Developer: Nintendo EAD
ESRB: E – Everyone
If Animal Crossing is a digital garden of minutia, then Happy Home Designer is one of many boxes with various tools to sow the seeds of Nintendoist tranquility. It was with New Leaf that the Animal Crossing series had eclipsed itself in both feature set and variety, and having done so it now seems natural that the series could grow new roots outside of the genre of whatever Animal Crossing ultimately became. In the case of Happy Home Designer, it's exactly as the title suggests that instead of racing go-karts or playing tennis, that players will be doing something much more quaint: taking up the role of interior design in the Animal Crossing world.
While introductions have been whittled down to their core, players will be able to customize their character with a somewhat expanded (and more transparent) character creation system. Beyond this, it's the first day of work at Nook's Homes, so it's time to stop talking slacking off and get going on making clients feel at home.
So that's what we'll do. We'll set up a new resident in their digs, customizing furniture, wall decoration, flooring, knick knacks, and arranging general thingamabobs to our liking. Once finished, we'll report back on our work to upper management, and with a job well done will write our report to end the day and head home for the next day of similar tasks and different results.
Immediately, the game feels slim in content, but as most Nintendo games tend to develop, new items and objectives are steadily revealed within the opening hours. Unfortunately, this slow drip ends on an unfulfilling plink when it becomes clear that there's something missing. It feels odd to be writing this, but besides designing the inside of houses, it's as if there should be something else to do. It's almost as if an entire game is missing between the points that work begins and ends.
In fact, for anyone familiar with Animal Crossing, Happy Home Designer will feel overwhelmingly desolate to know that there's a world out there and none of it actually exists in this game. Sure, there's a town square, but the only activities present are designing and redesigning its public locations, and while players can select from a variety of overworld map locations for their client's plot of land, they'll find themselves doing exactly what you'd expect there is to do in those locations, as well.
When Animal Crossing was originally developed, and by originally we mean Animal Forest on the Nintendo 64, part of its goal was to alleviate homesickness on the behalf of its Designer. The warmth, relationships, and virtual escape to a fictional world are likely the cornerstone of this series, and arguably the most important player on the stage of adorable escapism. Removing the village from an Animal Crossing game is leaving players with whatever activities remain, and in the case of Happy Home Designer, it's a fictional full-time job outside of which no recreation exists.
And so here we are, in the thick of a review criticizing an Animal Crossing spinoff game for not being a full-on Animal Crossing game. It's enough to make one's head spin, and yet entirely warranted in the case of Happy Home Designer. It's too similar in enough ways that it causes a disconnect between where our priorities should lie. In a traditional Animal Crossing title, interior design is one of at least several other activities to fill our time with, and a poor foundation to construct a game without dressing it up a bit on the side.
Happy Home Designer does a fantastic job at expanding on how room design should work in future Animal Crossing titles — provided they use a touch screen. The game mechanics will almost entirely play out on the touch screen, using the stylus to move, duplicate, add, subtract, and arrange a room's furniture and accessories, but players still have the ability to manually move and rotate furniture as they've done in the past. There's no reason that the control scheme and menu system in Happy Home Designer can't be lifted into future games simply by adding a button on the touch screen to toggle between the two interfaces when in a room that can be rearranged.
Assuming that Nintendo utilizes a touch screen for a future game, they've now set a new bar with how furnishing homes should operate. I'll be disappointed if they decide to keep it hostage in Happy Home Designer, and consider this interface to be a prototype for something more sophisticated and now necessary as the series grows.
For perfectionists like myself, a great amount of time can be lost in building a room's look from start to finish. More ambitious projects, such as a school or hospital have even seen me close the system for a while to visualize the room while going about real life a while. I took a lot of pleasure in this, and enjoyed seeing a finished product, but desired some functionality beyond the end of a contract that doesn't take place in the form of a brief intermission where they look around the place.
Earlier, it was mentioned that players will design a room to their liking, which is not only true, but in direct contrast to the theoretical client-based work that interior design is based on. The game isn't entirely clear about communicating this issue, but aside from marking off the few items on a client's checklist, players aren't required to put any further work into design. While it breaks the game to know this, we can assume that players interested in interior design won't be skipping straight through the act of designing interiors.
Just when Animal Crossing couldn't be more relaxed in its direction, Happy Home Designer reclines the sofa, freely handing out items, grading based essentially on participation, and has no opinion on whether you've actually put any effort into your client's work. While designs can be shared on the Miiverse for community support (or criticism), it would be nice if the game's design also cared that you'd accomplished something or not. You do seem to be working for a company more or less related to the Happy Home Academy, who as I recall were very displeased with my home in New Leaf, and while that was based on a hodgepodge of things that I hadn't organized, it was at least based on something. The lack of scoring ultimately comes across as dispassionate, and in consistency with the game, perpetuates emptiness.
There are apparently plans for HHD homes to be featured in the upcoming Animal Crossing Wii U party game, though it's in the background, and Happy Home Designer also features amiibo support in the form of cards. While this adds more content, it does not expand the game's design in either instance, and so will be up to players whether they think these are of note.
If there's any lesson to be learned from Happy Home Designer, it's that spinoff games based around a mechanic need either support from ideas that made the original title compelling, or a mechanic that's not so similar to its source material that it comes off as a mod or expansion pack. While Animal Crossing is branching out from simply being a town that players can feel at home in, Happy Home Designer is antithetic in design and scope. It's unlike this series to come up short of ideas, and yet they've somehow managed to run a single one into the ground with Happy Home Designer.