Trying to convince people that they want to play a game about a village full of talking animals is no easy task - particularly when the game highlights are generally as mundane as digging up a fossil, catching a fish or, in moments of sheer frenetic aggression, shaking a tree until all its apples fall off. Unfortunately for Nintendo, when the original Animal Crossing for GameCube hit Europe, the company also had to grapple with the fact that it arrived almost two years after its launch in other territories, meaning that most people had pretty much forgotten it existed in the first place.
With the arrival of Animal Crossing: Wild World on the DS however, Nintendo is adamant it won't make the same mistake again. In fact, with a European release scheduled for Q1 next year, we'll be waiting a couple of months tops for the title - and, ooh, what a game it's shaping up to be.
After sucking up more playtime than was strictly available at this year's E3, we've been pretty eager to get our hands on a more complete version of the game. Luckily, as part of Nintendo's Gamers Summit last week in Frankfurt, the company had a near-finished copy of the game to stick under our squinty scrutinizing gaze.
With a game as open-ended and expansive as the Animal Crossing series, it's difficult to know where to begin when talking about it, so we'll do the sensible thing at start at, well, the beginning. Turning the system on, you're greeted with a nice juicy dose of that trademark Nintendo polish as the lilting guitar theme trickles from the speakers. After a few seconds, the title screen fades to the usual rolling demo and we were immediately impressed by the quality of the visuals on display.
Considering how critical many have been regarding the DS's 3D prowess, it's a very pleasant surprise to see that - aside from a lack of anti-aliasing - Animal Crossing's graphics look at least on par with the previous GameCube title, despite the change from over-head to unusual rolling from-the-front perspective. In fact, once we'd gotten the game under way, the canny character design and some genuinely well-designed weather effects took the whole thing well out of the realms of passable into the distinctly impressive.
You see, unlike the GameCube game which started your trek to Animal Crossing on-board a train, Wild World begins in the snug confines of a quaint mini-cab while a torrential downpour batters the windows outside. It's all quite fitting really for a game about finding small comforts and the general pleasantries of life, given how safe and cosy the introduction feels.
Your driver is the sea turtle Kapp'n who you might remember as the shanty-spouty sailor who would ship you over to the previous game's Game Boy Advance link-up-only paradise island. While the island's long gone in the new version, there's still plenty left over to breed that reassuring sense of familiarity. After the usual babble of questions designed to wrangle your name and gender, stored in the cartridge, you're deposited at the town hall to meet Pelly the town clerk.
After some more idle banter (there's a lot of speech in the game and those of an impatient disposition are likely to be frustrated by the title's meandering pace right from the start), you're introduced to your new home as well as the slickly designed touch-screen interface. By tapping the arrow in the top right-hand corner of the lower screen, the organiser-style menu pops up, giving you access to your items, clothing, fish, insects, the Pictochat-based chat system, your map and your Friends List. Each section can also be accessed using a button-shortcut - in the case of the map, simply tap X.
In fact, from what we could tell, it's possible to play the game almost entirely without the stylus if you're so inclined. A small icon in the top left corner of the lower screen displays which mode you're currently in and you can change it at will. Judicious use of the d-pad and buttons enables you to navigate the game's many menus, move around the world or input information but, to be honest, you're missing out on Animal Crossing's beautiful implemented touch-screen interface if you go this route.
Alongside menu navigate, chat functionality and personalisation elements (as in the GC Animal Crossing, you can design your own clothing - something much more precise and rewarding with the stylus) movement and object interaction is also entirely stylus-based. Simply touch the direction you want your character to travel towards and off they pop. If you want to kick a tree, chat to your neighbour or read the village notice board, it's simply a matter of double-tapping the appropriate area.
Incidentally, looking at the screenshots, you'd be forgiven for wondering whether Nintendo's made the most of the handheld's dual-screen functionality. Although it's true that Animal Crossing hardly innovates in this area, both screens are used thoughtfully to distribute all the information you're ever likely to require logically and clearly in the right place at the right time, without ever obscuring the important action. What's more, there're numerous activities that bring the upper screen into play. The example we saw involves presents strapped to balloons which casually glide across the sky overhead. If you've managed to get hold of a slingshot, you can shoot down the parcels and garner yourself some rare items. Hooray!
Finally arriving at your new humble abode, you'll see it's all change: Instead of the GameCube's four separate houses, each with a single level for decoration and a murky basement for storage, Wild World features one much larger home. Like the previous version of the game, up to four players can share one cartridge, taking turns to go about their daily lives in the same village. However, this time around, the experience is more co-operative with all players sharing the same house - this means everyone is jointly responsible for decorating the place and, thankfully, paying off that goddamn mortgage on the thing. As a nice touch, when you're playing, anyone else with a profile on your cartridge appears asleep in one of the four beds liberally strewn around your house's attic. Don't get any funny ideas.
Speaking of your mortgage, it's not long before Tom Nook - everyone's favourite raccoon-shaped shop keeper - is on the scene. He'll charge you with collecting enough bells to pay off that loan and expand your living quarters before buggering off with smug look on his face.
Before our play-time was up, we managed to track down one of the game's other villagers - Rasher, a frankly terrifying security-obsessed pig. In the name of community safety, he quizzed us on a range of topics before demanding we handed over our birthdays, using a rather nifty drop-down menu-select system.
While we didn't get chance to take the game online (it's Nintendo's second first-party title to make use of the company's Wi-fi Connection Service, alongside Mario Kart DS), we did manage to glean a few interesting facts from our friendly local Nintendo PR while we played. Firstly, one of the major differences between this and the GameCube version is the focus on speeding up some of the latter's more laborious gameplay elements. Many activities last time around involved some serious waiting time before they bore fruit - digging up a fossil, for example, required a trip to the museum where you'd need to wait a full real-time twenty four hours before it could be identified and placed on display. Nintendo realised that the GameCube title's sedate pacing would need a bit of a shake up to produce the more immediate gratification most people ask of their handheld titles.
However, Wild World still uses the DS's internal clock to keep track of events and, as before, there's a whole host of time-based events and seasonal calendar activities - apparently everyone testing the game at Nintendo has just enjoyed a Halloween village makeover, although we were sadly a few days late to see it ourselves.
Online-wise, the game lets you invite visitors on your Friends List into your village for a snoop around. Although Nintendo considered a less restrictive approach, it quickly became clear that having complete strangers marauding round your idyllic homestead was likely to end in disaster if they started hacking up shrubbery and assaulting your neighbours.
Once you've got someone in your list, you'll need to trot over to the village gates (which replace the GameCube's train station) and the game begins searching to see if they're online. If they are, and providing they're ready for visitors, you'll be able to hop over to their village and start exploring. Incidentally, there are no map templates for villages and each one is generated randomly when you first start playing, meaning everyone with the game should have their own uniquely designed home.
As for what you can do in other people's villages, it looks to be just about anything you can do in your own. We're even sure we were told you can run riot with your axe on the local flora if you're feeling particularly anti-social that day. Obviously too, Nintendo has implemented features to encourage regular visits to friends - different areas have different items and indigenous plants which can be given as presents whenever you skip your borders. For example, if your friend lives in a village that grows apples and you're limited to a distinctly lemony crop, you can swipe one of theirs, plant it in the grown and sell the results to Tom Nook for a heap of money. It's also possible for visitors to buy items and even clothing you've designed yourself by investigating Nook's local shop.
It seems Nintendo has a few other online tricks up their sleeve too. The company's presently considering incorporating a "message in a bottle" function where you'll be able to write some glad tidings, stick them in a bottle and sling the whole thing in the ocean. The server will then randomly select a recipient who'll find your message washed up on shore and a beautiful friendship will surely ensue. Obviously, there are still some concerns at the moment regarding keeping the network suitable for all ages and the last thing Nintendo wants is for five year old Johnny to open your bottle only to be told his mum's dead and it's all his fault.
One final feature we discovered was the inclusion of a button which enables you to connect directly to Nintendo itself and download a bunch of goodies which you'll be able to tinker around with at will. The example we were given was the inclusion of a special playable zombie cat that the company offered during the Halloween festivities. Unfortunately, at present, this downloadable content only lasts as long as the DS is switched on. Interestingly though, the function does mean that its possible to reward players with treats like the unlockable NES games included in the GameCube title but sadly not Wild World.
Regrettably, our hands-on time with the game was, predictably, far too brief and we only managed to scratch the surface of Wild World's deceptively deep mechanics. However, it's evident even now that this DS version retains all the magic of its predecessors while managing to stuff in even more than ever before, thanks to Nintendo's canny decision to bring it into the online era. For the first time, you can be properly sociable in what used to be a curiously lonely social interaction simulator.
Luckily, the US is set to receive the title on December 5 this year and Nintendo has assured us that your import copies will work on any part of its network, anywhere in the world. If you can't wait till Q1 next year, there's really nothing to stop you picking up the English-language version in less than a month's time. Expect a more detailed report just as soon as we get the finished game in our sweaty paws.