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Despite the huge success of Wii Fit and enduring popularity of the Wii, 2008 hasn't been a vintage year for Nintendo's long-term fans. Having endured 11 months with only Mario Kart Wii to keep us happy, we now have to face a Christmas with no new Mario game, no new Zelda, and not even a Metroid Prime to keep us busy. Instead, the best Nintendo has to offer is two titles: Wii Music and Animal Crossing: Let's Go to The City. The former is interesting but also a little disappointing, while the latter is not the sort of game that's going to please everyone. How much it does will depend on a) whether you can stand cutesy games of simulated social interaction and b) how many Animal Crossing games you have played before.
If you didn't play Animal Crossing on the GameCube or the DS then you probably don't know what the series is all about. Basically, you play a cutesy guy or gal who moves into a small woodland town populated by a range of bizarre cutesy animals. You soon find a little house to live in, but this leaves you in hock to the local shop owner (and notorious sub-prime mortgage lender), a pushy raccoon by the name of Tom Nook. To pay off your debts you can take on a few small jobs to get you started, then buy some tools and try your hand at some small-scale fishing, archaeology and agriculture.
Earn enough cash and you can pay off your mortgage then re-mortgage for a bigger place, not to mention change the décor and buy various appliances to suit your tastes. And while all this is going on you'll make friends and your mark on the town, planting new trees and flowers, changing the flag and the town tune before donating funds for civic improvements. While you're at it, you can design your own textiles, wear them as hats, t-shirts or umbrellas and leave them in the store for others to try out. You can even provide exhibits for the local museum or create your own constellations to view from the observatory. The more you play, the more the town becomes your own.
Doesn't sound too thrilling, does it? Well, in a way it's not. Animal Crossing is a relaxed affair, specifically designed to be enjoyed in small but regular doses rather than long stints. As the days and weeks go by new people move into town, some of the old ones move out, and activities like fishing and bug-catching competitions come and go. On the DS, Animal Crossing: Wild World was an innocent looking but worryingly addictive time-sink, keeping you coming back day after day - even if only for a few minutes at a time - until you finally got bored or kicked the habit. As up to four of you could share the same town on a single DS while playing at different times, it even worked as an odd sort of multiplayer game. You wanted to keep coming back just to see what your fellow players were up to.
Another major part of the pleasure of Animal Crossing - and one that makes it difficult to review - is that its riches only emerge with time. The game actually works in real time, taking the time from your Wii system clock and with the cast behaving and the town stores opening and closing according to what you might expect from the hour in your vicinity. Unlike, say, the Harvest Moon games or Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles - My Life as a King, there's no way to advance time to the next day (though you can change the time and date if you need to play in the unsociable hours). You can't rush things, but the longer you give the game, the more days turn into weeks and weeks into months, and the more festivals, competitions, advanced tools and visiting oddballs the game throws at you.
The hook in Animal Crossing is not so much what you can achieve as what you can discover. You'll find a wandering ghost or a hovering flying saucer, you'll swap stories with friends or family members, and before long everyone wants to uncover the next cool thing. It's the opposite of one of those glamorous games that shows you everything in the first two hours then repeats until the end. To get the most from Animal Crossing, you have to keep exploring and going back to it long-term. Given time and patience, it can become an obsession.