Saturday, January 23, 2016


Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer

Happy Home Designer was never really on my radar.  All of the early press made it sound like it was just some throwaway minigame to encourage people to buy the new amiibo cards.  I even reported, erroneously, that the game would be a free download, like amiibo Tap! on the Wii U.  A version of Animal Crossing that's stripped down to designing houses for the animals?  As someone who considers the house decorating the weakest aspect of Animal Crossing, this doesn't even sound like a game, much less a full retail product.

And then I tried it.

By the time I was done designing Goldie's "forest of books" home, I realized that this game was scratching an itch I didn't even know I had.

See, I have long had a fascination with creating spaces, digital or otherwise.  That's the real reason that I was interested in games like Sim City or Rollercoaster Tycoon -- I wanted to make worlds.  I wanted to imagine people living in them.  I wanted to go down inside them myself.

And that's what this game allows you to do.  You open up the Animal Crossing furniture catalog bit by bit, and you use it to create homes.  And when you're done, you can dress up your character and the animal characters like little dolls and make them have tea parties and stuff.  It's a little world that you make for your own amusement without having to worry about nonsense like scores or game currency.  And that speaks to me.

So why do I enjoy this so much while I hate the interior decorating in the Animal Crossing series proper?

Obviously there's the million little conveniences they've added in.  Animal Crossing has the interface of an adventure game, so getting anything done requires you to move your character around the world and muck about with inventories and shops and so on.  Happy Home Designer, in contrast, gives you a magic tablet computer that gives you instant access to everything.  Search the catalogue by tabs or keywords, drag and drop items, change colors with the tap of a button, design and apply custom patterns -- you're like a tiny god.  And, of course, you get access to entire furniture themes all at once.  No more waiting weeks or months for the last piece of cabin furniture to go on sale so you can FINALLY finish the room you wanted.

Then there's the fact that you get more than one home to design.  The problem with Animal Crossing is that there are dozens of different furniture themes to try out, but you only have the one house.  If you want to try something different -- such as the various holiday themes -- you either have to store or sell all of your things.  And if you want to go back to a design you like, you have to repurchase and drag everything out all over again.  But in Happy Home Designer, you can just crank out house after house to your heart's content.  Let one villager keep your favorite design while you move on to try the next one.

But probably the most compelling thing about this game is that you're actually given a concrete goal to achieve.  Every time you meet with a new client, they give you a vision -- they want a game room, or a sidewalk bistro, or a play room for their children, or a gothic bedroom, or a pirate's hideout.  Then they give you three pieces of furniture which must go into the design and a tab in your interface with suggestions for appropriate accessories, although of course you're allowed to use any furniture you've unlocked.

This is actually really cool.  By giving you some concrete guidelines to follow, they stir up your brain and make you think of possibilities you might not have considered otherwise.  Left to my own devices, I'd probably just dump a hot tub and a sushi bar in every home and call it a day.  But... a gothic bedroom?  With a dollhouse, a bed, and a cabinet?  Well, this is probably going to be a bedroom; what's a good combination of wallpaper and flooring to match this furniture?  And we'll need a lamp, a clock on the wall, this will probably be a little changing area here, so we'll need a vanity, maybe a small rug to set it apart from the rest of the room... what about some music?  An old-fashioned phonograph seems appropriate.  And let's set up a little table where the doll house can go.  And maybe a plant next to it to give the room a little color.  Not very flashy, oh no, this is a gothic bedroom.  And what about a place to sit?  Everyone needs a little coffee nook.  And so on.

Of course, not every design trips my interest like this.  An alligator requests an indoor jungle, and gives me a bunch of cardboard trees and bushes, and it's like... what am I supposed to do with this?  So I just spread them randomly around the room.  But there are some good requests in there too, and lots of opportunities for me to flex my style muscles to try and come up with something that seems both functional and visually compelling.  I can spend half an hour to forty-five minutes on a single home for no reason other than I'm having a great time weighing all of my options and putting little touches and flourishes on everything, even though there's no gamey "point" to it.

In fact, people have complained -- correctly -- that there's no real "game" here.  Your designs aren't critiqued in any meaningful way by the computer, and you aren't under any pressure to save or earn money.  And all I can say is that I don't want there to be a game here.  I don't need to grind for currency for hours so that I can afford the idea I have in mind.  I don't want to have to worry about whether my designs are following the rules -- I just want to make something that looks nice to me.  I remember all of the spam I used to get from the Happy Room Academy back in the original Animal Crossing, and how upset they'd get when my furniture wasn't all in the same set, or I was missing a piece I didn't want, or whatever.  Computers are not yet very good at aesthetic choices.  I'd much rather come up with something that I think looks nice and post a picture on Miiverse to see how other people like it.

Another complaint is that this game would be better served as an update or DLC for Animal Crossing: New Leaf instead of a completely separate product.  And... I'm not sure how to respond to that.  I like Animal Crossing for what it is -- a sort of life simulation adventure, with all of the hassles that come with life, such as working for money and moving your furniture around by hand.  And I like Happy Home Designer for what IT is -- a virtual doll house where you can do anything you want with no restrictions.  To put the two together would sort of dilute their ideas -- you would either put this overpowered magical ability into a game that's more or less supposed to be about real life, or you would have to take the fun out of HHD's magic wand by making the player worry about costs and limitations.  I'd like to see some of Happy Home Designer's ideas blend into the main series -- particularly ceiling and exterior decorations -- but I think I'm okay with them being two different games.

And then there's the fact that this game isn't really Animal Crossing.  While you're building this town and meeting all of these characters, it's natural to expect that you're going to have the same sort of experience, where you can meet your favorite villagers every day and have all sorts of conversations and stuff together, but this game doesn't have the same sense of a solid reality that the main series has.  The town has a map, and you can select the location for a client's house, but it's less like you're putting the house in a real, physical location and more like you're selecting a predetermined land mass in Sim City.  And I actually think that's kind of cool!  There are plenty of unique places where you can set up a home, with ponds and bridges and overlooking cliffs and even train tracks running past, but a lot of people are put off by this sort of disconnect.  You're not building and exploring a single, cohesive world -- you're just making these little islands floating in the ether.

In fact, the question arises:  What's the point of making all of these houses?  What can you DO with them?

Well, machinima.

See, probably the biggest disappointment with Animal Crossing is that you can't really do anything with your home.  It's not like The Sims where you surround yourself with furniture that can do things -- it's mostly just there for show.  I don't care to decorate my home because I don't spend a lot of time in it.  There's nothing to do there.

Happy Home Designer ups the ante here.  Slightly.  A lot more pieces of furniture give you some sort of interaction animation, like pulling a book off a shelf, or pulling out a fork and knife when you're seated at a dinner table.  There's still no real point to it, but it gives you just enough of a visual cue to make the world seem like it's alive.  And it's not just your own character -- you also get direct control over the animals.  You can put them in front of a radio and watch them play a tambourine.  You can sit them on a porch swing and watch them sip a cup of coffee.  You dress them, pose them, and take a picture.  And then you tell your story on Miiverse.

Seriously.  People are using this game to write and tell little Animal Crossing stories all over Miiverse.  If you play the game for long enough, you can't help it.  The game gives you just enough stage dressing to get your imagination warmed up, and then you start thinking about, oh, here's what this sheep is doing today.  It doesn't try to simulate your characters' lives the same way Animal Crossing does, but that's fine, because you can do it just as well on your own.  And that's potentially more powerful than any computer simulation could ever be anyway.

Do I have any complaints?  Well yeah.  I've designed about twenty houses -- plus shops, a school, a hospital, a concert hall, a hotel -- and I have to admit, I don't have the same fire that I started with.  When I first began the game, I couldn't wait to unlock more options and build bigger houses with larger floorplans and more rooms, and now that I have the option to do it... I feel like I'm kind of burned out.  After a while, it starts to feel like I'm just making the same placement decisions over and over, just changing out the furniture themes.  I don't want to just drop a bed and a rug and all it a day.  On the other hand, trying to meticulously detail a three-room home (plus the surrounding yard) for nearly an hour starts to wear on my patience, so I end up opting for smaller, simpler projects.  It's not really a game that holds up well to marathon play.

All this chattering and I haven't even mentioned the amiibo features.  Considering that this game was developed largely as an excuse to print a new series of Animal Crossing cards, the amiibo features are pretty subdued.  I imagine that, at some point in development, someone stepped in and said, "You know, we want to sell to people with the old 3DS too -- maybe let's back off on the amiibo stuff."  The cards are used to phone a character and offer to make a home for them, but there are plenty of requests to do even if you never use them.

There's basically two things the amiibo are good for.  One is that the special NPC characters -- Tom Nook, Isabelle, K.K. Slider -- will never come to your town unless you scan their amiibo.  The other is that you can summon any character to visit the room you're in, which is useful for creating group photos with your favorite animals.  Happily, the game doesn't matter if you're using a card or a figure, so if you've already got Isabelle and Digby with your copy of amiibo Festival, you're set to go.  Neither feature is really what I would call a killer app -- it's just kind of a little treat for people who already collect the merchandise and want it to cross into the game in some way.

All in all, I'm very happy with Happy Home Designer, but that's not to say I would give it a universal recommendation.  It's not a game -- it's a doll house.  It's probably going to appeal more to people who are already Animal Crossing fans while simultaneously alienating Animal Crossing fans who are looking for a more robust life simulation adventure.  But this is a game where I can build a winter resort lodge for an African wild dog and then jam on his guitar while he dances all night.  If there's anything about that idea that trips your interest, give it a look.  It might surprise you.


Friday, January 01, 2016


Animal Crossing amiibo Festival

Amiibo Festival gets compared to Mario Party, but really, it's much more similar to Milton Bradley's The Game of Life -- it's a fairly straightforward roll-and-move style board game where every space that you land on is a life event that changes your score for better or worse.  There aren't a lot of important decisions to make, and players have very limited direct interaction.

And that's kind of appropriate for Animal Crossing.  Whatever else you might say about it, the core concept has never really been one of high skill -- you just wander around town and look for things to do.

What's surprising is just how much of an Animal Crossing experience this game really is.  Your gameboard is printed on a town landscape, and just as in the series proper, every save file has a slightly different town to play on.  You eventually unlock the ability to customize your town with public works projects and, if you have amiibo cards, new animal villagers.  Most of these changes are cosmetic -- new vignettes play when you land on the gameboard spaces -- but you can also create new paths that change the gameboard itself.  And, of course, every game follows a single calendar month -- based on the current real-world year -- with all of the visiting NPCs, special events, and holidays you've come to expect from Animal Crossing.

Another surprising thing is the level of detail that's gone into the game.  Lots of the vignettes that appear in the game are tailored to the character that you're playing as -- Digby's events relate to working at the HHA, Lottie runs into Uncle Lyle a lot -- the time of year you're playing, and even what your town looks like -- an event that takes place at ReTail is "shot" in front of the ReTail in your town, not just a random ReTail in an empty generic void.  Considering how basic the actual gameplay is -- you roll, you move, and your score changes -- a whole lot of attention was put into making sure the experiences that you have feel "real".  It's like they want you to believe that you're playing a proper Animal Crossing game that just happens to take place on a gameboard.

The turnip stalk market -- another feature from the parent series -- is probably the most important aspect of the game just because, even with the random nature of it, it's the most direct agency players get over their own success or failure.  Every Sunday, players get the opportunity to buy turnips, and for the six days following, every space on the board features a selling price.  Land on a high-selling space, and you can really alter the course of the game.  And one of the most reliable ways to hit those high-selling spaces is to collect the special movement cards that are offered by visiting NPCs like Katie and Dr. Shrunk.  So it's not a completely brain-dead game; you do have to give some thought to how far you're willing to push your luck in the market.

Still, this is very much just a casual board game.  People looking for lots of minigames or deep strategy should look elsewhere.  This is a game to just sit back and chill with.

Don't Forget to Spend Money

It would be pleasant, and mostly true, to say that you can play this game using nothing but what comes in the box -- two amiibo figures and three amiibo cards -- but it's pretty clear that this game was meant to be expanded.

Sure, you can play the main board game with as few as one figure.  Players without amiibo can play as human villager stand-ins.  But the human characters are second-class citizens in the game.  At best, they don't get to participate in the level-up metagame, where amiibo figures use their accumulated Happy Points to unlock special emotes and costumes.  At worst, humans miss out on the +1 Happy Point bonus that amiibos get for every die they roll.  It's a small bonus, but it adds up -- a player with an amiibo can expect to have a significant 30 point advantage over a human player over the course of a complete game.  And since one amiibo is required to play and the amiibo player can't opt out of this bonus, it becomes a situation where you need to buy a figure for every player in order to level the playing field.

It's terrible.  It's terrible because it's unnecessary.  This is the first I've heard of Nintendo introducing a pay-to-win mechanic into one of their games, and I don't want to see them continuing down this road.

That aside, I get what they were trying to do here.  They've made a video board game, and they're trying to make it feel more like a real board game.  So every player has a physical pawn, and the game pad is the board.  Tapping an amiibo to roll a die doesn't really feel natural, but it's something.  And I do appreciate that the figures have some save data and customization options; I always feel like the amiibo concept is best suited to games where your character gets customized in some way.  What's weird is how many people complain about this feature.  The way reviewers bemoan the fact that you have to tap your amiibo on EVERY SINGLE TURN and then pass the game pad ALL THE WAY OVER to the next player makes it sound like some sort of Herculean burden.

Gamers, right?

Then there are the amiibo cards.  The game comes with three promotional cards -- Goldie, Stitches, and Rosie.  This is enough to play all of the bonus minigames except two.  And dare I say, I feel like this aspect of the game has sort of proven the amiibo concept to me.

See, every card character has unique aspects -- a species, a die number, a zodiac sign, a roshambo character -- and all of the various minigames use these aspects in different ways.  On the low end, you have the hidden camper game, where you play a game of Mastermind and the cards you use are basically just picking which characters you want to play it with.  On the high end, you have the island escape game, which plays out in the style of a cooperative board game like Forbidden Island, and every character belongs to a different "class" and has different abilities to help in your struggle for survival.  There's a pachinko-style game where a character's size and weight affects how they bounce around a maze of balloons.  There's a card battle game where the die numbers and zodiac signs affect who wins. 

And in the main board game, you can tap the card of any character who lives in your town to get them to roll the die for you, and you have a greater than usual chance of rolling the number on their card.  This is a rather curious mechanic.  First, a player who does this doesn't get the normal +1 Happy Point bonus, so you don't get it for nothing.  Second, there doesn't seem to be any limit to how often you can do it.  This allows you to come up with any sort of house rules that you want.  Maybe every player gets to pick a single card to use for the duration of the game.  Maybe younger players can choose to use a card to give them a leg up.  Maybe you forgo the dice entirely and everyone always has to use the cards to roll to give the game more of a strategic edge.  Or maybe you just allow anyone to use any card any time they want, and accept the loss of the extra point as the penalty for doing so.  It's up to you.

And then there are a couple games that use the cards not so much for their data as for their physical-ness.  There's an acorn-collecting maze game that takes a page from Robot Turtles of all things, where you have to tap corresponding cards to move forward, left, or right and navigate a maze, collecting acorns and heading for the exit.  And there's a whack-a-mole/roshambo hybrid game where you tap cards to bop Resettis.  The interesting thing about these games is that, while they could be done in software by tapping buttons or even using the touch screen, they take on a whole different dimension when you're fiddling around with physical cards laid out in front of you.  These games require three cards each, so you can't just hold them all simultaneously and plug the right one at the right time; you have to switch the cards that you're holding repeatedly and at a frantic pace.  It takes a whole different kind of quick thinking, and it makes these games what they are.  I would go so far as to say that they make the case for why we should even be bothering with these stupid NFC features in games to begin with -- for the first time ever, they're giving us an experience that you could never possibly replicate in software alone.

The fact that the cards are integrated into this game so well is kind of a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it means that the game provides enough rewards to justify buying the cards to go with the game.  On the other hand, it means that playing the game with the cards that come in the box is akin to, say, playing Magic the Gathering with a pre-built deck.  It just feels kind of plain.  To get the most out of the game and everything it does with the cards, you're going to want a large variety of cards to play with.  If you're the sort of person who is loathe to sink money into a trading card game, you might not get everything that this game has to offer.

Yeah I Like It

The thing is, I'm kind of glad that this game got the reviews it did, because the prices for the game and related amiibo figures dropped like a rock on Amazon, where I scooped up the whole set for about 40% off.  And doesn't it just tickle my inner geek to have the WHOLE playset, and a big stack of cards to mess around with, and now I can just sit around tapping toys into video games like the colossal manchild that I am.

Now that Mario Party has evolved into some sort of race-to-the-finish game, it's kind of fun to play this game that feels more like what it used to be, where you play for a set number of turns and go around trying to score points and use items.  There's no mini-games, but I feel like the game moves faster without them.  It's a no-stress game, and even if you lose, you still get to level your amiibo up a bit, and you can blame it on your luck rather than a lack of skill.  I think there's a place for it.

Your mileage may vary, of course.  The game is very disengaging, and it's rather obviously a ploy to sell ever more amiibos.  But if you love Animal Crossing and you can find it cheap, I think you'll find there's a little something to it.


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