What would happen if you stripped Animal Crossing down to its very core elements?
No, I'm not talking about grinding for Bells, socializing with animals, or even managing a town. In this case, home design is, quite literally, the name of the game. Nintendo opted to take its famous (and famously addictive) series of cute life simulators and make an entire title that revolves around home design. By consequence, the entire premise sounds eerily similar to many, many games that one can download for free on iOS or Android, except with the asking price of a full retail game. On paper, this seems like a pared down, simplistic diversion that gives potential customers very little incentive to spend their money on it.
In execution, however, there's a lot more to Happy Home Designer than meets the eye.
Make no mistake, of course: this is, for all intents and purposes, not an Animal Crossing game. It looks, sounds, and has the general atmosphere of one, for sure. Most of your favorite characters even make an appearance, and if not, then you can probably snag them with one of the nifty amiibo cards. But it only goes as far as that, because when you get right down to it, this is a very different beast altogether.
As mentioned above, this game only has one core mechanic, and your enjoyment of Happy Home Designer hinges entirely on how much you like it. Ask yourself a simple question: do you really like spending time in Animal Crossing making the perfect house, and if so, would you like it better with an even wider array of customization options? If you answered "yes" to both of those, ask yourself another question: would you enjoy an entire game built around doing just that with the touch screen, with a few ancillary mechanics thrown in for good measure?
If all of that sounds good, then congratulations, you're ready for this odd little diversion that Nintendo has cooked up. Happy Home Designer places players in the role of an agent of the Big Brother-esque organization that designs and ranks houses in the Animal Crossing series. Donning a dapper little red coat, you'll built houses, design the insides of houses, design the outside of houses, and (sometimes) design bigger locations, like schools or hospitals. Items will gradually unlock with each client you take, and features will become available as you spend Play Coins on them. With every new home and facility completed, your town will get bigger, and your prominence as an ace designer will grow.
But that's not all. Even if you end up getting exhausted with all of that, and run out of things to do in the base game, which will take a while, there's a whole other feature to keep players engaged: trading cards, that lovable old stand-by of consumer crazes. The new amiibo cards, Series 1 of which launches with Happy Home Designer, are an addictive new element that bring in a decent wealth of new content. With each cards, players can scan in company for their villagers, bring in new clients to design for, or just bring in a little animal buddy to chat with. They're a non-essential feature of the game, for sure, but if you're able to invest the extra few bucks in a NFC reader (or if you have one of the New 3DS or New 3DS XL models,) it's worth picking up a few packs... or a ton of them until you get your favorite animal. There are over a hundred cards to collect, so if you really get into it, it'll expand the life of your game by a significant amount.
When you get right down to it, though, this is game is really about designing, and luckily, it isn't necessarily an entire game of the "grab items and drag them with your character" mechanic from previous games. If it were, I wouldn't still be itching to pick up the title and play it instead of writing this review. No, in Happy Home Designer, all of the heavy work is accomplished through the touch screen. You can click and drag furniture (and villagers,) tap new wallpaper and floor designs, and do pretty much everything, outside of moving your character, with the touch screen. It makes everything much more streamlined and easier to maneuver than before, and the fact that the grid system for arranging furniture is much more lenient is just icing on the cake. Going forward, the changes here should be carried over to the mainline Animal Crossing entries, as it would make designing your dream home much less of a tedious task.
I'd also like these features to be carried over for the simple fact that, well, it's really difficult to recommend a game that only has one or two standout features in the entire package. Don't get me wrong, these features are great, and have already captured several hours of my attention, and will probably capture several dozen more. But the thing is, Animal Crossing has always been about choices. In talking about the games with friends, everyone plays it differently. Some people like fishing for hours on end; others like maintaining an absurdly ornate garden that spans their entire town; still others like becoming a pro at identifying and capturing bugs.
In Happy Home Designer, the only choice you have is in how to design a house. That's about it. While, yes, Nintendo has been very adamant in emphasizing this as a spin-off, there's a tinge of disappointment about not being to shake fruit out of trees, save up for that shiny new item, or just bum around your town in a game that looks and sounds like an entry in a series where I've always been able to do those things. Seeing things like trophies and bugs simply becoming unlockable items is kind of saddening.
That's really my only complaint with the game as a whole, and while it is a large one, it isn't enough to damper my enthusiasm for picking it up again. While some critics have savaged this entry for its lack of challenge, I feel like that sort of misses the point. Happy Home Designer is a game about unleashing creativity with a huge assortment of tools, and adding in restrictions, plus the heartwrenching idea of making cute animals sad (I don't think I could handle a crying Isabelle,) would negate that core design philosophy. This isn't a "game" in the traditional sense. There's nothing to win, and nothing to lose. It's just a fun, robust way to design cool stuff and interact with cute things. Nothing more, nothing less.
At the end of the day, that's what will decide whether or not Happy Home Designer is for you. Do you like designing things? Do you like being creative? Do you just really, really like cute stuff? If so, you'll be like me and spend over an hour on a single room, just to make it fit your personal vision. If not, then this game wasn't ever going to be for you in the first place. While Animal Crossing, as a franchise, is still defined by choices, and the lack of them here definitely stings, there's such a massive wealth of content, and the best excuse to buy trading cards I've seen in a while. It's all tied together with a fun online component that lets players visit other peoples' designs and vote on them, and will definitely keep the game alive for several months after release.
While Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer is most certainly a spin-off, in every sense of the term, it's one that has a lot of character and a ton of content, which puts it leaps and bounds ahead of other shallow, soulless "games" of its ilk that can be found on the App Store. If you know what you're getting into, and you're excited by the idea of making KK Slider's dream home for him, it's well worth the money, and made even sweeter by a fun little bit of trading card gimmickry.