New Year’s Eve: a day when past and future meet, briefly clink glasses and go their separate ways. It’s hard to think of a better choice to celebrate such an occasion with than Animal Crossing, a game which spends as much time looking back as forward. Admittedly, it’s the first time in a few months we’ve visited our quaint little virtual hamlet, but we wouldn’t miss the tradition of spending the holidays there. Indeed, returning for a nostalgic trip round our old stomping ground for the festive season has become something of a habit.
Of course, time was when our visits were rather more regular; if not daily, then at least twice weekly. Animal Crossing has been a part of my family’s life since I emerged from the dingy confines of a local indie retailer triumphantly clutching a US copy of the GameCube original and Datel’s Freeloader to bypass the console’s region protection. It was my first import title, this apparently wonderful Nintendo game I’d read so much about in Edge and NGC, but that the localisation gods had deemed me, a European resident, unworthy of playing. My wife and I were enraptured by this adorable, unfashionably mellow game, and we’d spend many a happy hour in the evenings and on weekends simply pottering around, chatting to villagers, indulging in a spot of fishing or fossil hunting, with the occasional Saturday jaunt to the train station to pick up a new tune from KK Slider, the busking hound.
We’d adjust the in-game clock to catch up on the days we’d missed, of course. AC purists would no doubt consider this heresy, but it was too easy for life to get in the way of important in-game events. That all changed with DS follow-up Wild World, which made it easier to fit in a bit of portable Crossing around real-world responsibilities: staying late at the office was a neat way of netting myself a few brownie points with the boss while allowing me to hang on for the start of Tom Nook’s latest sale. It kept my wife in particular occupied for a full 18 months after its release until interest eventually, inevitably, dwindled.
Let’s Go to the City, Nintendo suggested in 2008, the Wii game offering a disappointingly compact urban offshoot and online functionality as its new creature comforts, but by this time it was no longer just my wife and I playing. My son, almost three at the time, was fascinated, and we were secretly delighted, hoping that the game’s gently educational leanings would eventually rub off on him. Instead, it was the game’s reliance on routine that proved most useful. The repetitive responses of museum curator Blathers to gifts of bugs and fish – translated at first by enthusiastic parents – were soon memorised and parroted back. In learning to decode these strange, alien characters as they appeared onscreen, an early interest in words developed, to the point where Schilling Jr started his first day at school with the reading age of an eight-year-old.
Routine, of course, is crucial to the game’s appeal, not least because it makes special events stand out all the more. And for all that it’s an open-ended experience, allowing you the freedom to set your own personal goals at any given time, it’s curious how easily you can fall into patterns of play: tending to wilted blooms as soon as you step outside, before selling all your unwanted goods to Nook, then heading to the post office to send a donation to the Boondocks or to pay off a portion of your mortgage. I wonder if it’s the chaos of life as a freelancer that means I find particular comfort in a more structured, orderly virtual existence.
Either way, our annual festive trip began a little earlier than usual this year. The Pikmin removal service heroically transferring our files from Wii to Wii U weren’t just carrying save data: in Animal Crossing’s case, they were moving our belongings from one home to another, a symbolic transition that felt oddly literal in this instance.
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