For all those uninterested in checking this game out: you don’t know what you’re missing! Of course, you can change all that by reading these detailed impressions!
I don’t know what got me interested in importing Animal Leader. I’m one of an apparent minority who are satisfied with the GameCube’s software library to date. Still, I couldn’t resist picking up this crazy block game. Maybe it’s because I have a pre-modded Cube and couldn’t wait to flex the ease and convenience of playing an import game on GameCube. Maybe… But I think a big reason I was curious about it was that Billy was so excited about it. He played it at the last two SpaceWorlds, on N64 in 2000 and GameCube in 2001. I didn’t know too much about it and he didn’t explain; but he made it clear it was a very good game and couldn’t wait to play it again. I wanted to know what the big deal was about.
Despite all of Billy’s carrying on, now that I have the game I’m surprised at how much I like Animal Leader. It’s wild! It’s very weird, but at the heart of it all, is the unmistakable Nintendo flavor. I don’t want to stop playing.
Saving the game takes up 13 blocks, though you will need a memory card that uses Japanese data ONLY, you can’t mix & match data from regions. I didn’t have a free memory card to save it, so I’ve played through quite a bit once and have now started over. Not that I mind; there’s a lot to understand and a great deal to learn.
The blocky world is very… startling. Even if you’re expecting it, or have read about it a bunch it still gets you by surprise when you first start playing, because EVERYTHING is blocky. The clouds are blocks, the sun and the moon are blocks, every thing is block-shaped or block like, with the exception of grass. It’s a little off putting at first but you get used to it rather quickly—mainly because once the gameplay begins, you don’t care. It actually puts the whole Zelda controversy in perspective, especially Miyamoto’s comments about not being able to appreciate a game until you’ve played it.
After playing the game some, the reason for the unsophisticated graphics became clear. The graphics are all old school and primative, where the gameplay is as primal and basic as it gets. Survival of the fittest, kill or be killed, mate and reproduce, then die. It’s a weird twist, but it is very effective and suits the game & it’s wild kingdom setting very well.
It’s not really like any game I’ve played before. Well, maybe it’s kind of like Pac-Man, but in 3D and on a much grander scale with a wildlife setting. That sounds kind of a bizarre comparison, but it works on a basic level. You run around eating non-stop in a simply-designed world filled with foes who can be both predator and prey. Of course, Animal Leader is so much more; there’s also mating, puzzles and evolving your monster carefully… Maybe I shouldn’t have even tried to compare it to other games.
Fighting other animals is cool and an important part of the game. The combat system is very similar to Zelda’s, in that there’s lock-on targeting, done with the L button. Once you’re locked on to a target, you can attack. You will be alerted when enemies lock on to you too. Your opponent’s hit points are visible on screen, and damage is also displayed as it is inflicted or received. Once your enemy is at 0 HP, you can bite down and rip off a piece of flesh for a power up.
Although there is violence in the game, so far it hasn’t been too bad… All the blood is dark purple and splatters in purple puddles. One encounter I had, I dashed & attacked, sending my foe flying and blood spraying everywhere but that’s the goriest I’ve seen. There is very brutal violence here but it’s more implied than explicit. It’s also depicted as a natural part of things.
The game’s sheer honesty in its depiction of life in the wild kingdom is amazing. Besides the kill-or-be-killed aspect, there’s things like going to the bathroom and mating, which is presented naturally and figures into the gameplay nicely.
I found myself evolving / devolving my creature several times throughout some levels. Clearly, color management plays a big role in making the best animal, with poop being used to discard unwanted colors to make way for better combos. I haven’t quite mastered this yet, but I wasn’t really trying. To get a better grip on gameplay mechanics, I’ve been re-reading our preview and our guide. The second time through I’ve done better, learning to concentrate collect flesh of the same color and dispose of what I don’t need along the way. As you evolve, there are training areas that help teach you new skills and make the best of your form.
Replay value is already apparent, as it seems there are many ways to evolve your animal on each level. There are also lots of hidden areas & items to be found, in the typical Nintendo fashion.
It’s a bit easy starting out. I don’t know how long the game gets… I’ve only been killed off a few times. There seem to be many levels, though some don’t take very long to complete. Initial opponents are pushovers. Fortunately, the AI of enemies gets tougher as you progress. Bosses usually have kids (smaller versions of themselves) and while early bosses did little as I killed their young, later opponents weren’t so apathetic when I tried to rip their kids to shreds.
I really like the music, like the rest of the game it’s basic too, but catchy, soothing and very fitting. One level is just a very simple guitar riff being strummed over and over, yet it really doesn’t get too repetitive. I don’t know if this simple music would make a good soundtrack, though it works great in the background. There’s only 4-5 songs I’ve encountered so far and I wish there were a couple more tracks. There are wild animal noises, which are used as background noise but almost blend into the music as instrumentation. It’s a very interesting aural experience.
Billy warned me the camera was a little bit bad; I replied as long as it wasn’t as bad as SAB2’s, I’d be happy. Well, it isn’t—but it still is a bit problematic. Mainly when an enemy is circling you or running around the area. Moving to pursue or escape an enemy isn’t always easy, though the game’s onscreen radar helps keep you on track.
There’s lots of Japanese text. Veteran importers know the drill but for some, it’s distracting. The upside is that the game play is so basic… Even the block creatures convey emotion. Many of the instructions are quite easy to figure out too. I know there’s a lot of information I’m missing though, and probably some interesting story elements too. Tonkatsu indicated that the narration is done by the animal you control, and that it speaks in broken –kinda like how Louie the Cat types.
I’m really encouraged by Miyamoto’s recent statements that Animal Leader could come to the U.S. (along with Doshin). Everyone should give this game a try. If you’ve got a modded Cube, you really ought to import this game. Especially if you’re one of those people who are distressing about there not being enough games out for GameCube… Animal Leader may be very different, but it’s also very fun.