It's a wild world out there

Here's a fun game next time you're at a boring social occasion: try explaining the point of Animal Crossing to an elderly family member.

Nintendo's genre-defying life series first appeared in Japan in April 2001 as Dobutsu no Mori ("Animal Forest") on Nintendo 64, but it was the enhanced Animal Forest+ for GameCube — released in Japan on 14th December 2001 — that made it to the West as Animal Crossing. Dubbed a "communication game" by Nintendo, Animal Crossing doesn't belong to any particular genre but has still achieved considerable success: the series has sold over 18 million copies around the world.

The game's real-time nature is its biggest calling card: while the N64 original used the cartridge's battery to power a clock, other releases use their respective systems' built-in clocks to mimic the flow of time in the real world. Play at 6pm on 14th December and it's 6pm on 14th December in-game, with seasons changing and different events taking place throughout the year; there's always something happening whether you're there or not, as Nintendo puts it.

When you do visit the game's world, you're free to pursue your own pace of life — all objectives are optional and have no time limit or other pressures. You can catch fish and bugs, dig up fossils and buy paintings; whether you sell, display or donate them is up to you. You can hoard Bells — the game's currency — or fritter them away in Tom Nook's stores, put them towards town improvements or eschew the shallow pursuit of money altogether. Unlike The Sims there are no bills, no gauges to fill and no career paths: you play when you like, for however long you like, and do what you like, more or less.

10 years on, we investigate the appeal of this most idiosyncratic of Nintendo franchises.

A Game Borne of Loneliness

It's lonely on the first day...

Shigeru Miyamoto's ideas may come from his hobbies or childhood memories, but Animal Crossing creator Katsuya Eguchi's inspiration was something less enjoyable.

Eguchi joined Nintendo in 1986 and has a formidable record at the company right from the start: he was designer on Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World before taking the director's chair for Star Fox.

While his work was rightly applauded, Eguchi was lonely, having moved over 300 miles from his Chiba home to work at Nintendo's Kyoto HQ. Speaking to Edge magazine Eguchi spoke of using this emotion to influence the original Animal Crossing:

Animal Crossing features three themes: family, friendship and community. But the reason I wanted to investigate them was a result of being so lonely when I arrived in Kyoto! Chiba is east of Tokyo and quite a distance from Kyoto, and when I moved there I left my family and friends behind. In doing so, I realised that being close to them – being able to spend time with them, talk to them, play with them – was such a great, important thing. I wondered for a long time if there would be a way to recreate that feeling, and that was the impetus behind the original Animal Crossing.

With this in mind, it's easy to see the game as a parallel situation: you play a character striking out on his or her own, moving into an unfamiliar town full of strangers. You might get the odd letter from your parents on birthdays and special occasions, but otherwise you're left to fend for yourself.

Yet Animal Crossing isn't a single-player game: since the start you've been able to accommodate up to four players in one town, each with his or her own house, money and favourite way of playing the game. It may have been conceived to provide a surrogate family, but it's also an interesting way to check in on what your real family has been up to: with an in-game message board and letters system, Animal Crossing could be the centre of the living room long before the Wii project came around.

Eguchi spoke to Gamasutra about the game's role in a family situation:

Another thing is that I'd always get home really late. And my family plays games, and would sometimes be playing when I got home. And I thought to myself – they're playing games, and I'm playing games, but we're not really doing it together. It'd be nice to have a play experience where even though we're not playing at the same time, we're still sharing things together. So this was something that the kids could play after school, and I could play when I got home at night, and I could kind of be part of what they were doing while I wasn't around. And at the same time they get to see things I've been doing. It was kind of a desire to create a space where my family and I could interact more, even if we weren't playing together.

Crossing All Over the World

Plenty of this going on now winter's here

The original Nintendo 64 and GameCube Animal Crossing titles were bound by both systems' relative lack of communication features: you could visit another town by taking your memory card around to their house, but gameplay was entirely asynchronous. Animal Crossing: Wild World on DS introduced simultaneous multiplayer to the series, letting players meet and communicate with each other in real time via Nintendo WiFi Connection. No doubt this was something Eguchi wishes were possible when he first created the series.

Animal Crossing: City Folk (Animal Crossing: Let's Go to the City in Europe and Australia) added integration with the Wii Message Board and the ability to send letters to other towns from your own, but arguably its biggest contribution to the online service was the Wii Speak microphone: whereas other online games use isolating headsets, Nintendo's room microphone was more inclusive, encouraging families to gather and talk together — a technical encapsulation of Eguchi's original vision.

Next year's Animal Crossing on 3DS features another aspect of Eguchi's original move to Kyoto; taking on a new job. Players can become the mayor of their town, becoming responsible for its development; taking pride in your town has always been an AC staple, but it remains to be seen if and how formalising it into the (admittedly optional) mayor role will change the game.

Animal Crossing was created to foster a sense of community, and while it's arguably still waiting to fulfil its potential in online communication, players around the world have spent millions of hours chatting with animals, going fishing and trying to turn their corner of the world into the perfect town. The young Katsuya Eguchi, alone in Kyoto in 1986 and missing his family, must be very proud.