Animal Crossing is, and I’m not exaggerating here, one of my all-time favorite video game series. The original American GameCube iteration was unlike any game I’d played before, and the subsequent DS follow-up was even more engaging.
The finest entry to date was surely 2012’s New Leaf, which later this week will be joined on the Nintendo 3DS by Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer. I was treated to an early hands-on with the title prior to this year’s E3, and, despite straying a bit from the tried-and-true Animal Crossing formula, I found it genuinely enjoyable.
While I was only given a taste of the experience at that Nintendo event, I’ve spent the last two weeks playing through the final, retail build at my own pace. The good news is I can confirm that Happy Home Designer is, as I originally surmised, a great handheld gaming experience. The bad news? Well, it has a lot to do with that “pace” I mentioned. But we’ll get to that later.
HHD is both the latest Animal Crossing game and the series’ very antithesis. In a regular Animal Crossing title, you are free to roam your developing town, making friends and growing your community in real time, day in and day out. As the latest designer for Nook’s Homes, however, you can only really do one “thing” (read: home/building design) per in-game day. After completing that activity, you are encouraged to log your progress at your desk (read: save your game), at which point night falls and a new day begins.
You are welcomed to Happy Home Designer by Tom Nook’s whole team, but it’s new addition Lottie the otter that takes you under her wing (flipper?) and teaches you the ways of interior design. First, you help her design her own home. Then, as your first proper assignment, you make a cozy abode for new neighbor Goldie the dog.
After that, the home design process generally follows a simple formula. New potential community members gather in the town square outside Nook’s Homes, and you can get an idea of what they’re looking for with regard to a home theme by approaching them. Engage your preferred new neighbor by pressing the A button, and you’ll both head inside for a more formal consultation.
Maybe he wants to live in a haunted house or she wants a serene space of her own; either way Lottie will help you get the skinny, and then it’s off to the proverbial races. First, you’ll select an appropriate location on your town map (you can even toggle between seasons by repeatedly tapping the destination), and then you can begin to build and design the home, inside and out, based on furniture, plants, and other elements that are unlocked to fit the animal’s theme.
Once an element is made available in your catalog, it’s there to stay, and old Animal Crossing hands should be able to get a pretty fair idea of what is to be unlocked based solely on the request description. You like blue, huh, Jeremiah? Okay, blue furniture series incoming!
But even in the earliest hours of the game, you realize that this is not exactly the regular Animal Crossing experience. For example, no matter where you choose to place a home on the map, the space never really seems to become occupied. You can pile home after home on the same plot of land with no ill effects. This is because Happy Home Designer takes the emphasis off navigating the map to find and visit your neighbors.
You can still stop in to be neighborly–and, as the game progresses, add to or replace the existing home designs–but this is done instead by choosing a neighbor from your rapidly filling logbook. Of course, the neighbors also visit you on their regular trips to the town square.
Downtown starts as a pretty barren landscape, full of vacant buildings and your humble place of employment, but go-getter urban planner Isabelle quickly shows up and requests your help in gentrifying the area. First up, you’ll build and decorate a school, but stores, restaurants, and even a hospital become available later. You have a number of unique facades for these businesses, and there’s plenty of space within to set up furniture in any way you wish.
Just like your private clients, these public properties all include a list of required items–things like tables or chairs for the schoolhouse or patient beds for the hospital. Satisfying even these meager requirements is generally enough to please a client, but chances are if you’re playing HHD you’re not about to skimp on the interior design elements!
Other than taking their design requests, interaction with your animal neighbors takes place as you visit their homes–where you can change clothes and use emotions (poses you unlock as you complete design assignments) to take even more delightful pictures using the game’s screenshot feature–and as they show up to fill the roles of teachers, diners, and bellhops in your public buildings. Further, you can even embrace your inner control freak by assigning certain roles to certain citizens.
If waiting around for your favorite critters to randomly show up doesn’t exactly sound like fun, you can always import them via the appropriate amiibo card. (Though owners of the previous model 3DS systems will need the add-on NFC reader for this.) The game ships with one freebie–I got Tortimer–but the cards themselves will be available in packs of six shortly after launch. Using the amiibo phone in the Nook’s Homes, you can spend your daily design action to “call” this animal to your town. You can design her house, and even use her as a play-actor in one of your building scenes.
Other beloved Animal Crossing elements, like changing hairstyles or creating custom patterns, as well as bigger floor plans and the ability to include gyroids or fossils in your designs, are unlocked from the Happy Home Handbook at your desk using Play Coins. This, like the new public building projects from Isabelle, are meant to open up the world of Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer in small, satisfying chunks. The only problem is… Well, remember that thing I said about pacing?
I completed my town square area and unlocked all the Handbook items in the span of a single weekend. That’s not to say that the game itself is light on content, and I’m still enjoying adding to my furniture collection and moving in animal friends both old and new, but my fellow Animal Crossing diehards should probably be aware that HHD feels, in some ways, like more of a sprint than the laborious marathon to which we’ve become accustomed.
Now, does that mean I wouldn’t recommend this game for old school AC fans? Of course not! I am of the opinion that any Animal Crossing is good Animal Crossing, and Happy Home Designer is no exception. Instead, in addition to these loyalists, I’d even recommend this one to those who have long been intimidated by the notorious daily grind of the series proper.
Happy Home Designer has all the charm and creative stimulation of Animal Crossing, but that great feast of content is now perfectly portioned. You can play for 15 minutes or for hours on end and still have a truly satisfying experience. Whether you’re interested in the standalone game, the NFC Reader Bundle, or, my personal favorite, the Happy Home Designer + New 3DS Bundle, Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer is the newest must-have for your portable gaming library.
Review materials provided by: Nintendo of America