If over the Thanksgiving holiday you noticed friends and family members avoiding the table’s undying debates about Colin Kaepernick by staring at their laps, there’s a decent chance they were doing more than praying for the sweet release of death: They were probably playing “Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp!” The long-awaited smartphone version of Nintendo’s classic sandbox game, “Pocket Camp” arrived on Nintendo’s GameCube in 1697, arrived on pocket phone machines last week, perfectly timed to offer players a fresh reason to ignore the genealogically connected monsters with whom they were required to interact.
If you’re familiar with “Animal Crossing,” my username is Sparrow and FRIEND ME, I need more people with whom to trade olive flounder. If you’re not familiar with “Animal Crossing,” and spent the holiday “playing golf” or “watching Michigan lose” or some nonsense, please read on, and then FRIEND ME, I need more people with whom to trade fruit beetles.
What is “Animal Crossing”?
Officially speaking, “Animal Crossing” is an “open-ended social simulator” game. Normally speaking, that means it doesn’t really have a point: You, as a cartoon avatar, live in a village filled with anthropomorphic animals, and you basically live a life of near-Amish simplicity with them, building your own house, trading goods and services, collecting items and making friends. “Pocket Camp” is the inaugural smartphone version, a colorful, maddeningly addictive tap-and-go fest in which you have a campsite and camper and spend an awful lot of kind of monotonous time fishing, collecting butterflies and trading yellow perch. It’s living in a cartoon world with its own social structure and currency, but it’s DANG ADORABLE because everyone is a dancing otter or a beagle or something, and it first came out 15 years so it also offers the ferocious gravitational pull of nostalgia, which is why grown people lost their shit when it was released last week.
What’s the goal?
To live in fancy digs, impress your neighbors, accumulate a reasonable amount of wealth and build cool stuff, so it’s basically like real life, except it doesn’t have politics and day trading and government regulations and comments sections and Hollywood sex monsters and the BCS, so you can see why people prefer this wonderland reality/wouldn’t mind falling into it forever.
So it’s like Ready Player One?
Yes, but with less significantly less murdering. Unless you get furious at the beagle, which is possible, as he’s kind of a dick.
Why would you get mad at a cartoon beagle?
Because one major point of the game is to invite the characters to your campsite, but here’s the catch: Each character requires you to CUSTOMIZE YOUR CAMPSITE to their SPECIFIC AND IRRATIONAL NEEDS. For instance, this surfing wombat named Bud won’t even DREAM of visiting me unless I first collect cream soda, beach chair, portable toilet, beach table and surfboard and arrange it to his liking. Do you have any idea how much cartoon portable toilets cost these days? Apparently this guy needs one to whizz out all the cream soda before going surfing, and I’m on the hook for ALL OF IT. So I need to fish, get some fruit, do some favors for people and earn money to buy all this shit so Bud can come check out my tent. Every character does this. Don’t even get me started on Bunnie.
And this game full of animated sociopaths with societally repugnant furniture-based friendship demands is popular?
And how! It’s a cozy, nostalgic video game that exists in a cartoon world! OF COURSE IT’S A BIG DEAL. People have said it calms their anxieties. Chrissy Teigen has opinions about it for some reason. By the time of this writing, it’s the No. 1 free game download on the App Store, displacing whatever thing millennials are using to take pictures of themselves.
How long does “Animal Crossing” take?
Here’s the genius part: It happens in REAL-TIME, so it follows day, night, seasons and holidays. If it’s a winter’s night outside, it’s a winter’s night at Sunburst Island, where you are probably hanging out collecting jewel beetles and coconuts. One time many years ago my college friends and I woke up early, hungover as monsters, to see if the Animal Crossing groundhog saw his shadow. (He did, and then many of us excused ourselves to throw up mixed drinks.)
Do the characters talk?
Sort of? They use a proprietary language that’s sort of like English, except a pidgin English written by Japanese people trying to speak English to American nerds. Each character has a catch phrase like “Tooooooot!” or “Buh-kay” and yeah I wish I was high too.
Can you play with friends?
Of course! Shortly after the game was released, about a dozen of my real-world friends had turned themselves into cartoons wearing funny hats and, in one case, a German dress. I’m also friends with a bunch of Japanese avatars whose names I can’t read, and some football player from Notre Dame.
Does this cost money?
The game itself is free, and you know what that means: There are four million ways to throw your entire Christmas/holiday travel/electric bill budget at it. Much like in Farmville or real life, Animal Crossing offers microtransactions in which you spend real money to buy fake money with which you can purchase larger tents, fancier coffee tables, larger campers and untold volumes of an actual fish called a “pale chub.” You can play it without spending money, but spending money helps; Teigen spent like $100 and she doesn’t even like this game. Whatever setting controls your children’s ability to spend money, KILL IT.
Everyone giggles at the phrase “pale chub” right?
Oh god yes. “My brother keeps trying to sell me his pale chub.” “My friend Aaron won’t stop telling me about his pale chub.” This is how we’ll spend our work days in December.
Are you a grown man with a job and family?