Animal Crossing is Life Done Better

I play video games a lot.  I love games that are complex and compelling.  The Legend of ZeldaSkyrim, and Super Smash Bros. rank among my favorite games ever.  Anything that has action, rich worlds, and intriguing mechanics usually wins my heart.  But the one game I’ve played more than any other game, for over 330 hours, is Animal Crossing.  Specifically, New Leaf for Nintendo 3DS.

This should make no sense whatsoever.  I barely understand it.  How does an action nut with no nostalgia for Animal Crossing fall so head over heels for it?

Animal Crossing logo
The logo for the Animal Crossing series

The truth is, I didn’t fall for it right away.  It took some time.  Animal Crossing is actually a pretty tough nut to crack.  Every game in the series starts with you moving into a new town and buying a new house.  Actually, you basically start off with a tent.  Your mortgage is managed by Tom Nook, the enterprising capitalist Tanooki.  The only way to improve your house is by spending thousands of Bells (the game’s currency, kind of like yen) to pay off your debt.

Already this sounds like a drag, right?

The thing is, the world works differently in this game.  There’s no deadline to pay off your mortgage.  You do whatever you want to, for however long you want, and pay off your debt whenever you can.  So how do you make money?  You can sell furniture, bugs, and fish you catch.  Sometimes you just find money under rocks (wishful thinking).  Sometimes you get it for some other random reason.

On paper, this sounds easy, and maybe even boring.  The whole game consists of talking to your fellow villagers, doing odd jobs, planting trees, flowers, and structures in your town, decorating your house, and collecting things.  Isn’t there any challenge or spice to make this game more complicated?  Well…yes and no.

New Leaf gameplay
Animal Crossing: New Leaf gameplay.

Animal Crossing games are not hard.  Instead, they’re meant to keep you there for the long haul.  That’s where the magic happens.

There’s no time constraint on paying hundreds of thousands in debt, but it takes a while to make that much money.  This also means it takes a long time to get the biggest house and furnish the nerd paradise you always dreamed of.  Animal Crossing sucks you in and keep you coming back, day after day.

Interested in catching every fish, bug, and/or sea creature?  You’d better be prepared to stick around all four seasons of the year and keep coming back every day.  But don’t worry, it’ll give you the chance to celebrate Toy Day, Carnival, and the Harvest Festival with your animal friends.  (Yeah, this game has holidays, and they’re super fun.)

Like creating custom designs for your clothing and town flag?  You can become a pixel artist and create clothing from whatever video game, show, or crevice in the depths of your brain that you want.

Want to cultivate every color of flower in the game?  Well, to get the elusive blue rose, you’re going to have to buy daily fertilizer from the most upgraded convenience store and learn the genetic layout of red roses like Gregor Mendel is your damn patron saint.

Gregor Mendel
I just felt the need to include Gregor Mendel here. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Animal Crossing is only as hard and time-consuming as you want it to be, and at first glance, there’s no reason to do any of this stuff I’ve mentioned.  It all sounds humdrum and boring, like a poor recreation of real life.  But the whole reason this game was made was in order to serve as a second life, one that’s better than reality.

The series’ creator, Katsuya Eguchi, wanted to make the game because of a sense of loneliness he felt from being 300 miles away from his home in Chiba.  Therefore, he wanted to make a game that provided a sense of “family, friendship, and community” for all its players.

True to form, my perception of Animal Crossing is a simulation of the perfect life in a perfect town.  There are challenges, problems, and room for improvement in every town, but everybody trusts each other and wants everybody else to succeed.  Bad blood has no place in Animal Crossing world.  In a world that’s often stifling, cruel, and selfish, these games provide a true escape.  They are the ultimate source of “me” time.  It’s probably why I played New Leaf for an hour every day for almost a year.

Also, the music is just…sublime.

I should mention that these games are not perfect.  Eventually you start to run out of room to put things.  Having your villagers suggest nickname changes or say the same things gets old, and the illusion begins to wear thin as always.

But before that happens, you’re going to spend days’ worth of happy times doing…whatever you want, and that’s why Animal Crossing is different from any other game in the world.  It showed that escapism and fun in video games doesn’t need to be high fantasy or intense action.  It can just be a place where you feel like you belong.   Your very own utopia in a box.

Think I’ll pay mine a visit.

My Journey with The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask has been on my radar screen for years.  The game is the quick-turnaround sequel to smash hit The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time from 1998.  It takes place after child Link rides off into the sunset to look for his companion, Navi.

Majora's Mask 3D logo
The title logo for The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

While riding through the forest, Link encounters the Skull Kid, a normally kind and whimsical forest imp.  But something is different.  The Skull Kid is wearing a disturbing mask inhabited by the dark spirit of Majora.  This power is too much for Skull Kid, who torments Link and turns him into a lowly Deku Scrub.

After falling down a tree trunk, seemingly into another world, Link finds the Happy Mask Salesman.  The Happy Mask Salesman was the original owner of the mask, and after teaching Link a song that turns him back the normal, he charges him with getting the Mask back.  Link finds himself in the land of Termina, consisting of Clock Town, The Great Bay, Snowhead, the Southern Swamp, and Ikana Valley.  The reason it’s called Termina is because the Skull Kid has set the moon itself on a collision course with the world, about to destroy everything and everyone in three days’ time.

Just as the world is about to end, Link discovers that he can play the Song of Time to return to his first moment in Termina.  In doing so, everything that has occurred over the three days is effectively reset.  However, not everything is undone.  In Groundhog Day fashion, the player must constantly re-live the same period of time in different ways to put an end to the Skull Kid’s madness.

Link on horseback
Link riding off into the fog.

When Majora’s Mask came out for Nintendo 3DS in 2015, I went out and bought it right away.  I never played past the first dungeon.  Frankly, I didn’t understand how the game worked at first, even after playing it for a few hours.  I finally found out that you can learn songs to skip ahead in time and slow it down to half-speed.  At this point I finally found some momentum.

I decided in summer of 2017 that I just wanted to finish the game.  But the meat of Majora’s Mask is its side quests.  There are only four “dungeons” in the game.  These dungeons are creative, complex, and unique.  The only non-essential chests in each dungeon house Stray Fairies, which you trade for Great Fairy upgrades.  They’re an example of quality over quantity, and I found them brilliant.  But they’re meant to be few and far between.  The rest of the game involves doing things for other people in Termina, which is a point  I’ll explore a little later.

Just about every quest in the game yields rupees, heart pieces (which increase life) or masks.  Masks are basically tokens of gratitude with different properties for the wearer.  Soon enough I found myself finishing a lot of quests.  They were so creative and interesting that they were almost irresistible.  Plus, the Bombers, a club of kids in Clock Town, clue you in to Rumored Events that point you in the right direction.

My collection finally grew to the point where I decided to go for 100% completion.  This meant collecting every Piece of Heart, every Mask, every item, and completing every quest.  I wrote an article about completionism, but I rarely do it myself.  I’d never done this kind of thing with a Zelda game before, not even Twilight Princess.  It meant a lot of attempts at long side quests, and a lot of skipping around different times.  Ultimately, despite how grueling it was at times, I did it.  I finished The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask with everything done.

I got quite emotional watching the ending of the game.  It took me back to when I was about seven years old playing Zelda with my family.  There’s something special about the story of Majora’s Mask that makes it one of the best in the series, and now I feel like I finally understand why,

At the most basic level, Majora’s Mask is about the soul.  It’s about healing wounds, old and new.  It’s about hope, and picking people up when they’re down.  The game barely has a villain.  Skull Kid may have been possessed by a chaotic spirit, but he was by no means a villain.  He was only angry because he was lonely.  His whimsy made him an outsider, and his guardian friends, the Giants, had to leave him behind out of duty.

The conflict of Majora’s Mask lies in the tragedy of those with no one to rely upon.  Writ large, this is the player’s motivation for whatever they do in the game.  There are no quests that ultimately involve screwing over unsuspecting people.  Those in need are there for the player to help.  In part, that’s why I decided to complete every quest in the game.

Link and Skull Kid
A carving of Link and the Skull Kid.

To be honest, I sometimes identify with the plight of Skull Kid.  Every so often I have a bad day when, in spite of my knowledge and better judgement, I feel alone.  Sometimes my interests and personality make me feel like an outsider, and as such, I try not to take my friendships for granted.  My greatest fear is being alone, and my friends and family, whether they know it or not, help remind me that I’m not.

This is exactly the role that the player fills in Majora’s Mask: a friend.  To Skull Kid, to Anju and Kafei, to Cremia…everyone.  By completing this game 100%, I felt like I was doing everything in my power to help.  I didn’t have to, but I did it because that’s what friends do.

Playing through Majora’s Mask was a unique experience.  I didn’t go into much depth about the gameplay in this article.  Perhaps I’ll do so in the future.  But when I have such a personal experience with a game, I feel the need to talk about it.  I could talk about specific mechanics all day, but the central goal of game design is to create a certain feeling.  What this game made me feel was extraordinary, and I see now why it’s regarded as a masterpiece.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty REVIEW

A couple weeks ago I talked about Metal Gear Solid for PS1 and some of the unique qualities of Kojima’s design.  After finishing Metal Gear Solid 2 for the first time this week, I want to talk about the changes from the first game to the second, Sequelitis-style.  Some I really enjoyed, others bothered me a little.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
The Metal Gear Solid 2 logo! (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Metal Gear Solid 2 starts with a prologue that takes place on a tanker. Solid Snake (assisted by his whimsical engineer friend Hal “Otacon” Emmerich) infiltrates the tanker to look for evidence of a new model of Metal Gear.  Following the Shadow Moses Incident of the first game, the two are working covertly to remove Metal Gear mobile nuclear artillery units entirely from the world’s military stage.  Without spoiling the game extensively, the Metal Gear RAY is stolen and Snake is presumed dead.

Fast forward two years later: a new Snake sneaks onto an oil rig called the Big Shell, where the President of the United States and a number of hostages are being ransomed for 30 billion dollars by a force consisting of Russian soldiers and elite terrorist group Dead Cell.  Dead Cell happens to be led by Solidus, the long-lost brother of Solid and Liquid Snake.  This new Snake, soon re-named Raiden, is the only one who can save the President and prevent the threat of a nuclear attack.  What follows is a story of regret, free will, conspiracy, and legacy, all wrapped up in stealthy espionage…and the return of a legend.

I want to first give full credit to this story, because it blew me away.  I actually teared up at more than one moment near the end, and it was an incredible coincidence that I finished it the day before Independence Day.  It just kept coming with twist after twist that constantly raised the stakes and changed the way I viewed characters.  Although a lot of people hate the protagonist, Raiden, I thought he was an excellent character.  Kojima included him as a younger complement to Snake after a young girl sent him a letter about how she couldn’t really relate to Snake.  As a younger guy, I honestly took to playing as Raiden, especially after I learned his deep, tragic backstory that parallels Snake’s.

But what I think was a real strong point of Raiden’s inclusion is Kojima’s wish to develop Snake from a third person perspective.  This is why I suggest playing through MGS1 first, because experiencing Shadow Moses firsthand provides excellent context for this game.  Snake is initially a myth to rookie Raiden, and the way he interfaces with the player’s story definitely makes him seem like one.  When you’re finally fighting alongside Snake by the end, the realization of how far you’ve come as Raiden is priceless.Playing through MGS1 also makes the interaction between old faces more meaningful.  For example, the evolution of Snake and Otacon’s relationship from mutual assets behind enemy lines to best friends is quite moving.  It made me feel great for following the long thread of MGS.

The game also has some good fun with the fourth wall.  Some of it’s used for humor, but it’s also used for some freaky psychological tricks near the end.  I won’t spoil it, of course, but you won’t know whether to laugh or panic.  The harmony of humor and seriousness is still alive and well after the first game.

Story is only half the battle, of course.  And Metal Gear is known for some fantastic, unique gameplay.  Compared to the first game, though, I have some gripes about Metal Gear Solid 2.  Visually, Sons of Liberty is obviously an upgrade.  All the characters and animations are more expressive, and the effects of rain and light are excellent.  The player also has far more options for dealing with situations.  The M9 lets you put guards to sleep, and you can hold up guards for items.  Fire extinguishers can provide smoke screens.  A box on a certain conveyor belt can do wonders.  Have a camera or drone in your way?  Just shoot it out.  The options are overwhelming.

And that’s a problem for me.  Maybe I’m just bad at the game, but I feel like I wasn’t made aware of simple solutions.  I thought the less forgiving rules of the first game still applied.  For example, there was an instance near the end of Metal Gear Solid where the only way up a stairwell was by using chaff grenades to disable camera nests.  There was no way to shoot out cameras.

Metal Gear Solid 2, meanwhile, lets you shoot out cameras by precisely hitting their sensors.  I didn’t realize this until about halfway through, because I never needed to shoot out a camera until then.  I also thought chaff was the only way to get past drones.  Then I realized in the last two hours that you can just shoot them with your pistol.  Could’ve saved me a lot of time falling from a railing to my death.

Speaking of which, there’s a lot of falling to your death in this game.  Metal Gear Solid 2 happens entirely at sea, so falling into the water is a legitimate hazard.  The amount of times I’ve had a section of bridge permanently fall out from under me is just a little bit annoying.  The last thing that bothers me is how persistent the enemies are.  I played through the game on normal difficulty, since I’m not quite a newcomer.

I found myself spotted constantly, and once an enemy calls reinforcements, it means one of two things.  You’re overwhelmed and killed, or you have to hide and wait around three minutes for the reinforcements to clear out.  It doesn’t help that disabled enemies don’t report their status, and so a party comes to investigate the situation.  Again, I found out later that you can shoot out enemy radios.  I would’ve liked to know that.

I will, however, give credit to Hideo Kojima for coming up with all of these details within the game.  Heck, his marriage was in crisis because he was working so hard on Metal Gear Solid 2, according to the exclusive “Making Of” that came out with the PAL release.  I just would have liked to know about more of my options up front as a player. That doesn’t take away from the immense polish of this game. And, combined with the incredibly powerful story, this is a game that everybody should experience for themselves.

Is it better than the first one? Is it worse? It’s hard to say. I think the first one worked very well within its own framework.  Both suffer from a lot of backtracking, and I found the first game more fun and interesting to navigate.  However, the second one expanded on legacy of the first one almost perfectly. I would say play them both in a row, and simply enjoy.  Together, they create a spectacular experience that I was happy to play through.