In the lead up to E3 we'll be doing a series of features covering game franchises that we want to make an appearance at the show, and what we'd like to see out of a potential next entry in each series. In this article Nintendo Life editor Tom Whitehead makes the case for Animal Crossing on Wii U and its potential use of amiibo cards.
It's likely that Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer will feature at E3, along with its amiibo cards - it was given a release date, bundle details and tied to the arrival of the 3DS amiibo / NFC portal in the most recent Japanese Nintendo Direct, so we'd anticipate similar details to emerge out of LA.
It's an intriguing bit of software based on what we know so far. The fascinating aspect is also a criticism - it seems so darn shallow. You scan an amiibo card to unlock a cute resident of the Animal Crossing world, they make requests of the kind of home they want and you create it for them. We initially thought it was free-to-play, but it's a packaged retail offering in Japan. That status does have caveats, though - the retail aspect, including the way it's being bundled, is basically making the game / app a vehicle for those amiibo cards and the arrival of the NFC series on the original 3DS systems through that portal.
It feels like one part of a broader equation - that's my instinct, and that of some others too. Rather like the Paper Mario speculation for E3 the talk of Animal Crossing on Wii U is everywhere, with good reason, and is an ever-present in dodgy leaks and rumours. There'll be legitimate surprise if it's not one of Nintendo's big reveals, especially after the evasive recent words of Hisashi Nogami, a co-director on the franchise. It's easy to read between the lines of this reply when he was directly quizzed on the franchise coming to Wii U.
Well, that's difficult for me to answer at the moment! Yup. That's pretty much all we can say.
What I will say is that you may have seen an announcement recently about an Animal Crossing product coming out on the 3DS... I can tack that on to the end of my response.
There's plenty of logic to the idea that Animal Crossing is destined for Wii U. For one thing, it's the sort of mainstream hit - with an appeal to a broad audience - that could further help the home console in its quest to sustain enough sales to last the rest of its generation and hold its place in the retail scene. Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a major success story on 3DS not just for its sales and the role it played in the portable's biggest-selling year in the West (2013), but also for its impact on social media. Through a combination of its image sharing tool but also the impact it had on players, it was a title that was prominent in Twitter and Facebook chatter over the initial months after its release.
Back in the summer of 2013 we wrote an article titled The Effortless Social Charm of Animal Crossing: New Leaf, as it's a game that brings gamers together in different ways. Our polls at the time suggested that many of the Nintendo Life community enjoyed visiting each others' towns on a regular basis, with friends able to use text chat. Yet modern social trends are also about having an experience that's easily shared, hence all the tweets and Facebook posts that were posted at the time. Its mix of quaintness, addictive time-based game design that effectively works like a free-to-play 'one more time' mechanic but without hideous microtransactions, and the surprising amount of depth hidden beneath the accessible whimsy, all made it a hit with a diverse range of gamers.
All of that plays into the likelihood of a Wii U version, though it should be acknowledged that it's the portable AC titles that have performed best, in sales and often in fan reaction. Part of this is driven by huge sales in Japan, but also highlights how the daily dip-in-dip-out demands of the series best suit a handheld device. That's the major design challenge Nintendo needs to consider.
On the one hand the Wii U has the tools to take the online and social aspects of the 3DS entry to another level. Assuming the graphical demands will be limited, there'll be a lot of processor power and RAM memory that could help Nintendo ramp up the connectivity of the title - Miiverse, YouTube and potential support for Twitter and Facebook could replace the admittedly clunky image sharing tool of the portable game. Some may scoff at the idea of Nintendo supporting external social platforms, yet it's already embraced YouTube in Mario Kart 8 and will do so again in Art Academy: Atelier.
The Wii U also provides scope to give greater freedom and customisation to the experience. While the lovely 3DS entry did provide random environments, the template range was limited, though naturally the player could transform it over the course of weeks and months. Yet the Wii U could do so much more with diverse environments that bring extra wonder to visiting the towns of others. If the big N is really ambitious, it could even let us build and customise our basic land from the off, with options to go for a coastal location, or something more urban, woodland and more. If this happens it'll likely still be simplistic in order to keep it accessible, yet I think some freedom and potential for expression right from the off could go a long way.
Online interactions will likely remain cautious, but there's scope to go further with aspects such as the in-game economy and collections. For example, selling and trading goods with players around the world could be done through a live, always connected marketplace; the tricky part would be designing it to prevent manipulation from cynical players. The GamePad should also support a similar intuitive dual-screen setup to the 3DS, though we doubt voice-chat will be considered - in likelihood we'll have to type our messages once again.
As for connectivity and amiibo, I'd expect any Animal Crossing Wii U game to utilise the upcoming amiibo cards; as stated above Happy Home Designer feels like a small part of a broader plan for the series, with the home console entry being the main attraction. Connectivity is also possible with New Leaf, though would likely be limited; if the new entry uses a glossy HD engine with similar foundations to the 3DS game, some cross-play could be feasible, but I'm always cautious when linking Nintendo to cross-play ideas.
Meanwhile an Animal Crossing title on Wii U will, like City Folk on Wii, likely be outshone in the commercial stakes by its portable predecessor; the realities of the userbase discrepancy between 3DS and Wii U will see to that. Yet, within the scope of what's deemed a success for the Wii U, it could be a vital weapon later this year, perhaps in the Holiday season. As highlighted above New Leaf won over a diverse audience, and that name recognition could help the Wii U version and, with some smartly priced bundles, the system itself.
I feel like Animal Crossing has good odds of being revealed for the Wii U during E3. Another full entry on the 3DS seems extremely unlikely, and AC is the sort of brand that could help the Wii U in the end-of-year shopping season.
If it'll make Nintendo a lot of Bells, it'll probably take the plunge.