Animal Crossing for the Nintendo GameCube began life as a late-era Nintendo 64 title called Dobutsu no Mori (lit. ‘Animal Forest’). As the story goes, when it was decided to bring it westward, Nintendo of America had the task of translating the game. During the translation process, the team at NoA added a whole slew of new content, nearly tripling the script and changing the Japanese holidays and events to be more suitable to western culture. The biggest update besides the expansion was support for the then-new Nintendo e-Reader device for the Game Boy Advance, which allowed for cards to be scanned, sending data to the game. Nintendo’s Kyoto headquarters loved NoA’s work so much that the western version of the game was translated back into Japanese and re-released as Dobutsu no Mori e+ on the GameCube, which met with much success due to the popularity of the e-Reader device in Nintendo’s home market.
That title released in North America in September of 2002 and met with such praise and sleeper success that it spawned an entire franchise. What was once just ‘that neat little life-sim game from Japan’ now has four main entries and such popularity that Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the Nintendo 3DS was single-cartridgely responsible for the 3DS being the best selling gaming hardware several months in a row this past summer. But today, we’re not talking about the newest entry in the series, we’re talking about the ported American upgrade to the first entry. We’re going back to fall of 2002, when the Game Boy Advance wasn’t backlit and the Xbox was two months away from revolutionizing how we played multiplayer games forever.
If for some reason you have never heard of or played a game in the series, as was the case for those of us who adopted this game at its release, there really wasn’t anything like it out there. As the commercials once said, Animal Crossing is about four friends picked to live in a video game. Up to four people can move into a randomly-generated town where your only game-like goal is to pay off your house. Aside from that, it is entirely up to you what you’d like to spend your time doing. You can help out your animal neighbors, pull weeds, plant flowers, eat a cherry, go fishing, send a letter, visit a friend’s village, eat another cherry, or annoy a mole by resetting your game over and over just to see how pissed off he can get. It’s entirely up to you.
In the game you have various tools you can purchase that will help you catch fish, bugs, cut down trees, or dig out their stumps. As a secondary game-like goal, you and anyone who moves into your town can contribute towards a museum that accepts fish, bugs, paintings or fossils. Unlike modern games in the series, the original required you to mail the fossils you find to the Faraway Museum where they will identify it and return it to you the next day. Playing solo can take a while to fill the museum, but in such a chill, passive game, it’s entirely up to you if you even want to donate anything. Don’t want to expand your museum for five years? Don’t worry. It’s not going anywhere.
You may be wondering why such a boring sounding game is worth playing, but Animal Crossing has a sort of charm to it. It’s an indescribable sort of charm that’s sort of like writing in a diary when you’re young (which you can also do in the game, though it only stores two years of entries). Playing for a few minutes every day just chatting with your neighbors, catching some fish to eat or sell later on, decorating your house with the myriad of furniture to collect, taking a trip to the tropical island for a change of scenery, or simply idling to the background music has a certain relaxing charm to it that may not be for everyone, but has hooked many people over the last decade.
Graphically, there isn’t much to say. As this is just a port of a port of a Nintendo 64 title, the game is made up of very basic 3D models with incredibly low resolution textures and a lot of 2D sprites making up various objects like weeds or trees. While it may not be much to look at, as the game runs in real time all year long, the seasons change like they do in the real world (in the northern hemisphere, anyway). With some very nice lighting effects making the game seem to glow at sunrise and in twilight, the seasons changing slowly with leaves turning color and snow falling now and then, the game holds up visually despite its now-primitive graphics. One of the benefits of moving to the GameCube is that the game runs as a solid sixty frames per second and offers progressive scan 480p, so it even looks great on modern HD televisions. If you can look past the aged and basic graphical design, you can appreciate its charms.
Animal Crossing also features an incredibly addictive soundtrack. Each hour has its own song that loops until the next hour and they never get annoying. The game is composed in such a way that you can find yourself just leaving the game on while you’re messing around on the internet for some lovely background music. Not only do the songs hold up to repeated and lengthy listens, they also change periodically based on weather effects or if there’s an event going on. Each holiday or event uses unique music (with few every being repeated), each of the normal twenty-four hour songs will change to include a bell’s chime to get you in that wintery festive spirit whenever it’s snowing, and there is one song for when it rains. Sometimes the rain will last all day or only for an hour, but while there is only the one track for the rain, it is incredibly peaceful and soothing. People love the soundtrack to this game so much that there’s even a website which plays the songs in hourly order based on your computer’s clock. Sometimes you can have that tab open for five hours without realizing it.
The last major feature of such a simple and straight-forward game to discuss is the e-Reader compatibility. As I mentioned before, this was a new feature for the North American version of the game that made use of the GameCube to Game Boy Advance connectivity. Back in 2002, you could buy packs of Animal Crossing eCards at various shops like GameStop for $5.00 each. Inside were five cards. They included various cards such as villager cards (containing a code to scan for an item and a code to tell a villager in a letter for an item), character cards which housed minigames to be played on the Game Boy Advance (if you won them, you’d get a code for a special item to tell to a villager or Tom Nook), patterns for clothing, town tune cards based on the works of Totakeke, better known as K.K. Slider, and most importantly: the ever-elusive Nintendo Entertainment System cards. I’ll get into those in a moment, but first let’s wrap up Game Boy functionality.
Hooking up the handheld without having an e-Reader allowed you to visit the tropical island. There you’ll meet a special island-only villager, find exclusive island fruit, bugs, and fish, and get special furniture to decorate your house back home, or your island cabana. The island can also be taken to your GBA when you leave so that you can interact with your islander and get the special items, which can then be transferred back to Animal Crossing when you go back to the island. You can also ‘trade’ islands with a friend’s GBA that’s housing their island and play with their islander for a bit before trading it back.
The last bit of special GBA functionality is pattern designing. By talking to Mable in her shop, you can rent designing tools that are downloaded to your GBA. Once you’ve spent five hours getting your custom clothing design just right, you can then upload it back to the game to use it as a clothing design or a pattern you can drop as a tile or place on a signboard anywhere in town. You can even put a pattern on your front door.
There is one more function to the GBA in Animal Crossing that requires the discussion of the one feature all of you reading this review are expecting me to talk about: the hidden NES games. In Dobutsu no Mori there were several classic Famicom games that you could find to place in your house and play. They are full versions too, not just demos or anything like that. When the game came westward, these were swapped with the North American counterparts to the games and a few more were added. These NES games can be obtained in various ways: you will always get one on your birthday (the one you get is based on your astrological sign), through the monthly contest at Tom Nook’s shop (as you buy furniture throughout the month, you get tickets to enter a raffle. Five tickets get you one drawing, and the raffle is held on the last day of the month), two are obtainable only using the island and the GBA, and the last two are available only as e-Reader cards.
So while games like Donkey Kong, Clu Clu Land, and Wario’s Woods are all obtainable in-game, a handful were only available elsewhere. Mario Bros. and Ice Climbers were only ever released as e-Reader cards, which are now incredibly hard to find. Those two cards are also the reason why Animal Crossing eCard packs go for a lot of money on eBay now. Five games, including Punch-Out!!, were only available on the official Animal Crossing website during special times. You would enter your character’s name and your town’s name to get a code which you then told to Tom Nook to get the game. These five are now only obtainable through special universal codes that hackers have discovered for Animal Crossing, but the two e-Reader cards will be forever elusive to new players without the use of an Action Replay. Most of the NES games can be played on the Game Boy Advance as well, with the only limitation being the few games that take more data than the GBA’s internal RAM can hold.
As many people know, there are two other NES games on the disk that never saw an official e-Reader card release: Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. While Super Mario Bros. was released as a Famitsu-only e-Reader card in Japan, an Action Replay is the only way to unlock either game now. The currently-assumed reason they weren’t ‘released’ was because the e-Reader was a flop in North America; it was discontinued in early 2004 while in Japan it thrived until its discontinuation in 2007. 2004 also saw the release of the Classic NES Series of games for the Game Boy Advance, which were individual retail releases of classic NES games, most of which were in Animal Crossing. Those releases were also the reason why NES games were not included in the game’s sequel, Animal Crossing: Wild World on the Nintendo DS in late 2005. Today, with the Virtual Console, it’s a sure thing that the series will never see in-game retail games again.
There’s not really much else to say about Animal Crossing. If you like the idea of living in your own little town and hanging out with your own little animal friends and playing your own little NES games and just chill out with a relaxing little social-sim, or if you’ve played any other game in the series and would like to experience the unique original game where it all started, you should definitely give it a try. You can take a month to upgrade your house entirely or fill up the museum if you time travel, or you can take a year or two of casual play and just enjoy your little virtual life. Go catch some fish. Listen to a relaxing jam by K.K. Slider from back when he thought music should never be sold in a store. Plant some flowers. Pull some weeds. Design some clothing. Decorate your house. Eat a bloody cherry. Do whatever you like and enjoy every relaxing minute of it.