Summer memories may be fleeting, personal things, but so far the summer of 2013 has stuffed Nintendo 3DS owners with enough fond recollections to keep them warm through winter's eventual freeze.
With Animal Crossing: New Leaf, we've forged relationships (and rivalries) with neighbors; caught bugs of every shape and size; fished the waters of our own towns for minnows and sharks; built up a virtual community; and then showed it all off to friends around the world. All this, and we're not done. New Leaf has demonstrated impressive longevity both in North America as well as Japan, where it launched at the end of 2012. The #animalcrossing tag on Tumblr continues hopping with relevant art and blog contributions from around the world, and as of the first week of August, Reddit's gaming community is still using its cheery "Reddit Crossing" header.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf isn't an old game by any means, but two months is a long time in the video game kingdom. New releases generate excitement with every week, and today's beloved game becomes yesterday's news in no time at all. Typically, a "daily" game like Animal Crossing: New Leaf wears us out with its routines before its first month of life is up. When's the last time you checked on your Nintendog (or cat)? And what about Wii Fit? Surely you saw the accusation in the Trainer's eyes when she was unveiled for the Wii U's Super Smash Bros roster.
New Leaf doesn't continue to occupy so much of our time for any single reason, but rather for a number of smaller ones. Its animal populace is charming, our towns are still delivering new surprises every time we play, and the portability and omnipresence of the 3DS download version makes the experience as convenient as it is fun.
Whereas most game worlds unfurl completely as soon as you've paid for the last expansion pack, Animal Crossing: New Leaf delivers its content steadily and gives you a good reason to check on your town daily. Sure, you're appointed mayor as soon as you step off the train, but that doesn't mean you're allowed to immediately start plopping down cafes galore. First you need to ease into your new life and prove you give enough of a blip about the town to handle building projects responsibly (not a bad requisite for mayors in the real world, either). Your approval rating rises as you interact with citizens, fill the museum with fish and fossils, and refrain from dumping garbage on the ground. Once you've proved yourself to be a functioning citizen, you're allowed to play with power.
"[New Leaf is] loaded with content, which is delivered in a slow trickle," says Adam Anania, who lives in Osaka, Japan and has been playing the game on a near-daily basis since November 2012. "I've definitely developed a daily routine of things to do, but over time I shift my priorities to focus on something else, like raising my HHA [Happy House Academy] score or collecting badges."
Celebratory events every month help keep Animal Crossing: New Leaf fresh, as does the rotation of wildlife. Did you catch a tadpole in July? Tough nuts; they're gone now. Better luck next year. Cheer up, though. You might catch a Giant Petaltail in August.
A Convenient Second Life
Another reason we're still sticking by Animal Crossing: New Leaf is because its style of gameplay fits in well with our lives—even our big, dumb, boring grown-up lives, which typically leave little time for traditional gaming. Anania finds that New Leaf keeps him perfect company during his daily commute on Japan's transit system, undoubtedly a conscious design decision on Nintendo's part.
Andrew Alfonso, a Toronto native who is also currently living in Osaka, concurs. "I have a 30 minute train ride every morning, and because the game is so big in Japan, it's easy for me to get a full ten StreetPasses in the morning with a lot of those also sending their [New Leaf] data to me," he says.
Stephen Kelly of Houston, Texas, finds Animal Crossing: New Leaf's gentle routine is great to wake up with before a long day at work.
"I find unnatural amounts of peace in routines meticulously crafted by my own hand, and New Leaf's real-time clock fits right into that mindset," he says. "Cup of coffee in hand, I peer into my town around 9:00 AM every morning with the knowledge that something new and fun will be waiting for me so long as I show up, whether it's a brand new shoe shop or my personal orchard ready for harvesting. Almost two months after launch, the game continues to surprise me.
"Animal Crossing: New Leaf gives back whatever you put into it."
Digital Town, Accessible Town
The option to download New Leaf directly onto your Nintendo 3DS's SD card has also contributed to the game's long life. Some of us that grew up on game cartridges get a little melancholy when we think about the onset of digital downloads, yet the convenience of having a game like New Leaf installed on your hardware can't be denied. Checking on your town is as easy as tapping the game icon on the main menu. By contrast, fumbling through your collection of game cards can make a daily game like New Leaf feel like a chore—especially if you're the type of person who doesn't keep careful track of which game cards are going into which boxes.
"My previous experience with [Animal Crossing] made me believe that having quick access to the game for the regular visits to my town would be ideal," says Kurt A of Washington, DC. "I think that's definitely a factor in me continuing to play."
George Shirai of New Mexico agrees. "Having [New Leaf] as a downloadable title helps [its longevity]. Lately, I've been getting more 3DS games as downloads rather than physical copies, and I like being able to play them any time, especially if it's just a quick session to clear out StreetPasses."
Friends Around the World
Indeed, the connections to other players that StreetPass offers are another reason so many are still playing New Leaf. We're still checking out other players' homes via the Dream Suite and the Happy Home Showcase. We're also still garnering decorating ideas and friendships from players who live near and far.
"It's definitely the social aspect that's keeping me going," says Alisha K from Sydney, Australia. "I enjoy things like going to the international island and talking with a Kyoto anime fan about AIR [a 13-episode anime initially aired in 2005] while saying 'wakarimasen' every other moment; chasing my friends around with a net while catching beetles; or buying clothes and guitars to give to my partner. So I keep playing for these moments."
The Japanese and American versions of the game celebrate different holidays, which encourages friends to party without borders. "One of the new friends I've met through the game is a Japanese player who invites me over for Japanese-exclusive holidays, and I'm looking forward to returning the favor with American-exclusive ones," says George Shirai. "I'm not sure how long everyone else will keep playing, but interacting with friends, even if just to exchange turnip prices or deliver Katie to a new town, is definitely helping keep the game interesting."
You Can't Go Wrong
We all like to take a little punishment now and then, but one of New Leaf's nicer traits is that offers a truly laid-back gaming experience in an era driven by leaderboards and Achievements.
"You're not saving the world or stopping a war, you're pulling weeds and fishing and decorating a house," notes Susan Arendt, managing editor of Joystiq. "However you choose to play it is the right way. Right now, I want nothing more than to learn the particular tastes of my townsfolk so I can serve them the perfect cup of coffee at The Roost, the cafe. I want to find the last three fossils I need to complete that wing of the town museum. And I want to track down the final pieces of Astro furniture so that my set is complete. I won't top any leaderboards for doing any of this, they're just personal goals that will make me happy."
New Leaf's relaxed gameplay is also perfect for kids who are initially drawn in by the game's cast of cuddly animals. "My girls are still interested in Animal Crossing because it's the least structured thing they've ever played," says Josh D. from Hudson, Ohio. "Just for one detailed example, take fruit. You can pick it -- your town, someone else's town, or the island -- and then do anything you want with it: Plant it, eat it, give it away, sell it, or display it.
"The lack of structure initially frustrated them, because so many games for kids are so goal-oriented. But they soon realized that they could really do anything, and now they spend free time thinking about where to plant stuff or what public works project to start next."
Many Happy Returns
It's impossible to gauge exactly how long New Leaf will stay at the top of hearts and charts. There's a lot to do and a lot to see, and Nintendo is taking pains to make sure there's always something interesting going down in animal town (including the recent launch of Animal Crossing Plaza community on the Wii U), but will we still be speaking Animalese six months from now? A year from now?
Whatever happens, Nintendo deserves to be commended for keeping us hooked on what's technically a single-player experience for this long. And when things do cool off, the company is unwittingly sitting on a secret weapon: It need only release a sketch of Isabelle the shih tzu sitting forlornly at her cobweb-covered desk, a cup of coffee turning to ice by her elbow. We'll come running back in a second.
Nadia Oxford waits for her coffee to cool before sipping it slowly and staring Brewster dead in his beady eyes. You can catch her on Twitter at @nadiaoxford.