Nintendo has had a strange couple of years as a game console platform holder, but Animal Crossing: New Leaf was a timely reminder that it can be a peerless game developer - as were games like Fire Emblem, Pokemon X and Y and Super Mario 3D World. What a year Nintendo's had, in fact! All the same, I wouldn't recommend Animal Crossing: New Leaf to a new player any more, even though it's close enough to being my game of 2013.
When it came out this summer, I played Animal Crossing: New Leaf every single day. Before I even got out of bed, I would wander around town looking for signs of unsettled earth and new rock clusters to whack with my spade, chow down on a fortune cookie in the hope of winning a Nintendo toy, check in at the museum to assess my new fossils, and say hello to my neighbours, secretly hoping they weren't about to invite themselves over at the same time as something else I had on that day - in the game or otherwise.
There are two things I really love about Animal Crossing: New Leaf. The first is the wealth of charming and chaotic systems it disguises behind its superficial simplicity. You're the mayor of the town, you can change the town flag and town tune; you gather fruit and fish and bugs and buy furniture for your shabby house. But all the while you're trying to get a handle on this weird bunch of bustling, lazy, arrogant, insecure, babbling, bashful animals who move in to town around you, and keen to decipher the comings and goings that add so much unpredictability to your daily routine. After a while you realise you don't want to know: understanding things isn't the point of Animal Crossing.
That's the second thing I love: ignorance really is bliss. Those first few weeks (months, even) are one surprise on top of another. Who dropped this mitten? Who's this boar who turns up on Sundays? Wait, you can speculate on turnips? Why is this peach suddenly golden? How do I pop this balloon? What's the point of these funny little oid guys? There's a couch in a tree? Ooh, fireworks! Ooh, bug-hunting! Hey, there's a guy asleep on the beach. Shark! You turn on your 3DS to do some chores, but you often need another 10 or 15 minutes to deal with distractions. Pretty soon you just meander for hours, floating around on a whim. You begin to understand why your neighbours are so erratic and befuddled - Animal Crossing chews you up and spits out a flake, leaving you to waft around town in a haze of forgetful serenity.
I think it benefits from Nintendo's wilful disinterest in how other people make games, too, which is also a reason why I hope Nintendo never becomes a third-party developer. I like the fact they don't pay attention to trends and remain suspicious of things far longer than everybody else. OK, it means their consoles sometimes lack features we take for granted in more functional or ambitious equipment, but it also means we end up with things like the Wii Channels and Animal Crossing. Toys stay toys; they don't become inneractive ennertainment.
Sure, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a game where you can grind for gold to buy extra rooms for your house or cane the fortune cookies to stockpile Nintendo gizmos, and you can even win Achievement-style badges for doing lots of fishing or whatever, but the real rewards are things like inviting your friend over via Wi-Fi and standing in a night club together doing silly dance moves, or getting cross with a fellow villager and teasing them toward a pitfall seed.
It's a game about self-expression, too, letting you customise this and that, but the best and most personal details are often the least measured and most charming. I love visiting my wife's town in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, for example: she has a basement full of ore and always turns up to play dates covered in bee stings. That's the woman I fell in love with. When we play the game together, I imagine she recognises the guy in a helmet scampering around in the woods delighting in the skidding-stop sound effect - more than she cares about the Frankenstein's lab I've built out of Mad Scientist items, anyway.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf is also responsible for one of the happiest little moments we shared in a year in which we actually got married in real life: sat next to each other in the prow of a boat, taking a trip out to the tropical island as Kapp'n sang us a song and the sun set behind us. It brings a little tear to my eye just thinking about it.
Widen that group beyond a loved one, too. Compare turnip prices and swap stories with co-workers about things you did and saw the previous day. Sit together on a train fishing and bug-hunting and yelling out cute details to each other. Arrive in your friend's town and realise they've drawn Horstachio from Viva Pinata on their town flag and changed the town song to a replica of the Jurassic Park theme tune (guess who). It's all wonderful and magical; boring words that rediscover their meaning in Nintendo's best work.
All of which is why I wouldn't recommend Animal Crossing: New Leaf to a new player any more; only to new players plural. It isn't a game you always play directly together, but it's a game you really ought to play as a group. And if you can't get that in place for Animal Crossing: New Leaf, save your pennies and do it for the inevitable sequel. It will be just as good, just as special. As Chris Donlan put it in our review, "The first Animal Crossing you play is always the best, isn't it? If this is your first, I envy you." I hope that Nintendo keeps making games like this forever. I suspect they will.
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