Say it ain’t so, Nintendo…
*Thanks to locolukah for his help preparing this review—he spent time online with me while I traversed a boring assortment of tests and measurements!
Also, please note that this review, as is the case with all our reviews, is written under the assumption that you are a follower of the series (seeing as the game is marketed to such a crowd as well). For those people, this is a merely average experience. If you're new to the series, on the other hand, City Folk probably represents the best place to start with the franchise; so don't misinterpret the score here.
Ah, Animal Crossing. I’m pretty sure the original GameCube game back in 2002 was responsible for lowering my GPA at least a few tenths of a point (someone in our apartment always had the game on anywhere from 7 AM to 4 AM solid nearly every single day for like three months). It was the perfect game for the college dorm/apartment, and even my girlfriend at the time got hooked on it (we’re now married… coincidence?). I must have logged hundreds of hours into the original game.
Then, three years later, Animal Crossing: Wild World surfaced for the Nintendo DS. While the premise was similar, the game featured some major improvements. Among them were an almost entirely new (excellent) soundtrack, online functionality allowing players to visit their friends’ towns, a refreshed graphical engine that saw the world wrapping around itself in a unique log-rolling horizon style, and hundreds more items to collect. All this in a portable game too—about the only thing missing was the real-life holidays and the old NES games that could be found in the GameCube version (which were great!). I probably logged another hundred hours into this version of the game.
Now it’s been another three years, and Nintendo has brought us Animal Crossing: City Folk for the Nintendo Wii. Can we expect the same drastic set of upgrades and enhancements that made the DS game a worthy sequel?
Take it from the top
In case you’re unfamiliar with Nintendo’s franchise, Animal Crossing was one of the first of a burgeoning genre of life simulation games where the player assumes the role of a single character in a fantasy world. There’s no way to lose in Animal Crossing, and there aren’t any time limits or pressing schedules. There are personal goals to be set, however, and that’s the heart of the game. You begin with nothing but a house and a supportive (yet small) community. The local businessman, Tom Nook, builds you your place for no money down, after which you owe him 18,400 bells (the currency in the game). Thus, you begin working for him for a short period of time where you run a few errands he has lined up for you. Thereafter, you’re free to do whatever you please—gather fruit, socialize with the other interspecial townspeople, fish, catch bugs, plant flowers… mostly in the name of collection. There are dozens of fish, insects, fossils, and art pieces to collect, as well as thousands of furniture items. And let’s not forget upgrading your house, which can be done many times to achieve a much larger abode than the tiny shack you start out with. So the unwritten goal, of course, is to make as much money and collect as much stuff as possible—all while contributing to your community by pleasing your neighbors and donating to the local museum.
And that’s pretty much all there is to it; how you go about accomplishing these tasks and how long it takes you is up to you. You can make money by selling exotic fish, bugs, and fossils to Tom Nook, or by taking part in the Turnip stock exchange, for instance. You can chat with neighbors and say nice things to them to make them happy, or you can write them letters and run their errands.
In City Folk, the theme of the game has not changed. And in fact, for the most part, almost nothing else has either. The philosophy at work here is “more of a good thing,” and the game definitely provides that, with 25% more collectible items than Wild World. We also see the return of real-life holidays, which is a big plus—and this time, you can even travel to international friends’ towns to experience their native holidays and collect rare items affiliated with the celebrations. You can bring your entire catalog of items from the DS game (along with your character) when starting a game on City Folk, but you can’t bring any bells or actual items.
Seeing as the overarching theme of Animal Crossing is interactivity and socializing with others, it’s good to see some improvements on that front as well—even while the inhibitive friend code system still stands in the way of truly versatile online play. The text chatting that Nintendo has implemented works wonders if you’ve got the Logitech Cordless Keyboard for Wii, though you can also slow-peck your way through conversation with a Wii-mote if you are without. Better yet, should you find it in yourself to shell out 30 bucks for a WiiSpeak (which mounts on top of the sensor bar on your television), you’ll find that voice chatting with friends is a seamless delight. WiiSpeak, like the text chat, works regardless of proximity, meaning you can always communicate with your buddies no matter where they are in your town. These two features alone make playing with friends a lot more fun, though it’s more like simply hanging out than anything remotely action-packed. Beyond this, you can also send messages to your friends’ Wii Message Boards, or even to their email address or cell phone. And to give you a little more to do while you're chilling with your pals, visitors can even take part in hosted fishing and bug-catching tournaments.
There’s also Wii pointer-based gameplay—if you so choose (it’s possible to control the game with the analog stick just as before as well, which honestly works much better). Switching between tools with the D-pad on the fly is a nice addition. The frame rate is smoother at a buttery sixty frames per second, and we now have widescreen support (like nearly all Wii titles). The town’s noticeably livelier (though the townspeople still exhibit that same scripted quality), and the museum exhibits have received some interesting design changes. And lastly, all of the dialogue is entirely new, and there’s a ton of it—and as usual, the localization team at NOA has done an amazing job at integrating American figures of speech into the writing.
But on top of all this, you might be wondering about the new City Folk suffix on the title. Well, yes, there is a city you can visit in City Folk—but to be perfectly frank, it’s disappointingly insubstantial. There’s almost nothing to do there apart from a few main things, and that makes it little more than an afterthought and definitely nothing to hinge a purchase on. With that said, here’s what you’ll find in the city:
Redd’s Shop – This is the same as before; still invitation only, but now it’s just always available as opposed to appearing at scheduled times in your town.
The Marquee – Here, you can catch a “show,” which is really a goofy character (the amicable Dr. Shrunk) telling a couple of bad jokes on stage, which results in your character learning a new emotion. These emotions can be visibly expressed to others while communicating by simply clicking an icon on the screen.
The Happy Room Academy – If you played the previous games, you’ll recognize this as the organization that sends you a letter each week judging your decorating sense in your home. Now, you can visit their office, which features a room on showcase each week from someone in your town following the current theme.
GracieGrace’s – Fancy the idea of a bed that costs more than your entire home? This is the place to go, where you’ll find an entire (new) furniture set that costs—in its entirety—millions of bells, along with plenty of other ludicrously-priced novelties. The selection also changes according to the time of year, so collectors will undoubtedly frequent this shop.
The Auction House – Here you can view items on auction (and place a silent bid for one item at a time) or put your own item up for auction. Should you choose to do the latter, you can set a minimum selling price, and if your item sells, the money is wired directly to your bank account. One cool feature is the ability to pick anything from your home for auction, even if you didn’t bring it with you.
The shoe shiner – This guy posts up on the stairs of an abandoned building in the middle of town, and if you’re willing to pony up 500 bells, he’ll rework your shoes for you, coordinated by either style or color (your choice).
Shampoodle – As in previous games, you can change your hairstyle here, or, if you like, you can wear a Mii mask!
Katrina’s – No, it’s not a lingerie shop; it’s the fortune teller’s HQ. There isn’t much to this; you just show up and have your fortune told up to once per week.
This might look like a lot of stuff, but rest assured that it stales quickly. Before long you’ll be visiting the city only to peek at the stuff on display at Redd’s and the auction house before heading straight back to the suburbs. It would have been excellent to see this idea expanded well beyond its current state… but as is, it’s little more than an appendix to the core.
What’s Not (nearly everything else)
And the core sure hasn’t changed much. The bottom line is that while City Folk gives us more of everything, it doesn’t improve on much else. Apart from the vast amount of collectible items, it features only mild improvements over the three-year-old portable DS entry, many of which are implied by its move back to console roots—and many others which are merely a reintroduction of ideas that didn’t make it into Wild World. City Folk feels like a hybrid of sorts between the first two games with more things to collect; it’s certainly a solid package, but it’s clearly designed with gamers who missed the previous iteration in mind. If you’ve done this before on the DS, you’ll find it difficult to conjure the motivation to continue collecting another 1,200 items. There just aren’t enough (any?) new activities to take part in. The appeal of catching fish and trading turnips can only last so long.
So what we’re left with is a game that looks like the previous games (with only minor visual improvements; even the textures remain the same), sounds like the previous games (all of the music, sans pieces for the new areas, is directly ported from Wild World, which is a huge disappointment) and even plays nearly identically. It’s almost like Nintendo opted to completely ignore the possibility of actual gameplay additions and instead decided to simply heap more content on top instead. While the gameplay is still as solid as ever, there are some serious oversights here.
For starters, the load times are horrendous—often five seconds long upon entering and exiting a building, which is twice as long as the DS game. Cartridge or not, the idea that prefetching of the environment was not implemented is truly unfortunate and quite distractive. Another annoyance is that even if you’ve spent hundreds of hours playing the previous games and you’ve transferred your data from Wild World, you’re still made to start over with the hand-holding Working for Tom Nook tutorial—what’s the point in reteaching someone who’s already so familiar with the franchise? And the fact that so little has been done to differentiate this title from its predecessors in terms of art and music begs the question of whether Nintendo ever expected its core audience to buy into this game to begin with.
What Is and What Should Never Be
Potential can be a dirty word when it comes to reviewing games, but the fact is that City Folk has an amazing pedigree, and it was expected to carry the torch forward with comparable amounts of innovation that could live up to the unprecedented standards set forth by the ever-imaginative Wii. Some of the ideas posited include different (initially selectable) town environments, an open online auction house, collectible playable mini-games (multiplayer) to help replace the gaping hole left by the removal of collectible NES titles, all-new music, and a larger, more interactive city (get a job, stay the night, meet others online, etc.). Any of these things could have vastly improved the experience.
Even some of the ideas which were initially assumed to be included didn’t make it in. For example, you still cannot visit another person’s town while they’re away—unless, of course, you have the patience and logistical wherewithal to take advantage of the new “DS Suitcase” feature, which requires you to copy your town data to your Nintendo DS, place it in sleep mode, and bring it to a friend’s house while they connect to it on their Wii. What happened to WiiConnect24 and the prospect of an Animal Crossing channel? As an enormous fan of the series, it’s hard not to be seriously disappointed that the same innovative forces that led to the creation of the first two titles—and, in fact, the Wii—didn’t play a greater role in the development of Animal Crossing: City Folk.