Quick Take: Is the third time a charm? Or did Nintendo forget to look ahead?
In 2002, I remember my wife racing home from work night after night to set aside reality and visit the world of Animal Crossing on Nintendo GameCube. She was not the only one. Her best friend was a certified addict and hell bent on collecting fruit, digging for fossils and building house add-ons. Together, this duo tried to convert the world to Animal Crossing devotees (including a three-year old girl) and convince all that pulling weeds was not so bad and cashing in on blue gills was a great way to build a stash of Bells. The simplistic “animal town simulator” was a pleasant surprise for a struggling console and an unexpected franchise in the making.
Nintendo revisited Animal Crossing on Nintendo DS in 2005 with a series of groundbreaking innovations in Animal Crossing: Wild World. Aside from obviously being portable, the “flat” world on GameCube was transformed into a “3-D” scrolling mini-globe, all-new music was written and implemented, and most importantly, the ability to visit others’ towns via a WiFi connection opened up a whole new type of gameplay filled with exploration, item collection and swapping.
The saying “third time is a charm” should have applied to the new Wii sequel, Animal Crossing: City Folk. Released on the new Wii console with innovative capabilities neither GameCube nor DS can touch theoretically creates potential for Animal Crossing to be reinvented as an exciting, dynamic franchise able to convert a brand new generation of gamers while satisfying hardcore followers. Tack on two years of potential development time since Wii launched in the U.S. and there is no excuse for City Folk not to blaze new trails for young and old alike.
However, rather than pull together its creative resources and brainstorm new concepts, Nintendo’s Animal Crossing debut on Wii is just plain lazy. The mammoth (and growing by the second) Wii casual gaming audience expects bells and whistles to top previous efforts and what they got was a beat up old party blower. City Folk looks and feels like a direct port of Wild World from the DS right down to the scrolling world and once-new, but now recycled music. Textures are presented as frighteningly familiar because they have barely changed over the past 6 years. City Folk is, at best, a bundling of its predecessors with shiny new wrapping paper to temporarily distract veteran players.
This is not a big deal for the thousands of Wii owners who never previously owned Animal Crossing. The original was a solid game based on a tried and true formula and appealed to a broad range of ages. I guess Nintendo decided (or feared) messing with a good thing. However, what about the Animal Crossing fans who were waiting years for Wii’s motion control and Channel capabilities to uncover new possibilities in an updated edition? Why not capitalize on the physical capabilities of the console and use the Remote to literally shake fruit out of trees? I suppose, it is much easier to save money and churn out existing product with small tweaks rather than risk potentially damaging a bestseller by making improvements that may only appeal to hardcore fans.
While the basic blueprint of City Folk is virtually unchanged there are new intentional (and unintentional) additions that are good, bad and inconsequential. The obvious and most recognizable expansion is identified in the game’s title suffix, City Folk. Nintendo added a bus that will take you to a downtown “city.” Unfortunately, this city is little more than a small town square surrounded by shops.
The shops are mostly new to the series with a couple revamped and relocated from the past. Series regular Redd’s Shop is now always accessible instead of appearing only on certain days; the Animal Crossing version of Neiman Marcus where furniture and other items cost ludicrous sums of Bells; a familiar shop to change your hairstyle or wear your Mii character’s face as a mask (looks spot-on); an interactive auction house where you can buy or sell items; the Happy Room Academy where you can check out a featured room following the selected decorating theme on a weekly basis; a theater to watch a poorly written comedy performance that earns your character an emoticon; and a fortune teller offering what else, a random fortune.
What sounds like a lot of new activities offers little incentive for return visits. One trip to explore will be enough for most players while others wanting to return for an auction or something else might ponder the inconvenience of the multi-minute bus trip each way. The vast majority of gameplay will still take place in the familiar Animal Crossing map where it has resided since 2002.
The other obvious new additions are tied into optional peripherals use. First is Wii Speak, a small speaker/microphone allowing an entire room of players in one home to converse with players in another home. In order to use this feature, one family must visit the other family’s town. You do not have to be standing next to each other in the game so proximity on a map does not matter. As long as you are in the same town, Uncle Bill can be donating a fossil while Cousin Ted is in Nook’s Shop and both parties can debate the declining cost of Turnips in real-time with real voices over the Wii Speak. This small gadget plays into the social gaming dynamic Nintendo is seeking by allowing armchair players to actively participate. A headset would obviously limit that communal atmosphere.
The other welcome improvement via peripheral allows a keyboard to be used for typing various messages and e-mails. By default the Wii Remote allows keys to be pinged one at a time via point and clicking rather than futzing around with a D-Pad, so either new option should please players who are hoping for increased letter writing speed.
However, the speed improvements made in conversation are washed away by the two-to-five second load times players experience when entering and exiting any new building or room. Considering how often you have to enter and exit areas, these load times dig under the skin before completing Tom Nook’s apprenticeship as a part-time worker. The previous two games weren’t subjected to such lengthy periods of blackout so their appearance in City Folk is unexpected, unexplainable and unappreciated.
Nintendo’s announcement that DS Wild World data would port seamlessly into the new Animal Crossing: City Folk should have sent up a red flag signaling wasted innovation. Series newcomers, whom will number in the tens of thousands based on the number of sold consoles and lack of another viable Christmas gift option this year for Wii owners, won’t care. They’ll enjoy City Folk for the solid game it is because of their ignorance to the series’ roots.
For players like my wife and her friend, Animal Crossing: City Folk is a disappointment. It is a lazy effort which lacks innovation and continues to spin the same old song and dance. Nintendo’s failure to capitalize on the innovation Wii is built upon is a crime.
The story has “been done” and there is not much incentive to play the new version unless you threw out your old GameCube and just wanted to kick it “old school-style.” City Folk is more of the same with an added inconvenience of persistent load times.
Sure, my wife and her friend will spend a few nights playing together online for a while. However, once the novelty of Wii Speak wears off, there really is not any added incentive for them to continue. Will they stick around long enough to pay off the mortgage on their first home? No. Not a chance. I would bet Bells on that.
– Dan Bradley