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.
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.