At Nintendo's E3 presentation two "spin-offs" based on the Animal Crossing series were shown: Animal Crossing amiibo Festival for Wii U, a Mario Party-style interactive board game, and Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer for 3DS - an interior design based title.
To focus on Happy Home Designer, it left many questioning Nintendo's strategy. The general consensus was that the title seemed to be a stripped down version of the main series of games, offering players the ability to design homes with not much else on offer. It was clear to see that with the ability to design homes already being a feature of the main series of games, Happy Home Designer would have to do something unique, and would certainly need to build upon the core experience in order to be taken seriously; enticing consumers to hand over their hard earned cash.
We've been lucky enough to spend some time with Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, and what we saw left us feeling more positive on the upcoming release.
The first thing that becomes apparent when starting up Happy Home Designer is that this really is a true "spin-off", and besides the presentation and aesthetic style this is drastically different to the experience we've grown to know and love from the main series of games. Gone is the single village where you make your residency and in its place is a "hub" - similar to the City found from the Animal Crossing: City Folk. This is where your office and all of the action takes place. Public facilities like restaurants, shops and hospitals can also be built over time, managed by your ever-helpful assistant - Isabel - with the hub expanding as you progress.
Being a spin-off, Happy Home Designer does indeed remove many of the past-times one would expect from the usual life sim experience. You can't decide to just "go fishing" or grab a shovel and go "digging up fossils". Instead, you have a job, and your job is what you do. Where Animal Crossing represents an idealistic, quaint, relaxing way of life that many of us find so appealing due to its escapism from the hustle and bustle of our own lives, Happy Home Designer shows us what it's like to actually have a job within the universe of Animal Crossing. So put that bug-catching net away and prepare for work!
Your position is that of a realtor-designer, in charge of planning, designing and decorating homes for the numerous animals who demand your services. The animals are dictated at random, and are found wandering around the central hub. Approaching them and accepting their request is how you initiate the project, setting up a meeting in your office in order to advance the process. The first step is to chose a section of the map, each with their own terrain and characteristics. For example - you may choose to give your customer a lovely beachside home or one that sits on the edge of a river bank. The "Season" can be chosen too, giving you the choice to let an animal live in all-round scorching summer or perpetual winter - *shudders*.
Once the basics have been chosen, you go about designing the house itself. This involves picking from an ever increasing selection of wall materials, roof types, doors and fences. The combinations and styles are almost endless, and picking the right styles can be a tricky decision. When the exterior is decided upon, you can proceed to decorate the inside and (as a first for the series) the outside of the home, choosing from features such as swimming pools or sand pits. The catalogue of furniture and house styles, while being large - is still limited to begin with. However, expanding them is simple and doesn't require a daily trip to the Nook's Cranny. Upon taking a request from a critter, the relevant "set" for the request becomes available. Should your requester want a "spooky" themed home - much of the halloween set will become unlocked for that (and subsequent) home designs. This is a quick and easy way to expand upon the possibilities, and doesn't feel as time consuming or taxing as building up furniture sets did in the main series. Clients will also have a number of items awaiting unboxing when you begin a redesign that must be incorporated into the overall design, because animals can be sentimental too.
Besides this method, "courses" can be studied up back at your desk. These are exchanged for play coins, and can teach you the ability to add more forms of decorations to your home designs, such as "ceiling decorations", another all new form of adornment. The customisation is done in far greater depth and with a lot more freedom than you ever had when styling your own home in past Animal Crossing titles, which feels incredibly refreshing, and its in this ability to pick an almost endless selection of furniture in which Happy Home Designer's greatest appeal lies. Once a client's request has been fulfilled and the critter in question is satisfied, they move into their new home and your job is complete until you decide to take on the next request. Like Animal Crossing amiibo Festival, Happy Home Designer also does away with the "real-time clock" system - a feature so widely recognised with the Animal Crossing series. Instead, Happy Home Designer simply gives you a "working day". Once your tasks are complete, day turns to night and while certain facilities may become closed or unavailable, there is no pressure to end the working day until you choose to do so.
The huge expanse in customisation isn't simply limited to homes and buildings. Players now have greater control over their own appearance from the get go, allowing them to truly create an avatar of themselves. The addition of choices for skin colour is an extremely welcome feature, and hopefully one which transitions into the main series of games. Besides this, animal's clothes can be chosen and "roles" can be assigned. For example, certain animals can be chosen to teach in the nearby school, or work behind the counter in the café. Happy Home Designer really lets you play God, tailoring every minute detail to your personal preference. The most enjoyable feature, and certainly most valid "purpose" for Happy Home Designer, is to arrange these many homes and public buildings into miniature diorama like scenes. In this sense, Happy Home Designer is like a little dolls house simulator, allowing you to position the items, animals and various other features however you see fit, before utilising the many camera angles to snap the perfect shot and show off your creations to the world.
In an age where Nintendo is openly welcoming smartphone implementation of its experiences and social media implementation of its games, it isn't hugely surprising that a title like Happy Home Designer exists. In fact, were it not for it being built using the same software as Animal Crossing: New Leaf, it could easily have been a smartphone game itself. With this social media aspect in mind, Nintendo has set the real "purpose" in Happy Home Designer as gaining acceptance from your peers, with your friends and fellow 3DS owners being the only critics that really count, and this is where Happy Home Designer's questionable design choices and biggest flaws perhaps lie.
The animals will accept any design created for them, making the specific "request" almost entirely redundant. For example, designing a pink home for an animal that requests a blue one has no consequence, and the animal will be satisfied with the result. This choice further emphasises Nintendo's modern approach to video games - where the "goal" isn't self-contained in the software itself, but instead a much more social-driven one. While there's nothing wrong with Nintendo going down this road, one that is admittedly quite refreshing to see, the passiveness of these animal characters we're so used to seeing being open and honest with you is a little jarring. For a series so well loved for its depth of character - with each of the hundreds of animals having their own unique personality - it's disappointing that they should be quite so easily-pleased. Yell at us, tell us we're terrible designers - just please give us some form of constructive criticism!
The lack of feedback or parameters from the animals is where Happy Home Designer's biggest and most puzzling problems like, and are representative of Happy Home Designer as a whole - an experience with very few constraints and plenty of freedom. When designing a home, there is virtually no limit to what you can do. Furniture doesn't need to be bought, bells don't need to be spent, and your only worry is running out of floor space. As wonderful as this feels to boot up the game and have a hoard of furniture and decorations to choose from, working to a budget could only have made the experience more challenging and certainly more enjoyable. With an allowance of what could have been spent, and the possibility of not meeting the animal's expectations, players would have had more of a motive to really stop and think about just what they want to buy. Instead, almost anything can be bought and placed into a room, with the only real prohibition being your own sense of taste.
It's no secret that both Happy Home Designer and amiibo Festival were made with both amiibo figures and cards in mind, and thankfully Happy Home Designer is set to make great use of both. While the characters found within the plaza are usually randomised, by owning a specific animal in card form they can be scanned into your 3DS, making them instantly available for a home re-model.
Cards also act as a gateway to invite animals into other animals homes or public facilities. For example, while visiting Teddy after a successful remodel, scanning in Stitches would see him drop by for a visit. This is a cute way to provoke interactions between characters in a title that doesn't allow for the same degree of random interaction found within Animal Crossing's main series, and also improves the range of snapshots you can take. After all, why snap a screenshot of one animal in their abode when you can take one of two or three having a good time together? How the cards will be distributed is still unclear, but with 400 or so animals available in the game, there will potentially be a lot of card collecting going on.
While the freedom is great for the endless possibilities of snapshots, and it's nice having the ability to arrange your animals, pick out their outfits, assign them roles and ultimately dictate their very existence, the flexibility to be quite so in control of your surroundings nevertheless seems to rob Happy Home Designer of the wonderfully random aspect of the Animal Crossing series. The joy of seeing your villagers wandering around in one of your silly custom-created tees can't be replicated in Happy Home Designer, and while it's pointless to draw comparisons between Happy Home Designer and the main series of games, it's impossible to ignore the many feelings that Happy Home Designer fails to evoke that which the main series excels in. It's these absences that make Happy Home Designer feel a lot more methodical and a lot less unplanned. If Animal Crossing represents a care-free, arbitrary weekend away, Happy Home Designer resembles a structured, meticulous working week - which we suppose is rather apt.
Despite the doubts, Happy Home Designer certainly is a welcome divergence for the series. The title could easily have been its own IP, giving players the ability to try their own hand at some interior design. Instead, Nintendo wisely chose to associate it with the Animal Crossing franchise, a series renowned for its charm and customisation. This choice undoubtedly makes Happy Home Designer a more appealing title, and is sure to also boost sales. However, tying the experience into such a hugely loved franchise is the sole reason for the criticism it's bound to face. It's certainly advisable to come into Happy Home Designer with a fresh perspective, dropping any preconceptions about what the game should offer, as hard as that is to do.
Ultimately, Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer is destined to be compared to the previous Animal Crossing offerings, and in that respect it's never likely to be fully appreciated. Looking at Happy Home Designer as a standalone title, however, it's clear to see that there's a quality experience on offer here. It's far from perfect, and some odd design choices, such as the undiscerning animals and lack of constraints, result in an experience that's weaker and less rewarding than it undoubtedly could have been. With an abundance of endlessly creative possibilities, though, and impressively strong amiibo functionality, Happy Home Designer is looking very promising; we can't wait to give it a home in our 3DS collections.