It’s still hard to comprehend a series as obscure yet mundane as Animal Crossing has had so much success since its inception. Apart from minor similarities to The Sims and Harvest Moon, the concept of the original game wasn’t really akin to any other title available on the market at the time of its release. Unlike the conventional type of video game western audiences had grown accustomed to, Animal Crossing’s arrival seemed almost accidental when it was eventually localised. How could living in a village filled with talking animals while at the same time paying off a home loan and harvesting fruit possibly be fun? It probably shouldn’t have been as likable as it was, but the level of escapism the game provided from the real world was hard to resist.

The series’ steady rise to fame over the years has been a blessing in disguise for Nintendo. Calculated or not, Animal Crossing is arguably the most successful new IP the company has created in the past two decades and the one with the brightest future. The key to its success has been its broad appeal and approachable style. Over time, Nintendo has built upon the initial concept. Recently the company has even begun to experiment with the series, proving there isn’t necessarily a definitive template for every release.

With Nintendo’s mobile game development well underway, bringing an Animal Crossing title (of any kind) to this untapped mass market appears to be a match made in heaven. While purists may not be in favour of the transition to this platform, the latest free-to-play incarnation of Animal Crossing is a way for Nintendo to grow the brand and heighten its appeal in hope the charming series can one day become as recognisable as the likes of Mario or Link.

This latest entry for Google Play and iOS acts as another important step in the series’ evolution. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp takes inspiration from Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer and even the Welcome amiibo update that added the RV campground and other new content to Animal Crossing: New Leaf. It’s a demonstration of the series’ adaptability; similar to how the Mario games are able to seamlessly swap between 2D and 3D design while maintaining the same core values and level of familiarity.

Having been a town mayor in New Leaf and an employee of Nook’s Homes in Happy Home Designer, in this new Animal Crossing entry Isabelle assigns you with the role of campsite manager. Here your responsibilities include attracting animals to the site by crafting furniture and amenities with the help of Cyrus the alpaca. The core focus is on building social relations with the animals you know and love from past releases in order to improve the quality of life at your campsite. 

When you’re not busy being a social butterfly, you can spend your time decorating or rearranging your campsite and the furniture inside your camper van. Trademark aspects the series has become known for over the years – such as the upkeep of the natural environment – is no longer relevant to how your character’s experience plays out. You can still fish and catch multiple varieties of bugs at any hour of the day, but these once leisurely pastimes are now simply a means to an end.

Generally there is less emphasis placed on the simulation aspects that were pivotal to the past entries. Personalisation is still somewhat intact – with the ability to customise your character including their look and what they wear. The first time you play, Isabelle will also ask you to describe your campsite to add a further sense of personal identity. The more you play of Pocket Camp, the more you realise how streamlined the game is compared to previous releases. Don’t expect extensive features such as being able to customise the names of locations or the dialogue of animals – or even being able to post letters on a regular basis. Pocket Camp, while more linear in its design, provides players with a sense of direction most of the past releases in the series have not. Despite the clearer goal from the outset, the smart phone version manages to maintain the free spirit of Animal Crossing – allowing players to approach day-to-day life however they choose, even if there is a suggested routine. 

Levelling is what drives progression in camp. In order to attract animals to your site you must gather crafting materials such as wood and cotton, and earn Bells to pay for crafting and construction costs. This then allows Cyrus the alpaca to craft fancy new items, furniture and amenities as requested by the animals. In order to obtain the crafting materials, your character must fulfil animal requests, which require you to provide them with particular fruits, fish or bugs from a certain location. You can also earn rewards such as crafting materials by conversing with the animals on a daily basis. Regular social interaction and completion of requests levels animals, and every time they level your own character will get closer to the next stage of their progression. Each time you improve your character or an animal in this way you’ll be rewarded for your efforts.

The rewards you earn can be used to craft furniture and amenities to attract specific animals to your campsite. At certain levels your character will also receive different types of rewards, such as additional inventory and market box space to make the micro-management aspects of the game easier; you’ll also unlock new items to craft. Before a new animal is able to enter your campsite, you must place down the specific furniture they have requested at the site – it’s like operating one big supply chain. It should also be noted there is a limit on the number of animals you can have at your campsite at once, meaning you'll have to decide which ones become regulars.   

Adding an extra layer of depth to the levelling aspects of Pocket Camp are amenities. These are comparable to the public works projects featured in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Amenities in Pocket Camp are tied to specific types of themes including natural, cute, cool and sporty. At the start of the game you select a particular theme, and from here specific characters, furniture and amenities are all categorised under a key theme. After you’ve upgraded from the starter tent you’ll also move onto a themed tent which allows you to take your friendship with animals to a higher level. Essentially, amenities extend the level cap placed on animals. Certain themed amenities extend the friendship cap on all animals that fall under the specific theme. By developing amenities and levelling existing ones at your campsite, you can raise the friendship cap of animals of all themes to even higher levels. The depth of the levelling system, combined with the sizable cast of animals, adds to the prolonged life of this game.

Once you’ve grasped the basics, life in Pocket Camp revolves around the whereabouts of the animals in the world. The central location of the game is the campsite, and surrounding this are seven different areas. Four are recreational areas where you meet new animals and go to catch bugs, fish and pick fruit. The remaining three locations are OK Motors, Shovelstrike Quarry – where you dig for rare minerals – and the marketplace, featuring a rotating selection of shops. Here you’ll find recognisable vendors featured in existing games like the Able Sisters (selling different clothing on a daily basis) and Timmy and Tommy – offering a select range of furniture you can buy to decorate the interior of your van or place around your campsite. The new birds on the block at OK Motors offer services that allow you to upgrade the size of your camper van or customise the exterior with a new paint job, pattern or look. Similar to the RV featured in the New Leaf: Welcome amiibo update, the van has the same traits as a house in the respect that you can furnish it and visit other players’ campers; the loan system lives on as you're required to pay for these upgrades over time. On the whole, each location in Pocket Camp serves a purpose. Much like past Animal Crossing releases, visiting locations to fulfil requests, gather supplies or buy new items simply becomes part of everyday life.

Although there seems to be a common misconception that all smartphone adaptations based on popular game franchises are demonic, the influence of the mobile platform isn’t overbearing in Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. Notable features in the series such as the day and night and the seasonal cycles and events are still present – however, random ones appear to have been cut, lessening the simulation aspects. None of the features mentioned that are still present have quite the same level of importance as existing releases. 

The fruit trees in this title act as a reminder you’re in familiar but uncharted territory. Seeing a tree with a timer above it for the first time can be a tad startling, but once you realise it regenerates every three hours – compared to taking days in past titles – it’s not all that bad. The waiting game – much like existing Animal Crossing titles – is more evident than ever, only because you are now informed exactly how long furniture and amenities take to be constructed. Crafting can take a minute to an hour, or even a number of days. The mobile identity of this entry doesn’t really detract from the fun factor, either. You’re now just more aware of how long you’ll have to wait. Depending on what you expect from an Animal Crossing game, this design choice may be seen in a positive or negative light. There’s also more common mobile game features included like daily login bonuses – providing the player with regular rewards such as special camper van patterns – for showing their loyalty.

While on the subject of the game’s adaptation to smartphones, it’s important to discuss the monetary transactions built into Pocket Camp. This is where Leaf Tickets come into play. Leaf Tickets can be freely obtained via daily login bonuses, by completing the timed and stretch goals (that in effect act as achievements) or reaching certain milestones via levelling. Of course, you can also acquire these tickets with real money. The microtransactions contained within Pocket Camp are mostly non-intrusive. 

If you play the game enough there’s no need to be concerned about these tickets, as you should earn a satisfactory amount for free – just don’t go in with high expectations of being able to obtain every item of furniture or befriend every animal if you don’t plan on playing regularly enough or even occasionally dropping some real coin on the game. The tickets are mostly there to make life easier for players. You can speed up the crafting times of items, buy more crafting space for Cyrus, and purchase additional inventory and market place slots to sell items. Tickets also enable you to regularly use sea nets, river nets and honey jars to catch multiple fish and bugs of particular varieties at the same time. You’ll occasionally obtain these items for free, but after that you’ll need to spend your precious Leaf Tickets if you want take advantage of them again.

Shovelstrike Quarry is about the only section of the game with more extreme entry requirements. Here you can mine rare minerals and also find an array of crafting materials and Bells. In order to gain access you’ll need to pay upfront with Leaf Tickets or find five friends to help you gain entry. This is very much an optional area, and not required to progress in the game – it’s more of a way to accelerate your progress. Arguably the most absurd Leaf Ticket pricing so far is tied to the limited-time special promotion. At the time of writing, Cyrus can craft you K.K.Slider’s chair or Tom Nook’s chair for the insanely large sum of 250 Leaf Tickets if you would like to see them show up at your campsite and hang out. As already mentioned, you can acquire a fair amount of Leaf Tickets for free, provided you’re committed to the cause. So it’ll just take a bit of hard work and saving to unlock these special characters for your campsite.

If you are eager to spend some real coin, the pricing is no different to other Nintendo apps such as Miitomo. Leaf Tickets start out at AU$1.49 for a pile of 20 and go right up to 800 (plus a 400 ticket bonus) for AU$62.99. Just like other Nintendo smart device games, the higher the amount spent the more bonus tickets included in the transaction. It should be noted Bells still fuel the in-game economy, with crafting materials also being of great importance.

The social aspects of Pocket Camp allow you to visit other player's campsites to view their own setup and also go inside their camper van – as previously mentioned – to gain interior design inspiration. You can also give kudos to other players to meet timed goals, and sell or buy to and from others using the market box. With the market box you can list any fish, fruit or bugs you may not necessarily have any need for, and other players will then be able to buy these items for whatever amount you set. Unfortunately the social interaction in Pocket Camp isn’t quite as advanced as what we’ve seen in past iterations of Animal Crossing, but the ability to see players in every part of the world and visit their campsites and camper vans still provides a sense of connection to the game’s community. Making friends is as easy as making a request during a conversation. You can also link your game with your Nintendo Network ID, Twitter and Facebook accounts to add friends and gain bonuses via the My Nintendo website – much like in Miitomo.

This leads to the technical side of Pocket Camp. You can play the game using your own mobile data or on a wireless connection. The presentation of the title doesn’t cut any corners. It looks as impressive, if not better, than the recent releases on 3DS. The surprising part is just how smoothly this game runs on an array of mobile devices and platforms. Of all Nintendo games released on mobile so far, you would think a 3D Animal Crossing game might have been too intense for certain devices. Fortunately, the game appears to be well optimised; it’s also rather forgiving because of the slower tempo of the title. 

The fastest interactions required are when you’re tapping the screen to reel in a fish, or swinging your net about to catch a bug. The touch controls are second nature; the user interface makes searching through your crafting collection and the inventory effortless, while movement of your character is just as easy. You can either drag your finger or touch a location on the screen you want your character to move to. Rearranging furniture is also a breeze, as the game utilises the same grid mechanics featured in Happy Home Designer. Talking is the same setup as past versions, with the player simply tapping their finger instead of pressing a button to select dialogue options. These technical feats are supported by trademark Animal Crossing sound effects and theme songs. Every animal speaks the local language – Animalese – and music changes throughout the day. Well known tunes for popular characters like the Able Sisters are present. These sound effects and songs make the game feel like a truly premium Animal Crossing experience.

Conclusion

Nintendo has once again worked its magic to release a smartphone title that is vastly superior to the average game release on Google Play and iOS platforms. Even as a free-to-play title, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp goes above and beyond expectations; it’s certainly a great introduction for first-time players thanks to the charming and accessible design. 

As explained, the monetary transactions in the title are not intrusive, nor are they essential to progress. They simply offer the player a way of accelerating their progress in the game. The purchasable Leaf Tickets can still be obtained for free, provided you are willing to visit your campsite on a regular basis – the commitment required is rather fitting given the history of the series.

It’s almost startling just how easily this IP has been adapted to the mobile platform. While it does experiment with the classic formula to go where no existing releases have gone before, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp still manages to provide the same level of escapism that has been fundamental to the series over the years. For this reason alone, it’s worth checking out.