The word ‘series’ implies a certain familiarity with the established product. It would have to or else they’d be entirely different things. And the Animal Crossing series from its beginnings in 2001 (as Dōbutsu no Mori or Animal Forest on the Nintendo 64 in Japan) stays true to its identity with lighthearted simplified aesthetics, left-field humor, open-ended pressure-less play, and focus on connecting people with each installment. Of course, Animal Crossing: City Folk is no different in its Wii platform debut but new games require new additions that may carry over into the next part of the series. What would be the point of releasing a new game if it’s more or less exactly as the last one? The challenge here in this impression is to relate this game to newcomers playing this series for the first time and to veterans who know it well. Are you up for it? Then let’s go.
Animal Crossing for some reason has always reminded me of the Charlie Brown characters with their distinctive personalities and quirks (the background music certainly puts you in the mind of Vince Guaraldi). Humans who resemble Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls coming to life among a village of zany animals to trade furnishings, correspondences, conversation, and camaraderie. Like with the others in the series, the life you live here is approximate to the real world in many ways. There’s your shopping/commerce center represented here as an ever-changing store run by a pleasant but money-minded raccoon (tanuki) named Tom Nook. Your administrative/governmental center represented here as a town hall helmed by a old tortoise called Mayor Tortimer containing a post office, civic center, recycling bin, and banking service clerked by the cheerful pelican Pelly and her attitudinal sister Phyllis. Your local culture center represented here by a vast museum operated by a wordy prim proper owl called Blathers which also contains an observatory run by his star-eyed easily embarrassed sister Celeste and a relaxing coffee shop managed by an unassuming pigeon named Brewster.
There’s your local small business area represented by a tailor shop owned by porcupine sisters Mabel Able (the perky one) and Sable Able (the shy one). Even law enforcement is represented here by the checkpoint guarded by dogs the dutiful alert Copper and the self-doubting inattentive Booker. And like real life day turns into night back into day right along with the time clock; the 4 seasons match the calendar with blooms, blazes, leaves to rake, and snows that flake; rainstorms and sunny days cycle in and out at random; and that old neighbor you’ve become such good friends with may one day move far away as a new visitor moves in.
The fluidity of your community is anchored by traditional events strongly resembling holidays/celebrations like New Year’s, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Independence Day, Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras/Carnival, Memorial Day, and much more including even Election Day. The whole town gets in gear for the many festivals with Mayor Tortimer usually presiding over the various activities including trick or treating, hunting eggs, and lighting fireworks. And in between those special days are little local community events like fishing tournaments, bug-catching contests, and town song competitions among others. Special visitors come by on the regular and irregular to shake up the scene like the laid back traveling musical hound Totakeke better known to you as K.K Slider, wise old “stalk market” trading boar Sow Joan, and bummy but artistic walrus Wendell. But even your ordinary days have lots of stuff to get into. You can run favors for a friend, plant gardens and trees to beautify your town, collect rare artifacts for the museum, design your very own personal fashions at the Able Sisters’ tailor shop, chart some constellations in the observatory, fish in the town waters and net some creepy crawlies to build up your zoological collection, play with the interior design in your house, pull up weeds and four-leaf clovers, or just laze around and shoot the breeze with the villagers. It’s your choice just like real life.
However, it’s not all exactly like real life. In Animal Crossing world money DOES grow on trees (and in the ground thanks to Sow Joan’s “stalks”) literally and you can harvest this golden fruit for your own benefit. Forget about the economic downturn! While there may be illness and injury there’s no death and destruction and while there may be bills to pay the time to pay it is up to you. Year after year go by and you haven’t visibly aged a day! Eat as much as you want and never gain a pound. Treasures rain from heaven on floating balloons. And you will always be remembered by everyone you come into contact with. You will be reminded of this when you don’t check in for awhile and everybody asks you “where have you been?”. Don’t be surprised if they clock your last visit down to the very week. “It’s been 5 weeks! What’s the matter? You can’t call nobody?” (hypothetical quote) Yeah, those animal neighbors can get really emotional. Angry or sad in a snap. It may seem exaggerated but real-life people are known to flip like this so maybe this isn’t too far from the truth. Sometimes even the together Tom Nook may be sulking and you have to chat with him awhile to get him back to normal.
Be sure to add some more insanity to the mix by inviting your fellow Animal Crossing: City Folk owning friends over to your town through the techno-magic of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection (yes, it uses friend codes). Visit theirs even (each town is totally different in layout as always)and don’t forget to take home some souvenirs. And hey, the Nintendo DS comes into play much like Game Boy Advance and Gamecube memory cards did for the old Animal Crossing on Gamecube. Through the power of the new DS Suitcase feature your character can exit your town at the guarded checkpoint and walk right into the DS to be let out at your friend’s house and go visiting. Also, any owners of Animal Crossing: Wild World, the DS part of the series, can transfer their character (without items and cash naturally) and character’s shopping catalog over to Wii’s City Folk.
Here’s where we begin to see more of the brand new features in City Folk. And the keyword is “City”. Sort of like the Animal Island extension by way of GBA in Gamecube’s Animal Crossing, you can go to a whole new area when the town begins to bore you. Kapp’n, the surly salty kappa turtle who row-boated you with song to sunny tropical Animal Island, now buses you over to the big city with whistle when you board at the bus stop. In the city, you find shops with many of the special visitors from past Animal Crossing games like seedy shifty black market dealing fox Crazy Redd, the snooty fashion queen giraffe Gracie, and the mystical fortune-telling panther Katrina among others. One place to definitely go is Shampoodle’s run by hairdressing poodle dog Harriet. She can give you a whole new look and I’m not just talking about hairstyles (the hint is: Do Re Mii Re Do). And don’t forget to run by the auction house overseen by Lloid the Gyroid (of London’s perhaps?) where you can give and gain some nice items. There are some less obvious areas and visitors in the city so keep your eyes peeled.
Also at anytime you can take photos (screenshots) of the in-game action to send to the Wii Message Boards of friends and family (who don’t have to own the game), and just make sure to have an SD card to save multiple photos. Of course, regular messages can be sent this way as well. There’s something called Pro designs where at the Able Sisters’ tailor shop you can customize your clothing part-by-part unlike the general overall custom designs from past games in the series. Very useful for making sports team jerseys, just to cite one example.
But the biggest new feature is Wii Speak. Nintendo’s long-awaited entry into voice chat begins here with a mic for the entire room. Allowing for singular and multiple people speaking across Wiis, this addition seeks to disrupt the conventional mentality of how voice chat is done mirroring Wii’s inclusive philosophy. However, the jury’s out on the functionality until December 5th when the Wii Speak Channel officially launches. But if it’s well done, it will add new dimension to Animal Crossing and Nintendo’s ambitions for online gaming.
Overall, Animal Crossing: City Folk looks to be a melding of Animal Crossing for the Gamecube and Animal Crossing: Wild World for the DS. Returning the fuller world and mirroring holidays of the original with the game locales and designs brought in Wild World. Control is a combination of both as well with solo Wiimote control acting like DS’s stylus and Wiimote/Nunchuk combo being more like Gamecube control. Solo Wiimote style may wear your wrist out overtime, but feel it out for yourself because we all have differing tolerances. Easier to access menus are a plus for sure. Ultimately, it’s a deluxe and roomier version of Animal Crossing, with seamless online interactivity for home console sure to expand the series’ audience (online on living room Wii feels different than online on handheld DS).
This may not be enough for some people, though. A popular franchise like this makes people’s imaginations vivid. Imagining all the possibilities which can lead to Star Wars Fan Syndrome (see reactions to Star Wars prequels) if unchecked. Certainly it can be agreed that one missed opportunity was an option to synchronize game weather with Wii’s Weather Channel. Not a default but just an option. It makes sense that places with bad weather all the time need a change of pace, but as other Wii games have this feature it seems like a missed chance. It was certainly by the developers’ design that people not spend the wee hours playing the game, but for those hopeless insomniacs don’t you wish they put a nightclub feature in the city area just to waste time in?
Things I miss in the series is the lighthouse by the beach, the NES games you can play in your house (a sync to owned VC titles could have made this fun), the exercise routines at the Sports Fairs and Morning Aerobics you can participate in, the wooden piers including the dock, tanning at Animal Island and the beach house, Porter the monkey and the Train Station, and watching Copper get drowsy at 2AM by the Police Station. Gripes aside, this entry into the Animal Crossing legend does not drag down the series. For those who like exploratory no-pressure play, Animal Crossing: City Folk will be just as addictive as all the rest. Just don’t forget to live your real life in all the fun.