It's Christmas come early in Hell. Just south of the station, near to the little fish pond, the inhabitants of the small town gather in excitement – because today is the day Hell gets put on the map. No more will it be a tiny insignificant stop on the way to whatever busy, bustling metropolis the train hurtles towards, because everyone will want to come visit Hell's latest, greatest tourist attraction. Everyone's turned out for the town's special day - from the sweet Savannah, to the food-obsessed Clyde and angry Avery – even the perpetually lazy Pashmina's managed to get out of bed, while the sporty but slow Sly's dressed up for the occasion by forgoing trousers and opting for a fetching rainbow shirt, as the Mayor's secretary Isabelle tries to calm the crowds. For the past week, the townsfolk have been donating their hard earned cash towards the cause, and finally the fruits of their labour are about to be revealed. The Mayor steps forward (that's us), a fetching young lady with swollen eye (those damn bees) and a top hat to die for, and gives a brief speech. The audience erupts in rapturous cheers and applause, as the cloth's whipped off, to reveal the glorious addition they've all worked so had to afford over the past week is....
A yellow bench.
And such is the light-hearted fun we've come to expect from the world of Animal Crossing. Tell someone who's not in the know that you've just moved into a town of talking animals who like to post each other presents despite living next door, and that you're having to shake trees, fish and catch bugs to pay off a money-hungry raccoon for the house extension he's built so you can finally have space to fit that wrestling ring in, and they'd rightly think you've finally lost it. But in the cheerfully upbeat and harmless world of Animal Crossing, that's a perfectly normal day - and one that millions have come to know and love.
Since the series debuted on the Wii's predecessor, the GameCube (or on the N64 if you're Japanese), you've simply become another one of the girls and guys, moving into the little animal-filled village in the middle of nowhere in order to carve out an existence, and make some new friends - but for the series' debut on the 3DS, you're given another, rather major responsibility to think about besides your ever-increasing mortgage. In Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you actually become the mayor of the town the second you set foot off the train, thanks to a teeny tiny mix up at the station on the day you arrive.
Perhaps they were expecting the person coming to manage their little town following the retirement of former mayor, Tortimer, to be a bit more organised, but without a penny to your name when you hop off the train, your first few days are tough. The welcome party that greet you at the station don't seem to care if their new leader has a roof over their head, and there's no fully-furnished mayoral mansion waiting for you either. Sent in the direction of evil loan-
Of course, being the Mayor of your own town sounds like it's going to be quite a big deal, but like most things in life, the reality wasn't quite what we expected. Our dreams of running a dictatorship with an iron first were quickly crushed – no fifty foot statues of our face, no embezzling of government funds and no crazy or questionable laws to pass. In fact, about the most malevolent thing you can do as mayor in Animal Crossing: New Leaf is bop you denizens over the head with a butterfly net when they least expect it. Or dig enough holes to trap them in a corner. Or send them rotten turnips in the post. Other than these fairly minor hijinks, most of your mayoral time will be spent making the town a nicer place, with the rather grandly titled 'Public Works Projects', which are funded entirely by donations from the folk around town, and let you build everything from a fire hydrant to a fountain to a cafe on main street. About the closest you come to that dream dictatorship are defining 'Ordinances' for your townsfolk, which let you pass laws to encourage your townsfolk to act in a certain way at 20,000 Bells a pop. For example, an 'early-bird town' is more active earlier in the day, whilst a 'night-owl town' has more stuff going on at night - perfect for those of us who prefer to play in bed last thing at night. A bit less obvious is the 'beautiful town', where weeds are less likely to appear and villagers plant/tend to more flowers, whilst in the 'wealthy town' everything is worth 20% more, including the things you buy.
But even mayors need time to wind down, which is where the more traditional Animal Crossing pastimes come into play – pastimes which will consume your life if you're more than a little bit OCD about collecting things. Once you purchase the relevant equipment, there's insects to catch and fish to find, both of which vary depending on the season and time of day, as well as fossils to dig up – all of which can be donated to the town museum to fill up their exhibits or sold for a tidy profit at the local shop. You can also spend an age gardening, growing different kinds of flowers in search of a rare specimen, or perhaps trade in works of art, spotting the fakes from the forgeries and filling up the art gallery portion of the museum. But perhaps the most addictive thing to collect is the furniture to fill your home, from bog-standard tables, chairs and beds to the more exotic anatomical models, a baby panda or cement mixers, and a whole range of outfits to make you look awesome. There's even a bonus set of Nintendo-themed items, too, with ?-blocks, Wario moustaches and Pikmin hats on offer too – although you can only get these by exchanging fortunes from the Nookling general store fortune cookies, which cost you 2 Play Coins a pop.
Talking to the critters that inhabit your quaint little town is another way to pass the time – they nearly always have something to say or a favour to ask. Sometimes it's a simple matter of delivering a parcel to another person that they're too idle to walk to themselves, or perhaps catching them a certain fish or insect that they've for some reason set their heart on. Other times they'll simply tell you about their day, want your opinion on their new outfit, or ask you to come up with a new catch-phrase for them to say at the end of their sentences – after all, why say 'clip-clawp' at the end of a monologue when you can declare to the world 'I smell'? Meanwhile, the villagers all have their own personalities too - while super-friendly kleptomaniac zebra Savannah, they may just want to purchase everything you have in your pockets, Sly the camo-clad crocodile prefers to boast about his amazing 'guns' and exercise regime, while cranky rabbit-in-a-sun-hat O'Hare gets a bit skittish if you ask him what's inside a parcel.
Arguably best suited to the drop-in, drop-out style of play that goes hand in hands with portable systems, Animal Crossing is a game that's perfect for filling in a few minutes on a bus ride, giving you just enough time to collect some fruit, check in with the villagers, and find a few new fossils. For New Leaf, there's now also the option of multiplayer, with the ability to take your town with you round to a friends house, ready to link up and play together (read: steal all their fruit, cut down all their trees and litter their town with random holes), or, you can head across to a new tropical island, where the previous mayor Tortimer is enjoying his retirement. Accessible via boat, you and up to three friends can take part in various mini-game contests involving fishing, insect catching or running round mazes collecting fruit. Each event earns you medals which work as the island's own currency rather than the Animal Crossing staple Bells, and can be exchanged for unique items in it's shop, such as the wetsuit, which lets you swim off-shore and dive for treasures. You'll also find different tropical fruit, insects and fish hanging round the island too, which you can bring back with you to sell at the local shop for plenty of money. Of course, if you don't really know anyone else who's playing Animal Crossing, there's no need to worry either, as everything on the island can be played in single player too.
As a game which has a large focus on interior design, it should come as no real surprise that the game also has support for the 3DS's StreetPass function, which will let you collect the houses of the people you walk past in a special area of your village. Stored in the HH Showcase area just past the shops, you can peruse their homes at your leisure, and even purchase your own copy of their furniture to be delivered to your personal postbox the following day – although you will be charged a bit of a premium compared to the usual shops for the privilege.
In all, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a huge game, and we could easily carry on for another thousand words without covering everything there is to see and do. The title's slow pace and daily bite-sized chunks approach may not appeal to everyone – events unwind slowly on a daily basis over a long time, and if you're not the sort of person willing to play a game day in day out for long periods of time, Animal Crossing's probably not the game for you. But if you and the game click, you'll find yourself sinking insane amounts of time into your virtual village, filling museums, growing gardens and generally making your town a nicer place filled with fountains, topiaries and more. It's not a game about chasing high scores or punishing difficulty levels – it's more like one of those simple little things you need to do each day, like remembering to have breakfast or brushing your teeth; something you'd be kicking yourself if you forgot to do. It's the perfect antidote to all the brown military shooters flooding consoles today, and one that will arguably keep you entertained for far longer. It's cute, addictive, and a massive bundle of fun – and we love it for it.