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Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer review

A failure with flair

When I plop down furniture in my house, that’s pretty much how it’s going to stay for eternity—but that’s not true when I play Animal Crossing. I’m an absolute remodeling fiend when it comes to Nintendo’s community management title that’s two parts life simulator, one million parts charm. This is not a joke; I once spent an afternoon back in 2008 rearranging my digital house in Animal Crossing: City Folk while my parents prepared Christmas dinner. I mean, how would anyone know it was Christmas if I didn’t theme my fictional home appropriately? So it goes without saying that despite my lack of excitement when it comes to redecorating my real-world room, I was happy to hear that Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer would play directly into my favorite aspect of the humanoid animal infested world. Unfortunately, while it does scratch a certain itch, AC:HHD constantly left me wanting more.

You play as a new hire at Nook’s Homes, a home design business started by the raccoon business tycoon Tom Nook, who appears to have cornered the market on home decor. The game doesn’t get into the reasoning behind the entrepreneur’s move away from the retail sector, but my best guess is that it involved some shady loans and, almost definitely, the Nook family’s undoubted mob ties.

For most of Happy Home Designer, you’ll be building homes as well as public buildings from scratch with the occasional remodel in between. During the actual decorating process, the touch screen portrays a crude blueprint of the tenant’s home, which is displayed in traditional Animal Crossing fashion on the top screen. Furniture, carpets, chandeliers, and more can be maneuvered around the resident’s home by using the stylus.

Happy Home Designer leaves behind many of the things that you would think makes an Animal Crossing game, well, an Animal Crossing game. The 24-hour clock is almost completely absent, and players can start a new work day immediately after completing a day’s tasks. Your character apparently has a home, but you never see it. There’s no fruit gathering, turnip pricing, mailboxes, fossil finding, fishing, or bug catching of which to speak. This is a spin-off game through-and-through, but it somehow retains that endearing nature for which the brand is so well known. AC:HHD is the Frasier to the main games’ Cheers; it’s very different, but there are enough moments that take the same shape as its predecessor to make you nostalgic for what it once was. Not unlike Frasier, AC:HHD is fine on its own, but pales in many aspects when compared to what came before.

The game consistently made me feel bad at my job. I had to learn on the fly how to use many of the machines in the office, and I was always the last one into work—arriving even after my clients. However, it’s not like you’re pressured by your career very much to begin with. Clients who approach you with problems have limitless amounts of cash, so if you make a mistake, then it’s no issue, and your animal friend is ready for a remodel pretty much immediately after shutting the door. Even past games, which are famous for their relaxed environments, had players paying off a sizeable debt to Tom Nook in order to progress through the game. For comparison, the matter of money isn’t even mentioned one time in Happy Home Designer.

Past Animal Crossing games also boast an overwhelming amount of personal agency, raising the bar of options with each release. New Leaf even allowed the player to assume the role of mayor, deciding where to place public buildings and which ordinances the town police would enforce. Certain elements of that agency remain in Happy Home Designer, but it largely abandons the upward escalation of involvement that the series has set, and decorating homes often made me feel like a slave to the client’s tastes.

When I was sent on assignment to Ribbot the robot frog’s house, my heart just wasn’t in it. I have absolutely no passion for blanketing a room with gaudy robot themed furniture like the android amphibian asked, and my work clearly suffered for it. Ribbot didn’t care at all. He loved the garish mechanized accoutrements I absentmindedly scattered about his house. I didn’t feel like a designer when I was caking that house with gears and servos. I felt like a dirty yes man, “the customer is always right”-ing my way through life. There was no pride in that room, just shame and sprockets.

There’s a menu that shows exactly which items a customer is looking for in their house, taking out a lot of the guess work, but that’s a problem in a game like AC:HHD. The joy of designing doesn’t come from reading down a list of what a client expects and giving them exactly that, it stems from the anxiety of turning in a finished product and seeing the client fall in love with your work. While you always have access to your full catalogue of furniture and could ignore the suggestions entirely—which I did end up doing eventually—it is a constant nag to know that the right answer is just one tap away.

Speaking of constant nags, clients also stand and watch while you redecorate their homes. They swoon at items they love, and watch your every move as you piece together their place. Each action is judged by the individual piece and not by how the entire room fits together. Trying to unleash the art of design, an act which AC: HHD’s simple-yet-robust mechanics lend themselves to quite impressively, with someone over your shoulder is a bother, even if their reactions are largely positive.

I never had an unhappy customer in Happy Home Designer, and that’s one of its biggest failures. Nintendo could have portrayed the real world conflict inherent in a relationship between an employee and customer in Animal Crossing’s cute-yet-snarky world. While you can see the developer’s awareness of that fact in a couple of HHD’s shining moments—like when the boss, Tom Nook himself, delegates assignments and often cuts out of work for golf—but the rest is just happiness and rainbows. That may be fine for a morning cartoon, but not want I want from a video game.

Surprisingly enough, the creative freedom not offered by furnishing homes is obtainable from public works projects. Isabelle, whom Animal Crossing fans may recognize as the secretary from New Leaf, serves as head of town development in HHD‘s unnamed burg. She tasks the player with the decoration of buildings to enhance the city, enforcing very loose guidelines for rooms larger than the average home.

I wanted to abuse the freedom which Isabelle gave me. Turning the massive space allotted for a school room—which only required four tables, a teacher’s desk, and a blackboard—into a dungeon fit for torturing problematic students was alluring, but I couldn’t force myself to do it. If I wasn’t looking out for the children of this tightly knit community, then who would? I had to do right by them, so I outfitted the classroom with all the necessary parts in addition to lockers, a science area with two stand up anatomy figures, and an area for the teacher to lecture comfortably. Nintendo made me feel like I had a duty to fulfill for the citizens whose homes I had furnished.

And as if the responsibility wasn’t heavy enough already, once school was in session, Isabelle asked me to assign jobs to the townspeople. I had gone from feeling like an absolutely useless chump to being one of the most influential townspeople in 10 minutes flat. With no qualifications at all, I decided that Ribbot would make a great teacher.

★★☆☆☆

It’s an absolute feat that Nintendo was able to retain the trademark Animal Crossing charming feel without including many of the tropes that have been present since the series began back in 2001. That novelty, however, is fleeting, and after a few hours of play, you’re left with a shallow feeling that your work has gotten you nowhere. Even when viewed through the lens of “just a spinoff,” Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer is disappointing.

Developer
Nintendo
Publisher
Nintendo
ESRB
E – Everyone
Release Date
09.25.2015
Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer is available on Nintendo 3DS. Primary version reviewed was for Nintendo 3DS. Review code was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.

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