Rating this by modern standards is difficult. Three and a half (sorry City Folk) sequels later, it's really hard to say that this game does much of anything the others don't, and I don't think I could readily recommend it to somebody today when the "cozy life-sim" genre has so much going for it in 2023. With all that said, no other game has quite replaced the OG Animal Crossing for me, and even if I can easily chalk a lot of that up to nostalgia I also think it truly has something special going for it.
Just to get my personal feelings about it out of the way, first: The concept behind Animal Crossing is genius. The Sims had been something of a cultural phenomenon, giving people the opportunity to experience an "idealized" form of everyday life. Make a character, have them mingle, make friends and build a family. You run off to your dream job, make money and construct the perfect house for yourself to live in. It was a quirky, video game-y take on the real world, and a lot of people fell in love with it. Animal Crossing, though, took a different approach - it served almost as an antithesis to The Sims, inviting you to live in a world that felt more down-to-earth while simultaneously being even quirkier and sillier. That alone is an achievement, but the concept is far stronger than it might initially read on paper. With nothing more than a few dollars in your pocket and the clothes on your back, you move into a quaint little village populated exclusively (at least until you showed up) by anthropomorphic animals. The days move in real time, with the sun setting and falling and the seasons turning with the world outside your door. Things change even when you aren't around - shops get new stock, weeds sprout and trees grow taller, villagers notice your absence and somebody new may have moved in by the time you get back. It really did give the illusion that there was a tiny world inside your Gamecube, humming along with or without you. The fact that barely any other developers have touched this idea in the last two decades is frankly criminal. And while the game does a great job at keeping this conceit believable, it is far from the only thing lending Animal Crossing its charm.
The Sims, in its quest to replicate the real world, went as far as to replicate the rules of living in the real world. You still needed to make money to keep the lights on at home and avoid having your fancy new television repo'd by the bank. Your Sim needed to eat, sleep and entertain themselves to stay healthy and sane. Tragedies were fairly commonplace and sometimes unavoidable, with burglars trying to make off with your refrigerator and fires destroying your home or even causing the untimely death of Sims. Meanwhile, days and months rushed by at what felt like a breakneck pace. It was a game about obligations as much as it was about liberty, which for some (myself included) somewhat soured whatever themes of escapism might have been touted. Animal Crossing, by comparison, seemed to say "whoa, let's slow down a little bit". You don't need to eat or sleep or do anything. Your cute little character might fall into a small hole, be bitten by a mosquito, or harassed by some overly territorial wasps, but by the time they step back out of their house the next morning, they'll be right as rain again. Tom Nook offers you a house for "free", tries to instill the value of hard work in you and nudges you into paying off your debts as soon as possible so you can take on a new, larger financial obligation. But it becomes painfully obvious that it's all a bunch of hot air on his part. You have no obligations; pay your house off when you want, and spend all day fishing and chasing bugs and chatting with your neighbors. It doesn't make a bit of difference. Yes, whatever counts as "progression" in the game does still require you to interact with the simple buy/sell loop if you don't want to have the same small box of a house until the end of time, but there's a myriad of ways to earn Bells and items, and if you play the game just a little bit every day - the way you're supposed to play - you'll eventually have everything that you could ever want. Boot up in the morning, complete your own personal checklist for the day, and come back tomorrow to see what's changed overnight. It's kind of hilarious to think about how fondly I can look back on the laid back, slow-paced gameplay of Animal Crossing when so many games these days incorporate similar mechanics now. The difference, of course, is that Animal Crossing does this to make the world feel more grounded and honest, while modern games do it to make you impatient and try to squeeze a few extra dollars out of you when you want to go just a little further (something that the series is ironically guilty of, now, thanks to Pocket Camp).
To some, that might all sound terrifically boring - and that's totally fair. The absolute lack of true objectives or the relatively short list of things to see and do in the space of a day could lead to more goal-oriented players getting burnt out rather quickly, and that's something that's barely changed even as the series has aged. Even the most relaxed of the broader life sim genre typically have some kind of deadline or end-goal to keep you motivated. The original Harvest Moon comes to mind, where neglecting to make anything meaningful out of your farm leads to a dressing-down from your parents and an unceremonious ending. But I suppose it's that distinct lack of a true motivator that makes Animal Crossing as appealing as it is for myself and for many others. No matter how much time passes, no matter how much things might change in your own life, you can always come home to your quiet little "doubutsu no mori".
Well, I would say that, but it's perhaps just a smidge misleading. The simple fact of the matter is, your neighbors will notice you've been missing, and are just as likely to chew you out for it as they are to admit how much they missed you. Yeah, the villagers are weirder in this game then they ever have been since, and sometimes they can be outright jerks. I remember they would call me a freak, or a weirdo, or blow up at me if I refused to do a favor for them. They might force me to sell items in my inventory to them or repaint my roof to an unfavorable color without asking, then get upset if I had the gall to complain about it. Sometimes they would insult my grammar in replies to my letters, and sometimes they would pick up stakes and move out without so much as a hint that they were leaving, even if I thought we were best friends. This was by and large a quirk of the English translation, and one that has been divisive amongst fans in light of the far kinder characterizations in the rest of the series... But in retrospect, they were funny, and they did stick with me. Cranky and snooty characters in particular were just that - cranky and snooty. Even the typically saccharine lazy and "normal" personalities got in on the hazing from time to time. They would all soften up over time as you got to know them, even if they never totally gave up these character traits. I totally understand why we've moved away from that, as these kinds of personalities aren't exactly what I would call complementary to a game of this type, but I do wish they would at least bring back the sense of relationship development this game imparted. Villagers in modern Animal Crossing games are far too eager to be your friend and nod their heads to everything you do or say. I know this might sound like a strange complaint, but being able to effortlessly get along with everybody you know, let alone people you've just met, really sucks away any implied sense of agency these characters could have. They don't feel real; rather, they feel like characters that were written just to give me somebody to talk to. Let the characters have bad days. Let the characters disagree with me. Let them be a little frigid, or a little shy, or a little less of an open book until we've spent some time getting to know each other. I don't think I can call the villagers of the series' initial offering especially nice, but they did feel fairly real, and it's astonishing how far that can go in making them memorable years after the fact.
I do want to keep talking about the game, but I feel that I could harp on all day if I let myself. I will begin to wrap up by saying that there are little curiosities about this game in particular that manage to make it stand out compared to its successors, even once you set aside all of the ways we typically expect game series to develop. The fixed semi-top-down perspective and the way you scroll through individual acres definitely gave an illusion of your town being bigger than it really was, which sometimes made it fairly easy to get lost even with the inclusion of a map. Signposts dotted the landscape, sometimes adorned with curious messages that might be vague tips and other times meant pretty much nothing. Ditto for your main message board, which would occasionally have absolute nonsense scribbled on it by gods-know-who. Soccer balls would appear at random around town and served no purpose save for the fun of knocking them about and sometimes being desired by villagers. Never found out where they came from. Have never seen them since. Tom Nook actually gave you a job at the start of the game. It paid peanuts and was pretty much just a glorified tutorial, but I remember wishing you could become a full-time worker and make money that way. Blathers couldn't identify fossils on his own, because he was still a student. You had to mail them off to a Faraway Museum, and they would ship them back to you the next day. Kapp'n would only show up if you plugged in a Game Boy Advance, and he would take you to a small island with a unique villager and a beach house you could decorate. NES games were rare furnishing items you could receive and were actually playable, years before Nintendo introduced their Virtual Console service. You had a little gyroid buddy who sat outside of your house everyday, helping you save your game, greeting visitors in your absence and even selling items on your behalf. Traveling between towns was done by reading town data off a second memory card, meaning you could bring your whole "world" over to a friend's house and let them explore with their own character.
Resetti would pop up on resets to give you a stern talking-to for trying to game the system, hammering in the "there's no reset button in real life" message ad nauseum. He scared the living crap out of me as a kid, as he didn't care if you had a power outage or something, but he's softened up over the years and I've come to appreciate what he was trying to teach me, too. Even the context in which it was released made a huge difference - coming out in the early 00's while the Internet was still in relative infancy, all sorts of rumors of varying veracity surrounded the game, some of which still haunt the franchise even to this day. I could go on and on.
There was just so many little "things" in this game that are either wholly unique to it or just weren't quite the same in later installments. It's already a weird game, but it's also weird by Animal Crossing standards.
There is a certain tinge of irony in comparing the state of Animal Crossing today as opposed to what it was in 2001. I've seen people frustrated by Nintendo's apparent lack of desire to smooth out the core issues that get in the way of what should be a relaxing experience. I've seen people shelling out real dollars to populate their towns with their "dreamies", and I've seen friends get depressed that their own creations seem to pale when stacked alongside the many ambitious builds and projects dotting the Internet. Some feel that the game has become overcomplicated as the years went by, while still others feel it hasn't gone far enough. As for me - I suppose I'm undecided. New Horizons definitely left me wanting, even for all of the things that I enjoyed about it. I'm now back to thinking of Animal Crossing in "ifs" and "whens", wondering how long it will be before the next game crops up to consume my free time. Even still, though: For all the fond memories I have of the games throughout the years, it's always the first that manages to give me that warm and fuzzy feeling. I hope Nintendo can really knock it out of the part on the next one, and figure out a way to pour some soul back into a franchise that feels to be slowly but surely moving away from its core ethos.
Also, just putting this out here: Even though I obviously love the core concept of the game, I've done plenty of time traveling and you don't have to feel bad if you've done the same. Games are an escape. As long as you aren't maliciously getting in the way of anybody else's fun, play the way that you like. Just wanted to say that for anybody who ever felt guilty for pulling Time Lord shenanigans.