CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Trying to describe what makes Nintendo's "Animal Crossing" franchise such an addictive game is a lot like trying to describe your favorite food to someone.
You can talk all about the various flavors and textures, but at the end of the day there's no substitute for simply taking a big bite and experiencing it. The same goes for "Animal Crossing" - you can talk about catching fish and bugs, picking fruit and crafting relationships with your adorable-looking animal neighbors, but the only way to truly appreciate everything the game has to offer is to sink your teeth into it. And the latest entry in the series, "Animal Crossing: New Leaf" for the 3DS, is a veritable smorgasbord of gaming goodness.
The basic setup in "New Leaf" is the same as its predecessors, with you creating a character and moving into a new town with only the shirt on your back. But unlike in past games, you now serve as the mayor of your cozy little town rather than just a normal citizen. Regardless, your initial goals remain the same -- earn money to pay off your house and purchase items with which to fill it. Earning bells, the currency in "Animal Crossing," is easy enough as the shops in town are more than happy to pay you for any fruit you pick, seashells you collect and fish and bugs you catch.
The game soon takes on a life of its own as you converse with fellow city dwellers (and sometimes perform odd jobs for them or engage in a spirited game of hide-and-seek), keep your town free of pesky weeds and trash, and work toward filling up your town's museum. All of this should sound instantly familiar to anyone who's played "Animal Crossing" before, but words can't describe how addictive the whole process becomes once you get started.
"New Leaf" maintains everything I've come to love about "Animal Crossing" but goes beyond offering just more of the same.
The new mayoral powers allow you to upgrade your town with bridges, streetlights, fountains and more extravagant items that your citizens request. You'll choose the location of key services like the police station and even enact ordinances that promote specific ideals like keeping your town beautiful. The amount of customization is staggering and allows you to transform your town into whatever you can imagine. Upgrades cost bells, though, and it's up to you to fund their construction by -- you guessed it -- selling fruit, bugs, fish, etc. It's a never-ending cycle that gives "New Leaf" unlimited playability. I've already sunk in dozens and dozens of hours and feel as though I've barely scratched the surface in terms of what the game has to offer.
Multiplayer returns, allowing you to check out your friends' towns or invite them to visit yours. Gifts can be exchanged, trees can be cut down and traps can be planted, so it's a good idea to be careful whom you invite into your game world. Those who want to play it safe can upload their town via the Dream Suite, which lets friends visit without any fear of them wreaking havoc. Players can also compete against others in a handful of mini-games like bug collecting and hide-and-seek.
"Animal Crossing: New Leaf" is more than just a game, it's your own virtual world. And whether you invest a few hours or a few hundred hours, there will always be something new to do or see. Every 3DS owner should say goodbye to your free time and hello to this charming escape.
"Animal Crossing: New Leaf"
Available for: Nintendo 3DS ($34.99)
Rating: E for everyone