It is 1986. Katsuya Eguchi, a young graduand of the computer graphics course at Japan Electronics College, is faced with the most difficult decision he may ever face in his life: the company to which he will pledge his allegiance. Since, in Japan, a ‘salaryman’ may stay with a company his entire life, this isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. Eguchi, who spends as much time in his local arcade as he does in class, isn’t sure he wants to go the traditional route and pick up the first job that comes along, allowing him to stay in his native Chiba.
“As I was getting ready to graduate I was looking at companies to join, and I wasn’t sure what to do,” Eguchi recalls when we meet him today. “One of my friends knew I loved to play videogames, and said to me: ‘What about Nintendo?’ I replied: ‘What, that company that makes playing cards?’”
As strange as it may seem, three years after the release of the Famicom in Japan, Katsuya Eguchi had never heard of Nintendo, the videogame developer, only Nintendo, the hanafuda card manufacturer. “I played videogames since I was a kid – I really liked games a lot!” Eguchi protests. “But I never had a home console and always just went to the arcade to play. As a result I’d never heard of the Famicom or NES. Though as soon as I knew that was what Nintendo did, I thought, hey, I like games, and games are related to computer graphics, so let’s give it a shot and see what I can do!”
This decision, though not taken without care, had a deeper effect on the industry than you might expect. Though Eguchi’s beginnings at Nintendo were humble – the first game he worked on was “A Formula One racing game… but I don’t think that ever got released overseas, so let’s just drop that one,” he laughs – his talent was quickly noticed and his work as level designer is ingrained in what some still consider to be the greatest game ever made: Super Mario Bros 3. But it was specifically his decision to move hundreds of miles from home to Nintendo’s base of Kyoto, leaving family and friends behind, that led to the genesis of one of the most charismatic series of Nintendo’s oeuvre, Animal Crossing.
“Animal Crossing features three themes: family, friendship and community,” says Eguchi of his celebrated work. “But the reason I wanted to investigate them was a result of being so lonely when I arrived in Kyoto! Chiba is east of Tokyo and quite a distance from Kyoto, and when I moved there I left my family and friends behind. In doing so, I realised that being close to them – being able to spend time with them, talk to them, play with them – was such a great, important thing. I wondered for a long time if there would be a way to recreate that feeling, and that was the impetus behind the original Animal Crossing.”
Animal Crossing was first published as a Japan-only N64 title in 2001 as D Butsu No Mori, over 14 years after Eguchi had first explored the idea. Although the game was originally commissioned merely as a way to utilise the realtime clock built into Nintendo’s failed 64DD hardware add-on (before being released on cartridge), the idea of loneliness deeply informs the opening of the game and its sequels.
As Animal Crossing begins, the player is a stranger in a strange land. Delivered alone into a foreign town by train or taxi, with few belongings and a barren shack to live in, you’re initially forced into servitude for the ostensibly benevolent Tom Nook, the only comfort arriving from the letters you receive from your ‘mom’. Delivering gifts and kind words, it’s part of the thematic power of Animal Crossing that, as the player grows more comfortable in the town, making new friends and creating a new home, these letters mean less and less until they’re almost forgotten about completely.
With this kind of pathos embedded in the series, it’s a surprise to discover that Eguchi is remarkably humble about the games’ meaning to players. He has never heard of the Korean comic that circulated late last year detailing a son realising his mother’s love by visiting her Animal Crossing town after her passing, but when we talk about it, he is obviously moved. “To think that I was able to help create something, or that something that I worked on, played such an important role in someone’s life and helped them understand something important to them…” He pauses. “It makes me really happy.”