Ladies and gentlemen, class and decorum have left the building

Animal Crossing (2004)

Just like you can never really know what your workmates are gonna be like until you’re deeply entrenched in the low-pay grind with them, it’s pretty difficult to consciously choose your neighbours. Mind you, in this day and age you can at least go onto local neighbourhood watch pages on social media and do a quick search for the street or estate you plan to move into. If there’s barely any mentions of your desired area on there, then your children will be able to practice the dulcimer and eat their activated almonds in peace. But if your finger gets tired scrolling through all of the reports of anti-social behaviour, your home life will shape up like a scene from the Walking Dead.

Mind you, it’s possible that you’ve never even properly met your neighbours. Certainly the ‘girl next door’ doesn’t exist anywhere near as frequently as you’d like her to, and even if she did you’re probably a bit too close in proximity to find a good vantage point for perving, not that you’d do anything like that. I now live on a street where the average age is about 65, which is fantastic. There’s no trouble, and it also means I won’t ever have to help next door with their DIY because their kids will feel obliged to come up and help the old man themselves. Of course, that logic cuts both ways; if anyone tries to bust into my house or otherwise does some sort of offence against me, my person or my SNES games, the old deafies next door won’t have heard a thing.

It could be an awful lot worse. My childhood home was situated in a housing estate full of top people, don’t get me wrong, but people frequently moved in and out, you would occasionally get the Clampetts rocking up. One particularly scurvy family around the corner hired an Elvis impersonator for a birthday party, booming out The King’s songs on a sound system so loud it was even drowning out the local skangers and the planes overhead.

An Elvis impersonator in a back garden party, how gauche can you get? I didn’t think we were actually in the ghetto. But I couldn’t be too annoyed, because even though old Elvis was so loud he might as well have been standing in front of me (and to be fair, he was a good old impressionner) and it completely ruined my own evening, at least it’s given me a story to tell for the ages. I just wish I’d gotten an invite.

Obviously the worst thing that can happen is that you get lumbered with bottom feeder neighbours. Hearing the rows and screaming through the walls is always fun, but it’s a big price to pay for what they’ll cost you – you’ll take to avoiding them completely, not even giving them any eye contact, because they’ll always want something from you. Cut their grass once and they’ll expect you to do it forevermore, as well as take care of their bastard children, that sort of thing.

Boy, you certainly get some needy neighbours in Animal Crossing, although most of them aren’t wasters which is a good thing. Animal Crossing is much more etched in the collective consciousness these days in its New Horizons form on Switch, a game that, if I didn’t know better, brought about lockdown all by itself. But I won’t knock it, at least it made that dreadful period a lot better (and 300 hours poorer) for millions of people.

I was more fascinated by the original Animal Crossing for GameCube, although that’s not quite correct – this game originally made its bow on the N64, in Japan only of course, with a quirk I always liked of having you sign the name of your town on the cartridge label itself. A couple of years later, this “communication” game from Nintendo (and it could only ever be by Nintendo) was ported to GameCube, with the same graphics that were quite basic, but I always thought people maligned them unnecessarily – I think the style worked just fine.

Animal Crossing really was like nothing else that had come before. You could try to liken it to The Sims but you’d still be miles away. In truth, though I played a lot of this game I always felt like I was doing the wrong thing, like I should have been sacking it off and going out and making real friends instead.

Actually, me playing Animal Crossing did indeed coincide with a period of my life where I simply stopped going out anymore, which lasted about 18 months. I lost all my friends of course, so I had to go out and get new ones, and what a comeback story! Nowadays, as you know, I’m a social butterfly. But even in those hikikomori days, to give you a little Japanese phrase, I always thought to myself that playing Animal Crossing on, say, Halloween night or the New Year’s Eve countdown would be the height of sad.

Apart from those special occasions, you probably know Animal Crossing as a second life, but not in the sense of poopsocks and dungeon raids with other nerdlingers at 4 in the morning. This is a game that you can play at your own pace, or you can even indulge in a bit of time travelling if you like, preceding an absolute dressing down by that wretched mole Mr. Resetti. Otherwise you can fish, catch bugs, dig up fossils, shop for new furniture, and… not a lot else, really.

Oh, you could always speak with your neighbours – sorry, this really is a different world, isn’t it? Socialising with next door, just imagine. But the problem with the first Animal Crossing, and it still exists today to an extent, is that even with 200-300 animals, there are only a scant few personality types and therefore a quite limited pool of lines that they have to say, so even socialising with them gets rather repetitive. But then, so is asking about the weather, right? I’m no use at small talk, I can’t stand any of it, but some people live for it, so who am I to tell them what makes life enjoyable?

That’s why it’s always difficult to judge a game like Animal Crossing, even more difficult than judging a street, an estate, a postcode, a city. You might think you have all the answers, you might have read what other people are saying, but only when you dip your own toes in will you fully realise what it’s like. You might think Animal Crossing is the worst use of an-hour-a-day ever, or maybe you’ll dive right in and love the world it crafts.

There’s probably no reason to play this one anyway, now that several sequels have come along and built not-a-lot on top. But I feel obliged to mention to any Elvisphobes out there that the Animal Crossing character named Elvis, a lion in a king’s robe who says “unn-hunh” to everyone, didn’t make his debut until after this game. Do you think he does impressions…?

10 December 2021

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