Like most games made by Nintendo, the story of Animal Crossing – Nintendo’s charming social life-sim series – begins in Japan, with a man named Katsuya Eguchi. After he nabbed a job at Nintendo in 1986 he was forced to move away from his hometown of Chiba and relocate to Kyoto, the city where Nintendo was (and still is) based. Eguchi worked on several projects hither and thither, notably as a level designer for Super Mario Bros. 3, but the move to Kyoto stuck with him even after he had settled in, and it was a primary influence upon the creation of Animal Crossing.
Eguchi elaborated on the main themes of the original game in an interview with Edge Magazine:
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 […] 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.
Joining forces with the ever-excellent Takashi Tezuka, Eguchi began the series with Dōbutsu no Mori, a Japan-exclusive game for the N64 which roughly translates to ‘Animal Forest’ in English. The game was originally planned to be released for the 64DD, an add-on which sat under the N64 and took advantage of rewritable, whizzy, spinny discs that could hold a lot more data than a cartridge. Unfortunately, the expansion was a commercial disaster and after countless delays and other problems, Nintendo decided to slap it in a cartridge instead.
There was an issue with this however, as the game relies heavily on a real-time clock, which the 64DD offered but the N64 lacked. Therefore, Nintendo did the only sensible thing and stuck a clock inside the game cartridge. Whilst it worked for the most part, relying on such a solution meant that should the battery run out there’d be no way for the game to track the time when you weren’t playing, which is a significant issue given that that was one of the biggest features.
From N64 to GameCube
This initial release on N64 launched in Japan on the 14th April 2001, but it wasn’t long until a new and improved version called Dōbutsu no Mori+ released for GameCube in December of the same year. The fact that the GameCube actually had a clock in it made fabricating discs easier (and cheaper) than producing more cartridges for the ageing, older Nintendo 64, even if the upgraded game still looked very much like an N64 title.
The GameCube version also came with a selection of new stuff as well, much of which has remained throughout the entire series, including Tortimer, Kapp’n, the Able Sisters, and the Museum. Suffice it to say if you bought the N64 original and then saw this less than 9 months later, you’d probably feel a bit miffed. Still, it’s hard to stay mad while playing Animal Crossing.
The success of the game caught the interest of some other Nintendo employees outside Japan, and despite the mountains of dialogue and text that had to be localised, Nintendo of America set about making what most of you reading will recognise as Animal Crossing for the GameCube, with its classic tagline ‘Population: Growing!’ that still gets ignored to this day. Not only did they translate everything, but they also decided to add in other things such as new holidays. The original game was very Japan-centric when it came to annual festivals, but adding in things like Toy Day (Christmas) and Halloween (Halloween) helped to make the game more recognisable and relatable to a western audience.
Animal Crossing launched in North America less than a year following its Japanese counterpart on the 16th September 2002, although Europeans had to wait a further two years to get their first taste of animal-forest life. The game was well received, but more interestingly the Japanese portion of Nintendo were so impressed with Nintendo of America’s additions that they decided to take all the new content from the western release (plus a bit extra) and release yet another version of the game called Dōbutsu no Mori e+ a year before the European release. The game was even released on the iQue Player in China in 2006, so perhaps Europeans should count themselves they didn’t have to wait until after that launch to play.
The game was a hit, and dominance over the debt simulator genre had been established, so it was time for a proper sequel.
Ooo, baby baby it’s a Wild World
Even though the game had started small and local, Animal Crossing’s success was global, so when it came time to make a sequel Eguchi made sure to change things around for as broad a demographic as possible. Everything from fish, to bugs, to fossils, to holidays were re-designed with an international, multicultural market in mind. The platform choice was a bold move as well, as even though the GameCube had sold a respectable number of units, this new game would be shrunk down onto the tiny Nintendo DS instead.
Despite its size, the DS packed quite a punch features-wise including in-built features that the GameCube didn’t possess, like a microphone that you could use to scream at other villagers to find out where they were. Parents loved that. Animal Crossing: Wild World also had the major advantage of not having to rely on being plugged into the wall at all times, meaning you could take your village with you wherever you went. The DS also technically had Wi-Fi capabilities, so you could visit other people’s villages locally or non-locally using the patented Friend Code system and even send them charming or rude messages.
The game was a smash hit, and thanks to the overwhelming success of the DS in all its ‘third pillar’ glory, superseded the original release financially, and critically. Taking the winning formula and improving on almost every aspect in a handy portable package was a no-brainer to consumers, and the series’ relaxing gameplay appealed to the same broad demographic of players attracted to the Nintendo DS by games like Brain Training and Nintendogs; players who might never have sat down to play something on GameCube but were willing to try something new on DS.
There were a few issues however. With the introduction of the new whizz-bang internet Nintendo had the ability to distribute letters containing gifts to people fancy enough to have a connection, and they did so. One gift called ‘Red Tulips’ came with a blank letter and after placing the mysterious object in your home, not only would it be invisible, but the game still thought there was something there, so you couldn’t move through it. Whatever was there couldn’t be touched or moved, so you weren’t able to pick it back up either, meaning you now had an invisible blockade in your home. Nintendo’s response was swift, and its solution to the problem simple: don’t open the letter and just throw the item away. Genius.
Wild World was a marvel back in the day, a handheld jewel that married the charm of the series with the convenience of portability. The Wii U Virtual Console version neutered that convenience somewhat, but this entry sucked hundreds of wonderful hours from us back on DS.
Nuts to parochial backwaters: Let’s go to the city!
Portable play is all well and good, but what if you had a real hankering for that classic big screen experience on your 12-inch CRT with only one working speaker? With the 2006 launch of the Wii came a two year wait before the series returned to home consoles with Animal Crossing: Let’s Go To The City!. Or at least that’s what it was called in Europe. In North America it went by Animal Crossing: City Folk because Nintendo of America refuse to publish any game with more than five words in the title. To be honest, we endorse such practices and wish they were still employed; it would avoid multi-syllable embarrassments like Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the Necrodancer Featuring The Legend of Zelda or that Dragon Quest XI: The Longest Title In The History Of The World…Ever! – Definitive Edition.
If the name didn’t give it away at all, Let’s Go To The City allows you to venture outside the peaceful tranquillity of your town and, yes, go to a city. That was about the only major difference between this and Wild World, though, and the game was criticised for being too similar to its predecessor. Part of that may be because it’s based on exactly the same game engine as the DS version. You could have more villagers, your own home rather than sharing one with anyone else who had a character in the game, but much of City Folk was subject to only very minor changes.
One area touted as an improvement over Wild World was the Wii Speak peripheral released alongside this new Wii game. This was essentially a big microphone that you could place near your TV and talk to people as though they were in the room with you. That was Nintendo’s plan at least. In reality it was a largely disappointing, low-quality microphone that forced you to shout at your TV rather than just whisper delicately into a headset (not that people don’t shout into headsets). The Wii Speak only ever supported 13 games, and it’s not hard to see why.
But what about the headlining trip to the city? That must be exciting, right? Well, you could buy clothes, change your hairstyle or fashion yourself a Mii mask, talk to special characters… the city area basically freed up your town to be more focused on your villagers rather than cluttering it all up with shops. As an idea it works well enough, but it also feels strangely disconnected to your actual town, and left it feeling somewhat empty at times. It’s certainly not the bustling MMO metropolis you might have hoped for.
Consequently, Animal Crossing: Let’s Go To The City ends up as one of the lesser games in the series as it didn’t really push any boundaries beyond what had already been done before. That’s not to say Nintendo didn’t put work into the Wii entry (according to the game’s Iwata Asks interview it features the equivalent of 4000 pages-worth of text), but in a series of slow and steady iteration, City Folk was the slowest and steadiest of Animal Crossings. If it was your only Animal Crossing game at the time you would probably have been more than happy with what you had, though. Still, it wouldn’t be long before you could start over again.
Turning over a New Leaf
Whether or not Let’s Go to the City’s lukewarm reception was a reason or not, the next game in the series returned to a handheld, specifically the Nintendo 3DS. Animal Crossing: New Leaf took even more inspiration from around the world and squeezed it all onto a diminutive cartridge once again. The autostereoscopic 3D display of the console meant the designers had to take extra care to make sure the new perspectives didn’t reveal any behind-the-scenes graphical nastiness that we were never meant to see. The game launched in 2012 in Japan and the following year everywhere else due to another monumental localisation job.
This time around you’re not just some schmuck selling seashells and fallen fruit in an already flooded market, but instead upon arrival at your new town you’re greeted as the new mayor of this rural backwater, with the power to mould and shape the town (and its inhabitants) according to your whims. Being the mayor means you have the ability to change more of your town than ever before, and even dictate people’s bedtimes to suit your own unhealthy schedule. Despite this being such an integral part of what made New Leaf New Leaf, this idea was only decided on a year after the game had started development, as revealed in an Iwata Asks interview on the subject. In fact, it was an impending presentation to a couple of Nintendo honchos that birthed the idea of giving the player more control this time around:
Kyogoku: … we were preparing to make a presentation to Shigeru Miyamoto-san and Takashi Tezuka-san, and we started to wonder how we could possibly sum up the idea behind the new Animal Crossing in a single key word or concept.
Iwata: And this ended up being: "The player is the mayor."
Kyogoku: Yes. The player becomes the mayor, so he or she can put up bridges and install various items and objects. This makes the whole feature similar to public works projects in the real world.
And with Tortimer booted from office the next chapter of Animal Crossing had its Unique Selling Point.
The game was very well received, and in 2016 - a full three years after its initial release - an updated version called Animal Crossing: New Leaf - Welcome amiibo landed on store shelves. As the new title suggested, this was a revised version of the game that boasted new amiibo functionality and extra modes including an expanded camp site, but those with the base game were able to simply update their original copy to include all the new features for free thanks to the mysterious magic of the internet. Shortly before this updated version released, though, we saw the very first spin-off in the series.