Rarely has adding more ingredients to an already successful recipe made quite such a difference. Animal Crossing got so much right the first time that each sequel until now has seemingly had little room to improve the formula. The GameCube version got away with it because so few had experienced the Japanese-only Doubutsu No Mori on N64. DS’s Wild World succeeded mainly thanks to the portable format’s suitability for the game’s realtime nature. But by 2008’s Let’s Go To The City on Wii, the routine had begun to feel too familiar. Animal Crossing: New Leaf has a revitalising new flavour, and in 3DS it’s finally found the ideal place to settle down and make its home.
The title suggests otherwise, but New Leaf is no reinvention. At its core, this is Animal Crossing as it
ever was: bug catching, fishing, fruit picking and fossil excavating are still the core activities of most daily play sessions. The money you earn is used to buy furniture and items of clothing, and to pay off a ballooning mortgage provided by an ostensibly charming raccoon that you grow to loathe. A quiet hedgehog seamstress and her outgoing sister provide the materials to design clothes and a shop front to showcase them. Neighbours ask you to deliver items and regularly request you think up new catchphrases for them to greet you with. Been there, done that, bought the citrus gingham T-shirt.
Much of New Leaf is the same, then, but much more has changed. Upon arriving in the village, a mix-up leads to you being appointed mayor of your new home, a role that enables you to authorise building projects villagers can contribute to. You’ll still need to raise the majority of your funds alone, but the development of your burgeoning hamlet offers a much stronger feeling of ownership; journeys to friends’ settlements no longer prompt observations about flower arrangements and native fruits, but coos of surprise at bridges and fountains, campsites and coffee shops. There’s broader scope for customisation of furniture and clothes, with more opportunities to flex your creative muscle. And there are more ways to share your work with others, including museum curation and a dream world that allows players to run amok in a facsimile of your village without any harmful effects to the real thing.
Katsuya Eguchi created the series as a way to deal with his homesickness, yet if the earlier games had a touch of the introvert about them, New Leaf sees Animal Crossing become a full-blown socialite. As such, it’s little surprise that the online side allows for smoother communication than ever. It’s now possible to create a list that makes it easier for trusted friends to visit more regularly, while the GameCube edition’s tropical island makes a welcome return, hosting a variety of minigames that support up to four players. Beyond the immediately obvious interface improvements – no one, we imagine, will miss Wild World’s touchscreen character movement – streamlining is everywhere. Animals still have distinctive personalities, but conversation with them is comparatively brisk, while orchard planters will be pleased to learn that fruit will stack in groups of up to nine. And while we rather miss the flapping panic of Blathers the owl as he reluctantly accepts a new bug into his museum (instead, you get a comparatively dry description when viewing each exhibit), we’ll concede it’s sensible to make his patter optional. Donating is less hassle, too: any new items are highlighted, and several can be handed in at once. New Leaf is a game that’s more respectful of your time than any of its predecessors, and while activities are more plentiful than ever, you’ll also accomplish more before it’s time for real life to intrude and your 3DS’s lid to snap shut.
Admittedly, these are all minor tweaks that do little to change the game’s fundamentals, but in combination – and particularly in light of the series’ previously glacial evolution – New Leaf feels like a much snappier production. By streamlining the systems, Nintendo allows the focus to shift onto the thousand tiny discoveries it offers. The first month in particular is bursting with little bubbles of surprise. On Monday, you’ll welcome a new villager; on Tuesday, you’ll witness the construction of a new shop; Wednesday introduces a fresh line of furniture and an old face making an unlikely return. Those intimately familiar with the series are the most richly rewarded. Newcomers won’t understand quite why the first visit to the Able Sisters’ shop prickles with such poignancy, while long-time fans will delight in spotting nods to GameCube favourites. An extra sweet treat comes in the form of fortune cookies that hold Nintendo-themed prizes, and the chance to win a Blue Falcon with Play Coins was enough to prompt a tenfold increase in steps on our Activity Log. As ever, Nintendo pays extraordinarily close attention to minutiae, and New Leaf’s many tiny visual details and animations help to make its world – your world – all the more convincing.
There’s more of just about everything here, in fact. As such, Animal Crossing: Ultimate Edition seems like a more apposite title to signify a traditional template that’s been stretched to its logical limit. There’s a nagging sense any future editions might need to shake the ideas tree a little more vigorously lest a conservative approach to progress be confused for laziness, but this iteration does enough to feel like a high watermark for a series that has never been far shy of excellent. If it’s preaching to the converted, then it’s a sermon delivered with uncommon confidence and no little charisma. True, refinement is never as exciting as reinvention, but just about every day you play it, New Leaf will give you at least one reason to pause and consider if this isn’t the exception to the rule.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf is released on June 9 in the US and June 14 in the EU on 3DS.