Of all the games set for release in the next few months for the GameCube, Animal Crossing sticks out from the pack (no pun intended) thanks to its unique premise and gameplay. Dubbed a "communication game" by Nintendo, Animal Crossing is the latest evolution of the Animal Forest series, which got its start on the Nintendo 64. While the game is a radical departure from most console games because of its open-ended nature, you'll undoubtedly enjoy the experience it offers. We recently got our hands on a final copy of the game to find out what all the fuss is about, and we've been quite pleased by what we've seen so far.
For those unfamiliar with the Animal Forest series, the games offer open-ended and customizable experiences that mix elements of traditional sim games and console RPGs. Their only real requirement is that you actively live the life of your character. The latest installment, Animal Crossing, begins by putting you on a train that's headed to the town your character will be living in. A conversation with a fellow passenger will give you a chance to name yourself and your new hometown, as well as fill in other specific details that will come into play during your time with the game, such as the date, the time, and your gender. Following your arrival, you'll meet Tom Nook, an enterprising local businessman who sets you up with a house (as well as quite a bit of debt) and a job. From then on, you're left to your own devices. How your house and town develop is ultimately determined by your interaction with the other characters in the game and your own taste.
As you'd expect from a game with such an open-ended premise, Animal Crossing's gameplay isn't terribly structured. Rather than lock you in with set tasks and a linear path to follow, Animal Crossing provides you with a wealth of gameplay avenues to explore at your whim. If you're looking for a more structured experience, the game provides you with some objectives to work for. The upkeep and improvement of your house will require you to find ways to earn enough "bells," the game's currency, in order to pay off the associated debt. You'll be able to earn bells by working in Tom Nook's shop, taking on whatever odd jobs you come across, and buying and selling the assorted items such you'll find in the game. You can also get lucky and find sacks of cash in trees or buried in the ground. If you're of a more philanthropic nature, the local museum is always in need of insects, fish, art, and fossils for its exhibits. Tracking down suitable candidates to donate is another conventional objective to fixate on. However, one of the biggest components in the game is interacting with the other people in your town. You'll be able to talk to them, write them letters (which they'll react to), and even send them presents. All the interaction will eventually help shape the town's behavior toward you and its overall development. As the locals warm up to you, you may find you'll get presents in the mail more often.
Besides interacting with other characters in your town, you'll also be able to go visit towns created by other players. By using a second memory card to save your travel data, you'll be able to transport your character into another player's town and interact with everyone there. The process is fairly painless--you'll just swap the memory cards that contain your respective town data and use the card you get from your friend to import yourself into his or her town. Among other things, visiting another player's town will allow you to pick up items you wouldn't normally find in your own town.
Two of the cooler aspects of Animal Crossing's gameplay are the game's connectivity to the Game Boy Advance and item collection. The Game Boy Advance connectivity is surprisingly robust, including the ability to download design tools to create your own clothing, the ability to download a GBA-only minigame, and the ability to download NES games to play on the handheld, among other things. You'll also be able to use the upcoming e-card reader accessory and Animal Crossing cards to get new items, designs, or music. In terms of item collection, you will find a massive array of goodies in the game, ranging from household items you'll use to decorate your pad to Nintendo-related items such as the Master Sword from Zelda, an Arwing from Star Fox, and even an old NES system you can use to play the more than 20 NES games you may find.
Graphically, Animal Crossing isn't likely to set new standards for the GameCube's polygon-pushing might. The game sports a minimalist look, with simple blocky characters and sparse detail that show the series' Nintendo 64 roots. While the exact layout of the town will differ for every player, and the town is randomly generated for every new game, you'll find the same assortment of locations in every game. Various houses, the post office, the seamstress shop, the police department, the town dump, the museum, and a fountain will all appear in each game. Each structure features solid detail enhanced by little touches such as the clock in the museum that reflects the time set in the GameCube's internal clock. The characters fare about as well, featuring a modest poly count and basic detail conveyed by simple textures that aren't too far off from what you've seen in Nintendo 64 games. The look works for the motley crew of eccentric animals you'll encounter in the game. While the game's graphics won't cause any jaws to drop, the little touches you'll find definitely balance out the simple look. For example, while the character models are quite simple, you'll be able to customize them with your own clothing designs. Another nice touch is the way your character "tans" as you play the game. The more time you spend working outdoors on sunny days, the darker your virtual self will get. You'll also notice that the weather in the game will change to match the seasons dictated by the date in the GameCube's internal clock.
The sound in Animal Crossing is as deceptively simple as the game's visuals thanks to some excellent use of the audio. While the default language in the game may initially sound like gibberish to you, you'll eventually find you can actually understand it (it's actually plain English sped up and slowed town). You'll also find you can change your town's theme song to customize things a bit more. When catching bugs you'll be able to hear the position of the noisier ones thanks to good use of positional sound. Along the same lines, you'll find that you'll be able to distinguish the various bug calls you'll hear in the game and identify them by just listening.
Another pleasantly surprising aspect of Animal Crossing is its localization. While the game obviously features much of the same content as its Japanese counterpart, which was released last year, quite a bit of work has been done to the US version of the game that should please players. The text interface has been tweaked and new events have been added to the game's calendar of date-specific occurrences. Judging from what we've played so far, Animal Crossing is shaping up to be a unique game that will offer a nice change of pace from most games for the system. While the GameCube library is set to receive some powerhouse entries in the next few months, gamers may be pleasantly surprised by what Animal Crossing has to offer. Animal Crossing is slated to ship later this month for the GameCube.