Is it a new sequel or a glorified port of Wild World?
As the holiday season approaches, many Wii owners are looking for that perfect game to stand alone as the must-have title. That role is usually filled by a great first party offering from Nintendo themselves, which means Animal Crossing should be it this year. Does a barely incremental change over the DS version live up to that sort of billing?
For those that don't know, the Animal Crossing series fits right into the life simulation genre with a focus on collecting things. It doesn't feature an elaborate career mechanic, but it does have hundreds of different things to seek out. These collectible items are closely tethered to a time system that ties in directly with the system clock. When it's winter in real life, there's snow on the ground in the game. In April, more bugs come out for catching. During Halloween, a special event involving pumpkins occurs in your town. When you haven't played in a while, weeds grow all over and the locals bug you, wondering where you have been. This creates the great illusion that the game plays itself when you aren't around.
Animal Crossing also takes this concept a step further in the way it offers multiplayer. While two people in the same room can't each pick up a controller and play together, both players can create characters that live in the same town. Therefore, if your brother plays the game early in the morning, he will get the first shot at any fresh fruit on the trees. If he picks it all, there won't be any for you until it grows back again, which can take a few days. This same-house, same-town mechanic is why most people's opinions of the series are directly related to whether or not they are the only one playing it in their house. The game can get quite boring without at least some level of competition and community.
Another great mechanic that really adds value to the experience is the ability to visit other players' towns. This means you can meet new characters, find fruit that is most likely rare in your town, see what a different shop is currently selling, and enjoy a general change of scenery. On top of all of that, animals you meet in your friend's town may move to yours and vice-versa. Knowledge of all past interactions with other characters comes with them when they move. It’s not unheard of to have them show you a silly note your friend wrote to them some months prior. This is another example of what makes this simulation game so successful; it does a great job of making a virtual world seem a bit more real.
Here's the wrinkle though. Anyone who has read this review up to this point may have glanced at the top of the screen, double checking that they were in fact reading a review of the brand new Animal Crossing: City Folk, and not the original GameCube game. Don't worry though. City Folk includes most of the great new features added to the DS version, including online connections to your friends' towns. However, this is also the main problem. City Folk is little more than an enhanced port of the DS hit. Ignoring the addition of the City area, which we'll get to later, it's nearly impossible to quantify the changes or additions the Wii game introduces to the series. The only immediately obvious tweak is actually a reversion to an original GameCube feature, that being that multiple players in the same town each have their own house again (instead of living in the same house like in the DS game).
This is why - if you are a long time fan of the series - it's hard to play City Folk without it leaving a bad taste in your mouth. You’ve probably done everything before. A brand new city area has been added to the game, which is accessed by quickly hopping on a bus at a stop near your gate. Here you can do several things, none of which are that exciting. Firstly, Redd's Emporium and Katrina's Fortune Telling booth have each received a permanent location here, as opposed to the temporary visits they used to make in previous games. While the easy access is nice, it's another case of the developers filling out the game using old material. They also gave the Happy Room Academy (previously only heard of through in-game mail) a headquarters. While interesting on the first visit, it's mostly pointless as the only reason to return is to see the current model room, which does little more than show off a specific item set. Besides that, there is also a new high-end boutique, a nice touch since it's another way of collecting all of the items. Unfortunately, it does not change its inventory frequently enough.
Arguably the two most exciting features of the City are the inclusion of an Auction House and Hair Salon. The hair salon brings Mii support to the title by allowing you to give your on-screen character a makeover based on your Mii. This would be outstanding if it didn't come with so many side effects. Basically, any accessory that goes on your character's head can not be worn at the same time as a Mii mask. This means that glasses, masks, and hats are all pointless if you want your character to look like your Mii. If you choose not to wear a Mii mask, the salon can also be used to change your hair style, which is a nice touch, as previous Animal Crossing games picked a random look for your character and you were stuck with it.
On the surface, the auction house appears to be a great means of completing your collection, as it tone would assume that it would be at least feature items from gamers nationwide. Sadly, this is not the case at all. Items can be placed on auction during the appropriate span of time and a reserve price can be decided on, but you can only auction off one item per auction, which looks to amount to around one item per real-life week. When the bidding phase of the auction begins, you will have the ability to bid on items offered only by people on your Animal Crossing friend list and your Wii system friend list. In a bizarre twist, Animal Crossing actually utilizes the system list. Regardless, the end result is both a very limited audience for your item, and a very limited library of items to bid on. This flies in the face of what an auction house in a game of this nature should be. It is impossible for a mini-economy to form in which in-game items can attain a true monetary value.
The bizarre use of the Wii system friend list doesn't stop there either. The post office in town features two cool new ways of sending letters from the game to your friends. You can either send them to your friend in-game (if you've exchanged Animal Crossing friend codes), or to your friend’s Wii message board (if you've exchanged Wii friend codes). When looking at your Wii friend list to choose a recipient, it even tells you which of them own Animal Crossing: City Folk. Even with this information, it is impossible to directly add them to your Animal Crossing list. You still have to write down your code, send it to them, wait for them to send their code back, and then add them manually before you can visit their town. So let's get this straight: this is a first-party Wii game that makes direct contact with your Wii system’s friends list, and also knows for a fact which members of that list have the same game as you. Yet, to actually play with each other online you need to add them to a separate list entirely? How exactly are per-game friend codes necessary at this point? It makes absolutely no sense at all.
That's not the only aspect of the online system that is frustrating. When the WiiConnect 24 service was first announced, many people immediately equated the functionality with the Animal Crossing universe. What better way to give the impression that your town is active even when you aren't playing than to allow your friends to visit your town even when your system is off? Sadly, this is not the case with City Folk. Connecting to friends works just like it does in Wild World. You have to go to the gate guard and tell him to open your gate up before anyone can come see you. Like most Wii games, this means that you will most likely need some form of external communication in order to play together.
When you do get to play with someone else online, the addition of the Wii Speak microphone really adds to the fun. Assuming both people have voice chat enabled, a full conversation can be carried out regardless of where the characters are in the town. The placement of the microphone and lack of headphone requirement led many to wonder about the potential for echoes and feedback; while the noise cancellation in the title isn't perfect, it seems to work flawlessly about half the time. The other half of the time, conversations are still very easy to have but you will most likely hear an echo of your own voice. On a few rare occasions I was a victim of some intense feedback loops that had all parties involved lunging for the mute button on their TV. Overall, the voice chat worked great and should be a great addition to Nintendo's future online offerings. Here's to hoping for either a rerelease or patch for Mario Kart Wii that adds support for the device.
There are several extremely frustrating issues with this incarnation of Animal Crossing. That said, what was written in the beginning of this review still holds true: the core game is still extremely charming. If you have never played an Animal Crossing game before and the calendar and collecting features of this simulation intrigue you, don't hesitate to pick it up. It can be extremely engrossing and amount to months, if not years, of enjoyment for a player. If you have played or are still playing Animal Crossing: Wild World for DS, ask yourself, are you really interested in doing the same things all over again?