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Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is secretly Nintendo's first Early Access game

Owl be there.

It's been six weeks since Nintendo launched Animal Crossing smartphone spin-off Pocket Camp worldwide and I wrote about everything the game lacked. It felt like there was something missing from Pocket Camp - a feeling the app had failed to replicate what had made Animal Crossing so good on GameCube, Wii and 3DS before. Pocket Camp at launch was a disappointingly barebones experience - I described it as "stripped back" - and unrewarding in how it provided a seemingly meaningless parade of rewards in place of the meaningful connections I had made with Animal Crossing townsfolk in the past.

Pocket Camp in a nutshell.

To a greater extent, I still think all of that is true - I'm not still logging in everyday to see how Jay or Kid Cat are doing or which of the limited things in the app they're up to. Is Alfonso sitting on the sofa again? No. But I am still logging in every day. After finishing our review I was more than ready to move Pocket Camp into a folder alongside Miitomo and never boot it up again. And then Nintendo launched the app's Christmas update, and a friend event, and then a whole other set of gameplay and rewards for a garden? And I realised Nintendo wasn't treating this like any other Nintendo game I'd played before. I was playing an early access Nintendo game and watching it evolve in front of me.

Nintendo has embraced a delayed roll-out of game content before, but what makes Pocket Camp different to something like Arms or Splatoon is the way it has branched out with new gameplay entirely. Both Arms and Splatoon doled out a bit more of what they had already - levels, characters - but largely kept within their pre-defined boundaries. Pocket Camp's gardening gameplay is something different. It's actually pretty intricate in how it asks you to plant and harvest seeds, cross-pollinate them to create rarer varieties and care for the flowers of your friends by travelling to their towns, watering can in hand.

This week's update has now added a second set of garden features, and brought in series favourite Rover the Cat to explain how everything works. There's a garden event running with limited-time plant varieties and rewards and rare event-only insects to catch which hover around newly-bloomed flowers. There are more ways for Nintendo to make money, too - centred as usual around the speeding up of gameplay - but I feel confident enough now to not worry about this, either.

Leaf Tickets, the app's premium currency paid for with real-world money, was one of my biggest concerns at the game's launch. Having played for six weeks and collected everything from the app's first two item events, I can only say those fears were unfounded. Not only did I avoid the game's £20 launch offer of seats for Tom Nook and KK Slider to come visit my campsite simply by earning the required Leaf Tickets through gameplay, but I worked for and nabbed every item in the limited-time Christmas and New Year events without spending a penny.

Not that you would know any of that when starting playing, of course. The game does somewhat shamefully suggests you probably will need Leaf Tickets at some point so wouldn't you quite like some? And it should be said I've played Pocket Camp for a good half hour every day to do all of the above - you can't simply check-in for two minutes and expect the rewards to fall in your lap. I'm level 40-something now and have long since lost track of the number of villager requests I've fulfilled. But playing without paying is more than viable - and I have a stack of free Leaf Tickets gained simply by levelling up sat there in case of emergency.

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Both the Christmas and New Year item events, each with an associated currency of crafting item to collect and use by a certain date, helped focus my efforts in the game. At times, Nintendo doubled down on its rewards by running a boosted friendship event simultaneously. And all the while, the app was being expanded in more predictable ways, adding new villagers, a new villager class ("rustic") and associated features to craft, plus more items to collect and decorate your little camping field with. Announced features on the horizon include another series first - clothes crafting - and I'd be shocked if we didn't see a return of the fossil-loving Blathers before too long. Oh, and did I mention this has all happened in six weeks?

It's still early days. No one is pretending Pocket Camp is suddenly a compelling must-play. But it has become interesting - it is changing and adding new things at a pace which has, in little over a month, made it something different to what I'd first expected. Pocket Camp still isn't a typical Animal Crossing game on your smartphone. Instead, Nintendo is actually doing a very Nintendo thing - playing to the strengths of a game's particular hardware, making something unique. And that makes me want to keep on playing - at least just a bit longer.

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