Animal Crossing made its name as a quaint, cutesy, somewhat bizarre life simulator where something new to do, collect or modify is always around the corner. This year, two spin-off games hone in on separate areas of that Nintendo life: Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer on 3DS explores "work," and Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival on Wii U dives deep into "play."
Let's be honest here: the Animal Crossing series is not known for cultivating deep, original minigames. Playing hide-and-seek or solving a maze on a tropical island are at best friendly diversions to break up your villager's day-to-day life on the mainland, and at worst grind-fests to help you buy special furniture sets (shout out to everyone with a complete Mermaid set!). Unfortunately, this lack of depth is a tradition that amiibo Festival is all too keen to continue – despite minigames being pretty much the entire draw here. Amiibo Festival is chock-full of fairly simple ideas, some of which lack the necessary fun gameplay to keep you returning, and some of which have been done (and better) elsewhere.
The most notable thing about this package is that it's the first game from Nintendo built entirely around amiibo. You can't even get past the title screen without at least one Animal Crossing figurine, and most of the minigames require at least one Animal Crossing amiibo card. While we can't say that amiibo Festival makes the best use of amiibo, we can certainly say, without hesitation, that it makes the most use of the little trinkets. This is not always a good thing.
Each of the nine games on offer are designed with amiibo integration in mind. Actually, scratch that – "integration" might be too strong of a word, as the word implies amiibo play a critical role that these games simply couldn't function without. It's more accurate to say that, in most cases, amiibo are just wedged in there to take over a feature or function that could otherwise be accomplished just fine without having to scan a trinket over the GamePad's NFC reader. As such, the amiibo can actually feel like a hindrance to simply playing a game.
Central to this whole shebang is a board game where up to four players take turns roaming around, collecting stamps and experiencing the pleasant day-to-day life of an Animal Crossing village. The objective, as it were, is to collect the most Happy Points. Games last for one "month," where every day each player gets a turn; by the end of the month your collected Bells are sold for Happy Points.
The board game does a reasonably good job of translating the beloved Animal Crossing experience into this new format – for better or worse. Animal Crossing is generally a pretty slow-paced game, where peaceful day-to-day life is punctuated by the odd burst of excitement. This is reflected in the molasses-like speed of the board game: there's really not much going on, and when something does happen it's usually after long stretches of tedium.
Landing on a regular square gives a brief slice-of-life glimpse at what your villager experienced that day. Depending on what happens, the gods might giveth Happy Points and/or Bells or taketh them away. One day you might fish some trash out of the ocean and get stuck with the disposal bill; on another, someone might read your blog post and put you over the moon with joy. Each of these clips takes about 40 seconds to get through, and don't actually require your attention – once you roll the dice then you've done your part. These moments also cannot be skipped – no matter how many times you've seen them unfold, or how desperately you want to move on to the next player. There are no Mario Party-style minigames to break up the flow, which means there isn't a whole lot of diversity in moment-to-moment play.
The board game isn't completely monotonous, though. Series-favourite villagers like Katie, Redd, Katrina, and others stop by periodically and throw down special-event squares that typically yield a bonus card of some kind. And, like clockwork, good ol' Joan shows up every Sunday to sell turnips for the stalk market. Once the stalk market is going, a turnip sell price is added to each square on the board, with an arrow pointing up or down to indicate whether the sale price is better or worse than what you bought the turnips for – at the end of your turn you can choose to sell. The stalk market is the closest you'll get to having to pay attention, and even then there isn't much brainpower needed.
You can pick the month that you'd like to play, which brings season-appropriate special holiday events. October, for example, has players collecting candy for Jack leading up to Halloween. On Toy Day in December, Jingle shows up in a Santa suit to give out cold, hard Bells to everyone.
Instead of having a collection of game boards there's just the one town - the layout of which remains the same from month to month. You can customize the town by building up to 12 features, or invite up to eight of your favourite villagers to live there by scanning their amiibo card. If you've saved a construction from Happy Home Designer to an amiibo card your villager will move in to the house you designed for them. Pretty neat.
At least one player is required to use an Animal Crossing amiibo figure to play. Everyone else can either scan their own figurine or simply play as one of the eight pre-set human villagers (other than re-naming them, these villagers cannot be customized). Playing as a figurine offers a few minor benefits – you get one free Happy Point per turn and can unlock new costumes for your character - but requires you to scan the figurine every turn to roll the dice. Non-figurine simply press A to roll, which makes the constant scanning feel silly.
The game comes packaged with enough figurines (Isabelle and, for a "limited time," Digby) and amiibo cards to get the ball rolling – the board game requires at least one figurine, and six of the minigames require 1-3 cards to play. The remaining two minigames actually require six cards to play, which means you're going to have to shell out some extra cash on a pack of cards in order to play everything on the disc. That's pretty crummy.
The amiibo Festival is powered by Happy Points. Collect 100 of these bad boys to snag a Happy Ticket, which you can then use to unlock new minigames or spend on customizing the board game village. Games and town features are gated behind Happy Tickets, which means you'll have to play a buttload of games to get access to everything and build what you want.
When the board game begins to feel more like a bored game, you can turn your attention to the eight minigames on offer. These range in quality from "dope" to "dopey." While some are more conceptually interesting than what you'll find on the tropical island in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, they aren't necessarily more fun – and amiibo use can leave a lot to be desired.
Happy Camper, for example, is a Mastermind-style game where players scan six amiibo cards to choose the villagers that'll participate. Four of the villagers hide in tents, and it's your job to figure out who is where. Each turn you guess which four villagers are in which tent, and are then told how many of your guesses are accurate and/or close. Iterative guesses and deductive thought are the keys to winning here, and Happy Camper can pose a fun challenge. All the while your amiibo cards sit on the sidelines, and you wonder why you even had to scan them in to begin with.
In Acorn Chase three scanned villager cards line up in a V-formation and set out to collect acorns while being chased by a Cornimer. Tap their card to move the trio forward one square in their respective direction (for example, tap the left-villager's card to turn left). This is a simple concept that can get frenetic, as it exploits the tension between seeing where you want to go and tapping the correct card to get you there. It's hardly a compelling experience, though - were we not reviewing the game then we would've played this once and left it at that.
Resetti Bop similarly exploits the disconnect between what's on the screen and in your hand. Three scanned villagers take a swing at inflatable characters - when one pops up in front of them, scan their card to bop. However, both the pop-ups and your villagers are assigned a rock, paper, or scissor symbol. Win the match-up to get a point, and lose a point if the pop-up wins. The pace gradually speeds up until eventually devolving into frenetic guesswork. Resetti Bop is another novel concept that works once or twice as an experience, but play it once and you've seen it all.
Balloon Island has you dropping villagers from the sky to pop as many balloons as possible to then land on a moving platform. The villager's weight determines whether they bounce or crush through balloons, which adds a strategic element if you have a boatload of cards to choose from. Balloon Island's longevity comes from it being the easiest game to grind out Happy Tickets.
The less said about Fruit Path, the better.
In Quiz Show, two to four players scan a card to represent themselves in the game. An Animal Crossing trivia question appears on screen and a bunch of potential answers show up on the GamePad screen - buzz in and tap an answer to make your guess. Straightforward, right? Nope! See, there's a spotlight flicking around that shines a light on each contestant, and only the contestant with the light shining on them is eligible to buzz in. Heaven forbid you buzz in when the light is not on you – that'll forfeit the question. This "feature" is incredibly annoying and undermines an otherwise fine trivia experience.
Amiibo Card Battle sounds exciting, but in practice is a bore. Two to four players scan six cards total, and take turns playing cards against a dice value. What little strategy you can muster is undermined by all sorts of arbitrary variables.
Finally, there's Desert Island Escape – the single greatest thing on the disc. One player scans three villagers, which are then stranded on an island and must collect materials to build a raft and escape before the food supply runs out. Each villager has a special survival skill (breaking rocks, fishing without a rod, and so forth), which means you'll need to think strategically about who to bring along. With 30(!) maps to play and near-infinite possibilities for who to bring along – provided you shell out for amiibo cards - Desert Island Escape can keep you busy for a very long time.
The Animal Crossing art style, meanwhile, is absolutely gorgeous in high definition and whets the appetite for a full, proper entry on a HD console. The assets look to be pulled from New Leaf on 3DS - while there isn't much "new" to see here, the improved fidelity makes the familiar look fresh again.
Amiibo have only been around for a year, but there are already several examples of how the toys can add value to a game (or vice versa). Unfortunately, Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival does not seem to have learned from them, and brings questionable to downright annoying integration. Were all of amiibo Festival as clever and engrossing as the Desert Island Escape minigame then this package would be the real deal. However, that simply isn't the case. The central board game is slow and plodding, and is tough to recommend to anyone that isn't already a die-hard Animal Crossing fan willing to put up with it. That leaves the minigames, of which seven out of eight aren't compelling enough to continue playing for more than a week.
For the money you ultimately get two figurines, three cards and a game package with snippets of fun and charm - it's ultimately up to you whether that's worthy of your cash.