Crossing: New Leaf dictates the tempo of progress by following real time, but this is a design choice rather than a way to make you pay up for extra accessories. Once you buy the game, the expenditure is over, with a huge amount of content to discover in your own time.
Maybe Animal Crossing has always had this affect on players, in fact we don't doubt that, but this entry now arrives with social networking at a peak. It's a brilliant game, in a much-loved genre and on an increasingly popular portable system. Judging by the waves it's making in online communities, there are millions of diverse, delightful villages being lovingly created, and it's arguably unlike anything else on the market.
But we want to know what you think about the social aspect of Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Is it an important part of your enjoyment, or do you prefer to play solo? Let us know in the poll and comments below.