Picasso would be proud. Animal Leader definitely has a unique visual style, but how does the gameplay hold up?
I was fascinated by Animal Leader when it was first shown for the N64 back at Spaceworld 2000, and ever since it was announced for GameCube I’ve been very interested in the game. But I never seriously thought I would import the game until I heard the music. For all its weirdo graphics and extremely savage gameplay, Dobutso Bancho has simply gorgeous music. If ever there was a doubt in my mind that this game was just a shoddy programming job rather than a truly artistic achievement, the music put down my fears immediately.
Nearly all the songs are very short and simple loops that are really quite repetitive, but the way in which they’re done keeps any of it from being annoying to me. Perhaps others will disagree. For example, there’s one song that is literally a three-second acoustic guitar riff played over and over, indefinitely. Sounds terrible in theory, but it fits so well against the gameplay and graphics, and is just so overall pleasant and non-threatening, that I found myself looking forward to the levels where that song plays. There are many other examples, but suffice it to say that the sound, both music and effects, is a high point for Dobutso Bancho.
Imagine that some brave company released a brand-new NES cartridge today, in 2002, containing an FX-like chip and the first and only true polygonal game for that system. It would probably look a lot like Animal Leader. The graphics border on horrid, and yet keeping in mind that they are deliberately so, it’s hard for me to say anything bad about them. Anyone with a good sense of humor should be able to appreciate the cubic clouds and square water ripples, and eventually such touches become quite endearing. Otherwise, the game is very solid in this area: mostly strong framerates, a manageable (if sometimes annoying) camera system, and decent textures. Many other effects are thrown in to really pump up the retro look, from garishly pixelated Japanese text to hilariously gaudy flashes of solid background color. Animal Leader is certainly one of the most visually unique games you’ll ever play, and that’s a very good thing in my book.
Gameplay follows suit with a very simple and yet addicting design. The initial concept of eating other animals to upgrade your own slowly blossoms into a remarkably full-featured and complex system of colors, patterns, and eating order. You can get through most of the game without understanding much of this underlying system, but reaching the higher ranks will require a lot of planning and very careful decision-making about what to eat. Interspersed with all the munching is a carefully driven path through many levels and bosses, full of exploration, item-collecting, and combat. The combat itself is actually the only disappointing thing about Animal Leader’s gameplay; it seems cool enough for a while, but eventually the constant tackling wears rather thin. By the end of the game I was still excited about devouring colors and finding new transformations, but the combat required to do so had become a chore. There are certainly a few enemies and bosses that will keep you on your toes, but with your only options as tackle, jump, and block, the battles essentially all boil down to the same pattern. The latter half of the game could have been much more engaging if your combat skills were more varied, or even if each incarnation (major section of the game) brought with it unique moves or something. However, overall the gameplay is brilliantly designed and even the simple combat can be entertaining in small doses. I personally found it worth putting up with the ho-hum battles towards the end because making new transformations and progressing through the levels is just so much fun.
The truth is that Animal Leader really is an artsy game...and like any piece of art, some people will be able to appreciate it and many others will not. It’s not just the graphics that are weird, but really the whole game’s sense of style and gameplay philosophy are simultaneously old-school and art nouveau. Overall, I think the game could have benefited from a more complex combat system, but everything else simply amazes me. Definitely check it out if you’re looking for something new and different on your GameCube.