New 'Animal Crossing' finds fun in the day-to-day

Much like the quintessential "show about nothing" draws its humor from mundane tasks, situations and dialogue, "Animal Crossing: City Folk" ($49.99, Wii) revels in the simple day-to-day activities and decisions of life.

Spend the afternoon fishing, digging for fossils or visiting friends. Buy and sell items at the local shop, or head into the city to browse a more upscale selection of stores.

There are no levels to finish, checkpoints to reach or objectives to complete - do what you want, when you want. It's an approach that's surprisingly addictive.

This latest installment is the popular series' first venture onto the Wii console, and it's clearly geared to those who might have missed out on "Animal Crossing" for the GameCube or "Animal Crossing: Wild World" for the Nintendo DS.

Sure, "Animal Crossing: City Folk" adds the ability to visit friends' towns over the Internet or ride the bus into the city, but its formula strays little from the original premise and players of the previous titles might be left wanting more.

The first order of business upon arriving in your new home town is to meet up with local entrepreneur Tom Nook.

Nook, a raccoon, will set you up with your first house and help you start paying your mortgage by putting you to work in his shop, Nook's Cranny.

The repeated errands he assigns grow tedious, but once he runs out of odd jobs he'll cut you loose so you can explore the town on your own timetable, which is the lure of this game.

You'll encounter plenty of animal residents and each has their own look and personality. Dialogue exchanges can be fun, and you're free to befriend or ignore anyone.

Those in need of a sense of purpose can drop by the museum, which is rich with exhibit space yet void of a single tangible display item.

You can help its embarrassed curator, Blathers the owl, by donating some of the numerous fish, bugs and fossils you collect during your journeys. Blathers is always happy to accept donations, and you can always visit your pet squid in the aquarium section or catch another to set up a tank in your house.

And if you need some extra bells - the game's form of currency - drop by Tom Nook's to sell your fruit, fish, shells and other gathered items.

I typically enjoy playing video games in large time chunks rather than a little each day, but the slow-and-steady approach works best with "Animal Crossing: City Folk."

The game runs on a real-time clock, so weather, available items and species all adjust to the date and seasons.

A trip to Nook's Cranny shortly after Thanksgiving offered a Christmas tree, which I bought and put in my house's tiny living room. My walk through town the other day was greeted by light snowfall, and flakes dropped on trees decked out with lights.

Most of the fish I've been catching are on the small side, but I can look forward to reeling in some larger species once the weather begins to warm up. Or, if I know another player's Friend Code, I can that town and cast into their lakes and beaches to expand my collection.

"Animal Crossing: City Folk" also offers occasional fishing tournaments and special holiday events that appear on the calendar.

It's easy to get cooped up during a cold winter, so a trip to the city might be just the thing to get you out of the doldrums.

Items and services in the city are ridiculously expensive (how's that for realism?), so you'll burn through bells much quicker than you would in town. But where else can you hire an interior designer or buy a 300,000-bell luxury bed?

Those looking to change their appearance can visit Shampoodle and have Harriet give you a haircut or a Mii makeover, so you can use your customized character.

You can also take in a movie (800 bells) or drop by the auction house to get rid of or bid on items.

The game is the first to work with Nintendo's Wii Speak accessory, a set-top room microphone which can be bought separately for $29.99 or bundled with the game for $69.99. If your friend across the country has the same setup, you can chat with each other while fishing.

"Animal Crossing: City Folk" might seem too familiar to players of the previous series titles, but this latest installment offers plenty of depth for newcomers.

It takes time and patience to reveal its depth, but that's the fun.

Three out of four stars.

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