Whenever I'm asked why I adore the Animal Crossing series, I find it incredibly tough to explain the appeal to someone who hasn't played it.
After all, who would believe that the joy of collecting the last fossil in a set of dinosaur remains can evoke the raw thrill of winning a hard-fought group battle in Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate? Or that when a new shop opens in the town, it's as joyous a moment as making it through a tricky mine cart sequence in Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D?
This inability to express the simple (but immense) joy of the Animal Crossing games is part of the reason we spent the last few weeks producing a gigantic Animal Crossing: New Leaf diary.
Still, though it may be a tough job, someone's got to tell you why this latest entry is an absolutely crucial purchase for your 3DS.
Turning over a new leaf?
Animal Crossing: New Leaf's gameplay hasn't changed drastically since the DS outing of eight years ago, so if you've already played that and just couldn't get on with it, this probably won't change your mind. However, it has been refined and streamlined in a few key areas, while many of its elements have been expanded.
Take the unassuming fruit that grows in your town. It used to be that each pear, or cherry, or orange, or whatever would take up a slot in your limited inventory, ensuring that you'd need to make several trips around the town to sell them on to Tom Nook.
With Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you can stack them into groups of nine, giving you loads of room and cutting down the distance you need to cover per play session.
If you played the last game, you'll be jumping for joy at just that one improvement, but there are loads more like it. To list just three, you can flick between different tools you have without going into your inventory, the shops are open for much longer, and you can build bridges over bodies of water that you'd like to be able to cross frequently.
Even conversations with characters that perform key functions in the game - such as Blathers the museum curator - have been shortened, so that once you've read the dialogue you can skip through it to get to the good part.
A cookie a day, Dr Mario in play?
And what you end up doing with your time is entirely up to you.
With the exception of a few mini-games, found out in a new area called Tortimer Island, there are no points to score, no grand goals to accomplish, and no ending to be reached. Instead, you set your own challenges and make your own fun, using your imagination and ingenuity to achieve targets that you set for yourself.
Take the classic Nintendo-themed items, by way of example. There's a large set of furniture and clothing from Nintendo's other licences - Metroid, Mario Kart, Legend of Zelda, and so on - and you might decide that you want them all. Fair enough.
To get one you only have to buy a fortune cookie. To get them all is much trickier. At first you can only buy one cookie a day (with Play Coins), so you'll wonder off and do something else while you wait, like go fishing. You catch a few fish and sell them on for Bells (the currency), but you can't use Bells to buy cookies and eventually you've got more Bells than you know what to do with.
So you start donating the fish you catch to the museum, and now suddenly you're collecting a whole new set of items without even realising it. Next you're helping a seagull to find his next destination and buying carpets from a travelling camel.
Pretty soon you're marking the birthdays of virtual characters in your real-life diary, just so you remember to attend their parties in the game.
There's a multiplayer suite included, too, and this edition places more emphasis on sharing and online play than ever before. Visiting other people's towns, sending each other messages, a very neat SpotPass feature that makes you really care about your home's layout - it's all very social.
A new leaf, a new home, a new bar set
Animal Crossing: New Leaf's presentation is beautiful and detailed, with plenty of clever touches, like footprints that match the animals who left them. It's hardly impressive in a technical sense, but it matches the restrained gameplay perfectly.
The audio also avoids the bombastic, but - again - it boasts some clever touches that bring the environment to life. The sounds of cicadas chirping in the sun, the patter of rain on rooftops, and the gentle snoring of a particularly tired alpaca all breathe life into this already-vibrant world.
Like the very best Nintendo games, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is full of personality, plants a smile on your face, and is stuffed with little secrets to uncover.
If you're looking for headshots, gore, jarhead military lingo, intense difficulty, or anything else designed to keep your pulse racing for the duration of a video game, then this is absolutely not going to satisfy you. But if you enjoy a gentler pace and you don't mind making your own fun, then you should buy Animal Crossing: New Leaf immediately.Note: In the original version of this review we erroneously claimed that you can buy fortune cookies with Bells. Which you can't. So don't even try.
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