Things really changed in the last decade. Despotic leaders fell, economies crumbled, humans statistically became taller. Sorry, what? Arab Spring? Global recession? Science? No, no, we were talking about Animal Crossing. What are you on about? You know what, never mind: New Leaf is here. You can ignore all that now.
It says a lot that, 12 years on, the coming of a new edition of Katsuya Eguchi's existential experiment is still such an event. We'd say that that's mostly down to a single fact - there's still nothing quite like it. That gently woven comforter of rustic life simulation and Saturday morning cartoon whimsy seems too focused an idea to copy from without being noticed, while too abstract a proposition to feel copied itself.
But something else changed in the last 10 years - handheld gaming grew beyond its traditional boundaries. Phones helped it jump into the pockets of millions and with that shift came a fresh sector of the industry Nintendo studiously avoids: free-to-play games.
It's a genre that asks you to start small and build up, to put yourself out of pocket for increasing rewards, to invest small chunks of time that add up to make hours, justifying spending many hours more. It also often involves cute little people constructing supermarkets. That suddenly sounds familiar. It's not Animal Crossing's tone that free games nabbed, it's the ability to keep you hooked.
Circle Of Life
The basic AC gameplay loop certainly bears that out. The idea of a game that solely involves placing a lonely human into a town filled with talking animals and getting them to grow fruit, assess fossils and ultimately pay off a succession of mortgages is far-fetched enough. That it's as enjoyable as it is, is a work of game design black magic; hidden beneath a set of games that appears mostly to consist of wide-eyed sheep having conversations about furniture is an unerring pivot between pay-off and increasingly difficult-to-reach goals.
What's different is that those goals are now front and centre. New Leaf may lack the money-grubbery of its new counterparts, but, the first game in the series to be released after the F2P (free-to-play) boom seems to have learned that genre's greatest trick: keeping someone hooked isn't a case of just giving them something to work towards, it's letting them feel like they've chosen what they want to work towards, and then making that a slow process.
It's achieved by the simple, if momentous tweak of putting you in charge of the town. After choosing your name, the municipality's name and its general layout on a map, you are brought by train to familiarly leafy surroundings, the only difference being that a small dog called Isabelle tells you that you're the mayor now and (excuse us) dogs you until you accept the role.
After a series of disguised tutorials you're handed the reins. Sitting at the mayor's desk, you can set ordinances - one-time payments that change the town's outlook, whether that be to earn more Bells (the currency), look nicer or stay awake later - and start public works projects.
The latter provides the most tangible goals ever offered by Animal Crossing. With a list of citizen requests from which to choose, you'll be constructing everything from suspension bridges to the Dream Suite, a building that enables you to break into the subconscious minds of other players. The connection between each one is sheer cost - completing the entire list will be a case of millions of Bells, most of which you'll have to collect yourself.