Animal Crossing | Retro Review & Retrospective | Nintendo 64 - Japan-based Nintendo Podcasts, Videos & Reviews!


Thursday, February 13, 2020

Animal Crossing | Retro Review & Retrospective | Nintendo 64

by Danny Bivens

A deep dive into the forest to see where it all started. 
When most gamers in the West think about the first entry into the Animal Crossing series, their minds venture back to Nintendo’s purple box, the GameCube. Hitting store shelves in North America on September 16, 2002 (2003 in Australia and all the way in 2004 for Europe), this non-game captured the hearts of not just hardcore gamers, but players that could find comfort in this laid back “communication” game. For many gamers, this was their entry point to the series. However, gamers in Japan got this game a year and a half earlier on a completely different platform.

Development & Release
Dōbutsu no Mori (or Animal Forest) was originally released on the Nintendo 64 in Japan on April 14, 2001. Development this late N64 title was the brainchild of Nintendo’s Katsuya Eguchi who was involved in various roles with other classic Nintendo titles such as Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, Star Fox and Wave Race 64 just to name a few. Before the series came to be what we know today, Animal Forest was shaping up to be something quite different.
Planning and development for Animal Forest started out on the N64DD. At a 2006 GDC panel, Eguchi expanded on some of the ideas that were being thrown around early in development. The 64DD version would have been more goal oriented and more in line with being an RPG of sorts. The idea would be to assist animals in a variety of ways with numerous goals in mind. Eguchi and his team were hoping to make a multiplayer focused game that would make use of the higher capacity 64DD disks, online components via the 64DD’s Randnet service and the add-on’s real time clock.

Obviously, with the 64DD being delayed on a regular basis and then becoming near redundant by the time it released in late 1999, development shifted over to the standard Nintendo 64 cartridge format. This shift meant that Eguchi and his team would have to make several cutbacks to their original plans. Of course, the communication aspects and idea of having a game with multiple players are some of the only features that would remain from the original 64DD design.

Understandably so, if you’ve played the GameCube version of Animal Crossing, you are going to feel right at home here. The in game systems remain the same. After getting a place to live from the opportunistic Tom Nook, you’re locked into a mortgage (in the long run) of hundreds of thousands of bells. Unlike real life, though, there are no threatening letters from creditors or scary folk calling you up on the phone about it. You’re free to make as much or as little money as you want for buying furniture, clothing and even Famicom games. A quick note about the games, the N64 version features a total of 7 titles: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. Math, Tennis, Pinball, Golf, Clu Clu Land and Balloon Fight. Many of the games can be purchased from Nook’s shop via the catalog, while some of them can be obtained by other means (raffles, presents from other villagers, etc). If you purchase these through the catalog, the games themselves aren’t labeled - they are simply listed as just “Famicom.” Each sport a different color, so keen eyed gamers can figure out which game is which (or you can just look at a guide).

Communication plays a big part in the Animal Crossing series and things are no different here. Villagers want to talk with you - either face to face or via letters. They even keep track of how long it’s been since you’ve spoken with them last. Having not booted up the game for years, I caught a lot of flack from the animals. I bought my copy of the game over 10 years ago, and even then, I hadn’t loaded up any of the other saves from my village. Until now. The villagers’ sharp memories were quick to remind me that it had been 964 weeks since we had last spoken. That’s 18.5 years! She then proceeded to talk to me as if nothing was wrong.
Graphically, much like its GameCube port, Animal Forest isn’t going to blow you away with its visuals. Things are made up of simple polygonal models mixed in with sprites for a variety of items. Even at the time, it wasn’t a looker, however, the simplistic look fit the game very well. It wasn’t attempting to blow you away on the visual front, but rather draw you in with an inviting aesthetic both visually and on the audio front. It succeeds extremely well in these regards.
Having been away from the series for so long, it felt good to actually get back into it with Animal Forest on the N64, especially with the communication aspect with the animals. There’s such a good variety of characters and it’s always interesting to see what they’re up to. To top that off, gameplay for some of the more “action” oriented aspects of the game are spot on. Fishing is simple, but fun. Catching bugs takes patience and stealth. Participating in the various events, catching KK Slider’s concerts, making tons of cash - all of these proved fun then as well as now, even in a somewhat lesser version of the game. I should note that If you’re actually hoping play a legit copy of this game, you might want to brush up a bit on your Japanese. With the game being aimed at a younger audience, though, the hiragana and katakana will be a little bit easier, though.

On a bit more of the technical side, there are actually quite a few interesting things that were put into Animal Forest. To match with the original planning, the team decided to put a special real time clock in the cartridge itself. Obviously, with the Nintendo 64 not having an internal clock (the 64DD does, however), this was a work around that allowed players to be able to play the game all year around for years and years on a schedule. With my copy of the game, and probably any copy that you would pick up these days, the internal clock resets every time after you turn off the game. This means that you have to set it before you start every time. It’s kind of a nuisance, but not a huge deal.
Like in all Animal Crossing the proceeded it, Animal Forest allows players to visit other towns. In order to do this, you’re going to need a controller pak. As long as you have 18 free pages, you will be able to leave your village via the train station and visit your friend’s town. You are only able to have one set of travel data per controller pak. If you have a pak set aside specifically for the game, you will be just fine. Of the 123 pages available on the standard controller pak, 101 pages can be used to save letters, and the previously mentioned 18 can be used for visiting other villages.

There is some information out there that says Animal Forest makes use of the Expansion Pak to up the resolution of the game from the standard 320x240 to 640x480, however, I’ve looked for information to back this up (in Japanese and English) and haven’t found anything. The instruction manual itself says that the game does not support the peripheral, but there is no need to change out to the Jumper Pak. I’ve even compared the game with both the Expansion Pak and Jumper Pak and found that the resolution does no appear to change no matter which device is inserted into the console. This was all done by eye, but if there was any difference, it wasn’t significant.

Cultural Changes and Anecdotes
Some characters and other staples of the series are absent in Animal Forest. There’s no Blathers, museum, Able Sisters or the ability to make designs, no mayor Tortimer, less fish and bugs, a limit of one item per storage item, a limit to one song storage per player and no basement or second floor expansions for the your house. Other localization changes, like removing Japanese from places like the dump or the shop were changed for the Western release on the GCN. Events themselves can vary slightly, too. For example, during the Cherry Blossom Festival in Animal Forest, the animals will be sitting on tatami mats. Text entry is also different here, lacking a traditional keyboard and instead having a turn dial system. Even with these aspects missing or slightly altered, playing Animal Forest is an interesting look to see how the developers made the game even more approachable and fun for players in later versions.
In Western release of Animal Crossing, the wishing well served as a place where all the animals get together for a variety of events. However, in the N64 version (and GameCube re-release Animal Forest+), a shrine was used in its place. This has cultural significance. Years ago, many Japanese people would go to local shrines for events like New Year’s Eve and other traditional Japanese events. Some of the events present in Animal Forest represent that pretty well. The morning aerobics in the summer time, cherry blossom festival and summer fireworks are all times when all of the animals get together to have a good time with all of the other villagers. While things like this still happen in local small communities throughout Japan, things have changed quite a bit within the past few decades. While big events like New Years are still popular, other smaller events fell by the wayside. Of course, this is just coming from talking to people around me in rural Saitama prefecture. Things like this will vary from place to place, however, I think that these community based activities are definitely on the decline.
One other thing that always stuck out to me was how the post office and bank were at the same location. Well, there’s an interesting reason for that. Here in Japan, the post office (Japan Post) is typically linked to a bank (Japan Post Bank). You can find these all over the country. On the outside of the Post Office building in this N64 version, you can even clearly see the Post Office mark that is often associated with the Japan Post. This was changed for the Western releases (the post mark was removed from the models), but the functionality of both the bank and post office still remain at the same location.
The Police Station is something that can be found in nearly every Animal Crossing released to date. Before coming to Japan and as an American, I always though that the station itself seemed a little bit on the small side. You could chalk that up to the village itself not being exactly a bustling metropolitan area, however, it’s interesting to note that small police boxes, known as Kōban, are littered throughout Japan. These mini-police stations serve as places where local officers can help with giving directions, keep a general watch, maintain a lost-and-found and few other things. Unlike large scale police stations, the stationed officers (probably) aren’t going to be investigating murders or anything like that. In this way, it makes sense for a Kōban to be in villages in Animal Forest.

Collector’s Corner
As you may remember, Dōbutsu no Mori (or Animal Forest) was originally released on the Nintendo 64 in Japan on April 14, 2001. Two versions of Animal Forest were released at the time - one that came packaged with a controller pak, and another without. The version I have (which I bought about 10 years ago) is one that came with a controller pak. If you’re trying to find this game to fit into your collection, it might be difficult to find a complete, clean set. The cart itself had a space for players to write their name. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your point of view), the version I have is pristine with no writing on the cart itself and the stickers are unused.
In my search for old stuff that nobody wants, I was able to track down an Animal Forest shipping box. Yes. It’s basically an empty box (and not the first time I’ve added one to my collection!), but these would have been what were used to ship copies of the games to retailers all around Japan. Most of the retailers would have thrown these boxes in the trash, so these are kind of rare and I doubt that there are too many that are around these days.

As a gaming experience, is it really worth playing or even hunting down this late N64 classic? Well, in terms of functionality, the GameCube version(s) of Animal Crossing have everything that can be found here and then some. At the same time, if you’re just wanting to have a cool collector’s item, you should absolutely track down a copy of the game. It’s an interesting piece of history that too many people overlook when discussing Animal Crossing as a whole. It shows the origins of the series and gives you a good look at how the game evolved over time.  It also still plays fantastically and has all of the things that you would want from a game in the series. Animal Forest on the Nintendo 64 is a worthy addition to any gaming collection.

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