They're whiny, materialistic, gossipy and co-dependent. If they weren't so darn cute, I would really hate the little animal people who populate Rooty, a seaside village I inadvertently became mayor of in "Animal Crossing: New Leaf," the fourth edition of the adorable Nintendo social simulator that casts players not just as citizens but as managers of their own towns.
"New Leaf" (Nintendo, for the 3DS, $34.99) doesn't try to uproot the humble formula established in previous "Animal Crossing" video games for other Nintendo systems, focusing on simple virtual pursuits like chatting with neighbors, catching fish, unearthing fossils, collecting furniture and planting trees. This time, diving for treasures has been tossed in.
The biggest addition to "New Leaf" is the ability to travel to a tropical island where your character can compete against others in minigames like scavenger hunts or memory tests. The atoll is also bustling with its own flora and fauna that can be harvested and imported back to your village. (Apparently there are no customs agents in "Animal Crossing.")
After stepping off the train in Rooty, I quickly established a booming farming industry that bankrolled several public works projects to appease the citizenry, which included folks like fitness-obsessed eagle Pierce and egotistical pink squirrel Peanut. When they continued to demand more fountains and park benches, I instead used the funds to pay off my home loan.
"New Leaf," just like the other "Animal Crossing" installments, can only be played in real time, meaning your virtual neighbors will still be asleep in their virtual beds if you crack open your 3DS in the middle of the night, or that virtual nightclub you helped launch on your virtual main street won't start poppin' until your system's internal clock strikes 8 p.m.
While the game's designers have added several new ways to connect with other mayors online, including the ability to visit other towns by accessing an "Inception"-like dream suite, "New Leaf" still feels nightmarishly old-fashioned when it comes to connectivity. I was bummed to learn I couldn't bring home all the peaches I plundered from a city called Braska.
With new furniture, fish, bugs, clothes and little animal people to addictively discover each day, "New Leaf" is more joyful than "SimCity" and less mindless than "FarmVille" — no matter if you play for five minutes or five hours. It's too bad there aren't more dynamic ways to uniquely share the experience with other budding mayors online. Three stars out of four.