15 Years Later, Looking Back on Animal Crossing's Sugarcoated Dose of Reality

15 Years Later, Looking Back on Animal Crossing's Sugarcoated Dose of Reality

With debt, neighborhood drama, and more, Animal Crossing's world was always incredibly familiar from the first step of its North American debut.

In the world of Animal Crossing, you never want to upset resident mole Mr. Resetti. The only way to really rile him up is to turn off your game without saving. It loses your progress, as a consequence of course, but it also makes Mr. Resetti chew you out for a fleeting moment upon rebooting. Animal Crossing may be a game with hardly any conflict, but it still has a villain: forgetfulness.

It was September 15, 2002 when Animal Crossing came out on the Nintendo GameCube in North America. A year and a half prior in April 2001, the game was already out far away in Japan on the Nintendo 64. It was a Nintendo game unlike others before it; a social simulation built on the promise of communication. The developers bid it as a "communication game," as the player lived in a town alongside other quirky animals. Together, everyone makes the town feel alive.

I didn't seriously dive into the Animal Crossing series until many moons later. It was 2013, the game was out on the Nintendo 3DS under its "New Leaf" marquee. I fell in love with it, or maybe it fell in love with my thumbs. The game eased into my daily routine for well over a year. It was a game that played itself when I wasn't around. My podunk town in Animal Crossing was a place that existed whether I was in it or not. Neighbors came and went, friends visited when I remained there from all around. But straddling the thin line between digital and IRL is where Animal Crossing crystallized for me. Animal Crossing didn't need me, but I needed it.

Animal Crossing introduced a host of familiar concepts for adults: debt, loans, mundane chores and activities like fishing and gardening. They were new concepts for kids, but for adults—especially around the time of New Leaf, where I was arguably still an amateur at adulthood with bills, rent, school, and juggling many jobs—they were the things we knew all too well. Animal Crossing sprinkled the capitalist pitfalls in sugar though, like a vat of corn syrup was waiting by our collective overdue rent and amassed student loan debt, ready to dunk it all in.

In perhaps its biggest crime, Animal Crossing made the worst parts of adult-inclined responsibilities enjoyable. The blemishes that plague our lives were now cute, cuddly, with animal mascots snarking and chippering. It was a small town with a deep secret: gamifying the bullshit we deal with everyday, but making it tolerable and somehow fun, even if we feared the unassuming debt collector Tom Nook.

Part of that is because like the reality that casts a gloomy fog over our lives, Animal Crossing wedged itself into many players' daily routines, myself included. Animal Crossing was always there for players wanting an "escape" that wasn't too far off from reality. It had timed events, leading players to ditch out on friends because, "Sorry y'all, K.K. Slider's rolled in town." The real-time clock in turn had major implications on how people played the game. Many, too often, even cheated by setting the game's in-game clock ahead. It wielded the same restrictions that free-to-play games enlist on mobile today, but they existed far before games of its ilk were around.

The music was key to making Animal Crossing's real-time in-game clock tick. Every hour had a new tune, as did activities; resident dog singer K.K. Slider strummed along with a guitar to some killer jams. Played start to finish, the game's complete soundtrack incorporates seven hours and 28-minutes of tunes. For comparison, the average American listens to four hours and five minutes of audio (including music, podcasts, and more) every day according to the NPD Group.

Animal Crossing has nearly double the amount of music we actually listen to daily, and because of that, consequently never gets old. Early in the morning you'll never hear the same music you hear at 2 a.m. (which happens to be a weirdly loud symphony of sloppy horns, almost like the game is asking "Why the heck are you still up?"). It's a familiar feeling, just as over the course of a day I'll listen to podcasts, perhaps some lo-fi hip-hop as I write, and emo as I round out the day. My audio listening changes depending on my mood, my activities, maybe even the weather. While in Animal Crossing the music and sounds change just as frequently, pre-ordained by time, seasons, and more.

The sounds help make the world of Animal Crossing alive. Musician and voice actor Kazumi Totaka (known for other Nintendo games such as Yoshi's Story and Mario Paint), worked as a music composer while sound engineer Taro Bando molded himself into a foley artist. Bando recalled in an interview (translated by Shmuplations) about traveling to Japan's Fushimi mountains in Kyoto to record actual cicadas, in addition to recording walking on a beach in sandals for a waterfront effect.

"I enjoy just walking around in the game," Totaka later said. "Bando prepared so many different footstep sounds for each terrain. There’s the brisk clip-clap of walking on stone, and the soft sound of rushes as you walk through grass. I like hearing those sounds intermingle with the background of a flowing river, or the rush of a waterfall in the distance… there’s music hiding in all these spaces, and I really enjoy how it all turned out. It really feels like I’ve gone back to my hometown village, and just walking around makes me feel happy." That richness of dynamic sounds and detail is a large part of what makes every dip into Animal Crossing feel unique, just like waking up and tackling a new day. Animal Crossing became a second life to live for many players.

Animal Crossing's a game that's tailored to fit into routines, but it's also a game that's constructed to never grow old. One day can be spent fishing; one collecting things; another trading furniture with a neighbor. One morning, you might wake up to the news of a neighbor moving away, and someone new taking their place. The town changes whether you exist in it or not. The only constant is you—your villager is there always, whether they're active in their community or not.

For 15 years, Animal Crossing has captured the hearts of many. Embedded into our routines still, years and years after the series' many entries have come and gone. We remember the cute things the animals say, we share furniture and designs with one another, we fear an angry Mr. Resetti scolding us. Like Nintendo wished for long ago, Animal Crossing really was the first true "communication game;" a game that lived and died by how players communicated with their towns and the players they shared them with.

It's been four years since Animal Crossing: New Leaf came out. Animal Crossing Mobile, which remains a mystery, was delayed to "next fiscal year." With the Nintendo Switch being the hottest console around, it's only a matter of time until the furry friends make the hop over to the semi-portable console. Until then in celebration of 15 official years of Animal Crossing, maybe it's about time to visit an old town or so. To reflect on what the series means to me and so many others, until it reminds me to pay and overdue bill or two.

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Caty McCarthy

Senior Editor

Caty McCarthy is a former freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, VICE, The AV Club, Kotaku, Polygon, and IGN. When she's not blathering into a podcast mic, reading a book, or playing a billion video games at once, she's probably watching Terrace House or something. She is currently USgamer's Senior Editor.

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