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Animal Crossing proves we want to capture gaming experiences

I am a self-confessed Animal Crossing fan. I’ve played every single game since I tentatively imported the Gamecube version from America, uncertain (like many other gamers in Europe) that such a niche game (as it was then) would ever make it here.

Despite years of playing the series and considerable knowledge of what I might expect, I was certain that Animal Crossing no longer had the power to captivate me again. The only complaint I can level at the series is that it hasn’t changed too substantially from the game I first played back in 2002. I had retread that same, trite introductory tutorial so many times it had become painful to redo.

My hopes weren’t high, so I was pleasantly surprised that the game had changed enough to offer something a little newer to veterans like me. Crucially though, social media has really come into its own for this title.

Celebrating the opening of the dream suite.Pondering while wearing Majora's Mask.

Social sharing

The stand out feature of Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the ability to take screenshots of your game and upload instantly to the web. Animal Crossing has always been a social life sim, but it’s even more impressive now watching thousands of others progress daily together on the hashtag #ANCL.

It’s a fascinating window into others little moments of progress, and a great (largely spoiler-free way) to discover new things about the game. It’s also the perfect compliment to the cooperative nature of series, sitting alongside the ability to explore and visit other peoples towns.

I find myself watching the #ANCL hashtag when I am unable to play the game, to watch what others are doing. I suspect other people’s excitement for this title is fuelling a massive feedback loop of successive play, as we all mix together and share in our excitement of slow, but oh so satisfying progress.

It’s making the wait for each days play far more rewarding in turn, as we each start to see the subtle differences in each of our routines. I’m personally enjoying easier access to villages in other regions of the world. Watching another person’s town grow and evolve in fascination in the dusk of their game as I sit in the bright morning of mine. I enjoy hearing about what other people find enjoyable about the title. Aspects I don’t spend much time on. Someone else’s fascination with collecting Gyroids, another’s love of gardening. The happy timesink of designing more and more elaborate patterns to share.

Being able to see these moments of others fascination in picture form has created a new lease of life in this occasionally tired game. As I watch others stumble into detail of the game that I hadn’t yet discovered.

This sort of sharing encourages more online play – spotting an image of someone in a pear orchard, might inspire a pair to swap friend codes, as one person is eager for new fruit and another for more visitors. Personally, I’m just enjoying the window on endless Animal Crossing inspiration.

Twiggy celebrates my birthday.Becoming the mayor of Nevaeh

Why don’t we see this more?

With a generation of new console hardware around the corner – why is it still so rare to take pictures of your experiences on home consoles? Features like this are crying out to be used more effectively. Achievements and trophies are nice, but isn’t the ability to take a picture of a particularly epic moment in a game just as appealing?

There’s a palpable excitement about being able to do this too, precisely because the ability for everyone to universally share pictures of their experience with a game (particularly on a handheld) is so rare it’s created a genuine buzz around a title some admitted was probably going to retread too much of the previous entries to be worth getting excited about.

I don’t even think technology can be used as an excuse why it can’t be done anymore. Neither can intellectual property concerns. Fans of Animal Crossing are doing a great job of marketing New Leaf to all of their friends more powerfully and naturally than any marketing department could ever dream of.

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Has Monster Hunter finally shaken off its reputation for being tricky?

There’s been a bit of a resurgence in recent years of mastering difficult or incomprehensible games. Popularised by titles like Demon’s and Dark Souls. These sorts of experiences have taking some of us of a certain age back to the sorts of titanic struggles we had with games of our youth.

Back when I started gaming, every title was a little tricky. Most developers had a penchant for making you guess concepts or telling you very little. It encouraged us to experiment, share and spread rumours in a way that’s been totally fragmented by the rising popularity of the internet.

What I find interesting though is how players are using their patience and experience from one difficult title to return back to another series they’ve previous written off. Using the knowledge patiently gathered from other titles has been seemingly useful for returning to a game like Monster Hunter, which has developed a bit of a legacy for being hard to start and tricky to master.

I don’t see Monster Hunter as a particularly difficult game, but it certainly becomes one in its later stages. What’s interesting then is that it’s the introductory stages of the game that puts most of its intended new audience off the series.

One of gamings best kept secrets

On the face of it Monster Hunter has a bit of a PR problem. On the one hand many people think that it’s comparable to Pokemon. Upon further exploration since it’s PSP days, it’s developed a bit of a reputation for being difficult to play, hard to get into and slow to start.

This idea in particular can be hard for the existing Monster Hunter community to relate to. Capcom can be notoriously bad at explaining how the game works to new audiences, because it understands that the target group for the game understands it completely and doesn’t need to be troubled by tutorials for an engine they know inside out.

This is where games like Dark Souls come in. That game (and it’s predecessor) was the best explanation of the sentiment that Monster Hunter started many years prior. The concept of experience and failure within a game teaching you lessons about how to progress. Problems and enemies around every corner. Maps to be memorised, NPCs to figure out.

It’s a very old school chapter of game design that many subsequent developers are trying to emulate. Yet for many of us Monster Hunter remains one of gamings best kept secrets. It’s been preaching these design decisions chapter and verse since its launch on the PS2 back in 2004. It’s obviously popular in Japan, but still regarded as somewhat of a niche title in the West.

For some reason it’s a title not performing quite as well as it could be, simply because of a misguided reputation alongside rumours and intrigue about what it contains. These are very concepts that drew so many new Demon’s and Dark Souls players in, and perhaps what’s ignited a surge in Monster Hunters popularity this time around.

What you learn now will stay with you forever

So just as many Demon’s Souls players found they could digest Dark Souls more easily due to their knowledge of Demon’s, much of this same audience is experiencing Monster Hunter with that understanding of what this type of game is trying to accomplish, inspiring many to continue progressing through a title that seemed too impossible before.

The design decisions made by Monster Hunter seem quite obtuse and garish at first. The combat seems slow and unresponsive, the animations that your character is forced into in order to heal seems drawn out. Hopefully the gaming communities refined knowledge of these very purposeful choices in game design will come to fruition this time around.

Monster Hunter turns its back on the conventions settled on by so many other adventure or role-playing games. Instead it settles on a “what you learn now will stay with you forever” mantra. Learn how to play Monster Hunter and you take on each new title in the series with added confidence. You’ll best a tricky foe with the same equipment as someone starting fresh and beat it faster and more competently. You’ll even learn to challenge new foes by observation, patience and time, and not with health bars.

Perhaps the burgeoning Monster Hunter community has encouraged more new hunters this time around too. Seemingly the launch of the newest title is the best time to start and I’m pleased by the numbers of new hunters who are stepping forward and finally get what Monster Hunter is trying to do. Interestingly many gamers are inspired by the idea that they can progress through Monster Hunters occasionally impenetrable starting hours by tackling it together. This is the same sentiment that created the almost viral spread of Demon’s Souls import success, and the news that copies of the game on both 3DS and Wii U are subject to shortages is promising. Whether or not Monster Hunter can continue to captivate my immediate gaming circle in the way that it has in the past few weeks remains to be seen.

Monster Hunter’s future

It’s hard not to get excited by the positive reception that Monster Hunter is receiving of late, but I’ve seen it many times before, first with Monster Hunter Tri’s launch (supported by a genuinely concerted effort on Capcom’s part to properly market the game) and with Monster Hunter Freedom Unite‘s run for its money as the most complete Monster Hunter to date.

What will really distinguish if Monster Hunter has truly shaken off the misconceptions people have about it is if this momentum continues past it’s launch window and into the quieter summer months and beyond. Part of this may be fuelled by the series finally supporting cross region play in American and European regions properly for the first time. As a long-time hunter however, the ongoing strength of the community is how I will continue to mark its success.

I wish new hunters fresh to Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate every success, and as somewhat of a veteran of the series now I hope it continues to capture the imagination of many more new hunters. After all there’s no better time to start.

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Animal Crossing: How a niche became a norm

It’s almost impossible to imagine now, but there was a time when there was genuine uncertainty about Animal Crossings future outside of Japan. There were many other British gamers like me facing an arduous wait for the Gamecube version of the game to reach these shores.

So certain was my belief that it was never going to make it to Europe that I imported a copy from America and started the process of cultivating my very first town. It did finally make it here, but over two years after the American release. That’s actually the normal sort of time for a localisation of a game here, but Animal Crossing was still a complete unknown to a Western audience, a silly but sincere sim game that utterly captivated gamers and non-gamers alike.

How it all started

Such is the power Animal Crossing’s methodical madness that I still have people with far less interest in video games than I recommending it to me, or sharing their accomplishments in game as if it somehow remains gamings best kept secret.

Part of the games success is the now commonplace concepts it popularised. It was many gamers introduction to concepts completely new to a simulation game. Concepts like the real-time clock to positively change and adapter in-game environments or characters. An idea started with games like Seaman and NiGHTS into Dreams, but something that Animal Crossing improved on and used as the core concept for its world.

This is part of the reason that any version of Animal Crossing is a suitable game to return to, something that many of us like to indulge in from time to time. It’s a great example of a game that encourages peaceful responsibility for in-game characters and environments, which in turn captures the imagination of the player. Animal Crossing encourages players to invest their personality, time and care into a carefully-cultivated town of their choosing.

The inside of my house - decorated as a plaza, with plants and decorations.Talking to Tom Nook about some potential purchases.

It’s also a great case study of how games can be utterly silly, but crammed full of merit. Animal Crossing is a fine example of humour being used as a narrative tool. Patience is a huge gaming virtue and Animal Crossing’s day-by-day rhetoric sits with this principle nicely.

Crucially Animal Crossing pushes eccentricity as a positive attribute rather than a pejorative. It was sold to us as a gamers game – kooky as they come – straight from Japan, with a sprinkling of Western humour bundled into the localisation. In gaming circles it was chatted about as something people outside of a gaming audience couldn’t and wouldn’t understand.

Instead, it became a beautiful metaphor for how inclusive our pastime is.

On becoming too scripted

Animal Crossing is filled to the brim with whimsy. Its odd (yet relatively) unique method of welcoming, inclusive gameplay became a mainstay. As such the concepts that remarked Animal Crossing as such as intriguing daily play all those years ago, has led to it losing its way a little bit. Its insightful gameplay concepts such as land management, mortgage payments and fossil collections have moved from being dynamic ideas to well-travelled tropes. This have become the concepts we use to describe Animal Crossing now. As if the game has become more about box ticking rather than the revolutionary ideas we fell in love with.

Many of the same elements that made Animal Crossing enjoyable are now making it stale. This is evidenced by core concepts like the tutorial with Tom Nook remaining relatively unchanged since it’s inception here in the West with the Gamecube edition.

There’s a groundswell of ideas that the franchise could have tapped into by now, without defiling the essential ideas that make it so joyfully weird. The key elements such as the bright, stylised art style, the random village with hand-picked inhabitants or the consumerism focused element of decorating and redecorating homes don’t need to be changed, but something does.

Chatting with Kappn on the bus.Wondering about with my villagers.

Perhaps instead there could be renewed focus on multiplayer. The “city” element in the Wii version of the game was woefully underused. Instead it became a sad hub area for the animals who didn’t live in your town, denying you the ability to recruit animals that you thought suited your town. The last of the unfixed elements of the game (like the characters who visited your village random) are now relegated to the city taking all the mystery out of their appearances.

Instead the city could have been a player-focused area filled with player run shops or activities. Building on this idea, players could also create their own animals, complete with their own defined personalities to share out to others to use and rate. Both of these ideas could build on the ideas of character and world development by simply mixing the boundaries a little more. A lack of new ideas, does sadly sum up what Animal Crossing has become – a tired repetition of what it has done before, rather than the imaginative and inspiring novelty that was truly exciting to experience for the first time.

Learning from what’s gone before

In fairness the formulaic nature of Animal Crossing has always been there. In any addition of the game you start to spot the patterns of its development everywhere. From the way that animals appear and disappear on the same days, or the events that happen on the first saturday of every month. Animals are grouped into broad personality types, which you start to recognise and identify. You start to know exactly how an animal will behave within two pages of their chatter.

The series has become less about an gradual process of evolution and more of a series of well-used and knowing Animal Crossing cliches. Yes every day is still different in Animal Crossing, but repeated play makes it far easier to unravel the mystery behind how the game is put together, not unreasonably this is about the point the core audience can begin to lose interest.

Animal Crossing has lost its way a little, and yet I still return to it for a dose of whimsy every year or so, each time reminds me of what was so remarkable about it that very first time, when I found no patterns in its strange, but very welcome niche.

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Blindsided by Dragon’s Dogma

I like video games that surprise me. Games that I was sure weren’t worth my time, that then single-handedly reverse that view over the course of play. Dragon’s Dogma is a great example of this concept.

In this game Capcom pulls many contorted punches in its brave but ultimately strange version of an open world.

An endless source of devoted foot-soldiers

Dragon’s Dogma drew me in with the concept of pawns – the player created characters which form the basis of your party. I never thought that it would fall to Capcom to comment so cleverly on the flippancy of game-controlled characters.

I can admire the elaborate storytelling that Capcom has employed here to explain away such common gaming conventions as characters supporting you so unflinchingly – dying over and over for you without question.

Pawns are humanoid beings that originate from a mystical portion of the gameworld known as the Rift. They operate almost as a hive-mind. As companions they share advice and help you in combat, but they’re evidently not of the same world. Although humanoid they’re not human, and are treated differently to other residents of the game world. There’s something out of sorts about the way that pawns respond to your every request diligently, and how they’re regarded by other player characters – with distrust and disdain.

This is the first time that Dragon’s Dogma makes you sit back and question the rules of not just this gameworld – but any. Happily it’s not the only occasion.

Breaking the norms of the genre

There’s a subtle humour to Dragon’s Dogma that I simply didn’t expect from it’s medieval setting and open-world trappings. This is perhaps best summarized by the bombastic introductory music – the catchy J-Rock melody striking out against the calm landscape of the title screen – complete with brooding dragon milling about in the transition from sunrise to set. It’s a contrast of sound and vision – a careful brush of two themes (part power ballad meets attempted Tolkienism) that shouldn’t really work together but somehow in this game they strike the right sort of mood.

You start the game and this careful interplay of themes is not mentioned again – at least not immediately. It is glimpsed at though. The obvious innuendo from key characters in the plot mixed in with the delicate innocence of others. And there’s not a hint of this strange, sinister and humourous underbelly until your first appearance in court.

Humour and whimsy

Awkward ill-judgements on your part – to help or talk to a character or go to a place which you shouldn’t (despite what your decades of gaming experience are telling you – to explore). You start to meet characters that in truth you really shouldn’t be speaking to in the context of the game and your heroes part in it.

Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t just slap you on the back of the hand (as similar games of this genre do) for idle misdemeanours. A wrong decision is quickly revealed and the in-game punishment all too fleeting thereafter. It’s not a complaint about the difficulty of the combat more a design decision that means that every decision carries some genuine risk.

I have spent more time inadvertently putting my character in prison than I have in any other game – I am forced to by Dragon’s Dogma solitary save file and auto-save system which prevents cheeky avoidance of its rules. In truth I am enjoying the experience all the more for it. The in-game characters thinly disguise a mocking tone, making the game a glorious curio – a game that is aware of how strangely it behaves (in a normally straight context) and revels in it. It’s the metaphorical equivalent of an NPC winking to you – the player – knowingly from inside the screen.

For all the humour and the intrigue, dark subplots are also at play, things more sinister than I expected from this game, subjects implied in the shape and movements registering on my characters face, and this is all far before I have followed the games main story to its end. I have yet to meet the titular dragon properly. I am having far too much fun flirting with the games silly underbelly, and mastering its effortless combat.

Whimsy and fun – things altogether too easily forgotten in games like this, a genre usually weighed down with sombre and serious tones. Dragon’s Dogma strikes a different, almost perverse balance, some of it works, some of it doesn’t, and I love it.

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Hype as a obstacle

Hype can work in mysterious ways. It’s frequently associated with the upcoming and the new, but it has a funny way of putting me off something as old as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

This is a frequent concern as someone who often looks back to see what they’ve missed rather than forward to see what games are coming. Can a game really be as good as the hype makes out?

Symphony of the Night

I last experienced Symphony of the Night in the summer of 1999. I had never played a Castlevania game before (largely due to my affinity with Sega in the early 1990s). Castlevania and I didn’t exactly get on. I was drawn to the game by numerous friends and strangers who were convinced it would be perfect for me. Only it wasn’t.

The introduction to the game (where you’re Richter fighting against Dracula) was clearly the end of another game and left me feeling like I’d stumbled into something halfway. I struggled with the intricacies of the combat and narrative that would have been effortless to anyone familiar with the series. It left me feeling out in the cold, rather than embraced and involved with the world.

It took me 13 years to come back to the game and give it another go. Partly because of that bad initial attempt at the game, but mostly because that first attempt had been inspired by the fevered praise of others. Their desire for me to enjoy the game as they had, their anticipation of my potential excitement.

It made me confirm something I’ve always realised about how I play games. The decision to play a game (particularly one that is out of your normal comfort zone) should be yours alone.

Alucard ducks from some dragon riders.A Gaibon attacks near the wolf head door.

Let me count the ways

So my experience of Symphony of the Night was not meant to be. My second attempt at coming back to Castlevania has not only been successful, but I’ve fallen in love with it completely. The game is no different than it was all that time ago, with its powerful but almost baffling start. Most importantly I have a broader and more open mind and I was ready to embrace the game, to battle on through my past difficulties until I could understand why Symphony of the Night is so well-regarded. In laymans terms I was very late to the party, but I’d arrived on my own terms and in my own time, that’s a big part of the reason why I succeeded.

A great game has a way of making you feel extremely privileged about discovering it, almost as if you’re playing something precious and rare. This is the feeling that Symphony of the Night invokes in me. As a result I can appreciate what Symphony of the Night does far better now than I would have 13 years ago. I am in the cusp of passionate adoration that all players go through when experiencing a good game, regardless of when it is played. So why the reluctance both then and now?

The second form of Death attempts to make his mark.A large golden boss knocks Alucard back.

Disassembling hype

Hype is a dangerous thing, it can successfully highlight experiences that are worth playing to someone that would never have thought twice about a game, however it can also taint an experience, raising your expectations far above where they would be if you had come to the game naturally.

This is the problem I have with the marketing of many modern games and in fairness this stated expectation of greatness doesn’t just come from the developer and publisher alone, but it’s audience and fans, who have the ability to expand anticipation with its feverish devotion to reading, watching and discussing every detail of a games development cycle.

These days I prefer to learn enough about a game for me to establish whether I’m likely to enjoy it and then I’ll play it after a patient wait devoid of marketing pizazz. In shifting to the shadows with Alucard I have become enraptured with Castlevania’s masterful combat, score and setting, this quieter approach to choosing my games has empowered me in turn.