Tom Nook has been living the good life since 2002: the year my obsession with Animal Crossing began. I joyfully decorated my house, while doing everything to pay off Nook’s hefty housing loan. In Happy Home Designer, the grass isn’t greener as an employee of the grubby-pawed tanuki—I’m working harder than ever!

Happy Home Designer—the latest game in the Animal Crossing series—is a spin-off which deviates heavily from the life-simulator game-play that defines the main games. One of Animal Crossing’s fundamental features is designing your own house, and a part of the series’ charm lies in barging into another villager’s home to judge (and window shop) their own interesting design choices.

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As its name implies, in Happy Home Designer, you take on the role of a new employee of Nook’s Homes, tasked with designing and decorating villagers’ homes to suit their quirky requests and personalities, as well as designing new facilities in their home town. The game focuses on just this one aspect of the Animal Crossing universe, and it’s all business.

But what’s all work and no play? That depends on how creative you are with the shiny new tools Happy Home Designer gives you.

It’s hard not to compare some of the new features in Happy Home Designer to the main games in the series, especially when many of them improve designing significantly. Other times, for a game which strips away many of the main elements of Animal Crossing, Designer still manages to pack many in features unique to the series, condensing them and incorporating them for use at your disposal.

Outside Forest Life

One of the biggest changes in Designer is the ability to create outdoor scenery for the villagers. Not only are you able to change a house’s physical outside appearance with all sorts of questionable patterns and colors, you’re now given the freedom to design animals’ yards as well, that extend beyond simply planting trees or flowers. All those weird marble statues that animals like, which have no business being indoors other than to be creepy? You can place them outside now for some of the best gardens (or as warnings, whichever). In fact, you could place any object outside in a designated yard space, and they will be considered part of the design. Yard space is a beautiful thing! Unless of course, you pick a plot of land full of miniature ponds that cover land for a lot of unusable area. You could do such a thing, but then you’d just be a really horrible person.

That’s right, the second thing Happy Home Designer introduces allows you to pick prime real estate for your animals. You’re presented with a map with various terrains, and if you want them to have a river near the house or beach front property, you can do that. If you want them to have maximum yard space, you can do that too. Sometimes, you may want to consider what their requests are and choose locations and space based on that. Maybe an animal doesn’t care about a yard, or maybe one does...seeing previews of locations will help get in touch with your inner design diva.

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Tom Nook is a crook and also a god, apparently but there are some employee company perks. Or maybe just the one: You can control the weather and change the seasons when selecting a place for your client to live. If you wanted your animal to live with winter in their hearts, you can decide that they’ll be snowbound forever. Springtime and allergies in the air? Sure. The same goes for Summer, Autumn and Rainy weather too. Why? Because you can. And you should, if only to set up a tea party out in the mountains in blizzard-like conditions. Life is more unexpected that way... except the part where you can decide these things and go mad with power.

Sometimes an animal may have a request which you think a seasonal change would work well for it too. This doesn’t affect your game in any way other than stylistically, but it’s an interesting way to incorporate Animal Crossing’s seasonal weather into Happy Home Designer.

Down the Customization Genji Rabbit Hole

How far down does the customization rabbit hole go? Fairly deep. And with play coins, even deeper. Many of Animal Crossing’s features from games past have been incorporated in some measure into Designer.

You can create custom designs for use in your designing frenzy, and save them as QR codes to share with the world. Refurbishing items also returns. Access to unlocked features and more show up in your editing tools, with some of them unlocked via play coins which you can spend once a day as per Designer’s in-game clock.

Some of these unlock old favorites such as insects and fish which you can use in decorating. One of my crowning achievements in Animal Crossing: New Leaf was catching a whale shark on a Summer’s Eve, then promptly squishing him into a tank on display in my house. The option to re-create that room is possible in Designer if I wanted to bestow an animal with such a gift.

But Designer isn’t just about recycling old content. Amiibo cards allow you to bring in new animals, and special animals for a visit or to design houses for them. They aren’t necessary for the game’s enjoyment but work well (since they’re trading cards too and I have an unhealthy obsession with blind packs, this probably won’t bode well for the collector in me...). Using the cards for animals to visit is not so fun. They smile at you but don’t say a word. But using the cards to design for them is pretty neat, if only that you get to decorate for a series icon (I did get a little star struck bringing Kapp’n into my game...I’ll admit).

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A few of the new customization tools give you the ability to design windows, curtains and doorways. Yep, room extensions in houses can also have doors for that much needed privacy, or to enter a room wondering what black abyss awaits on the other side.

Another new favorite feature uses sound effects, which you can apply to give rooms a little more atmosphere other than just the songs from K.K. Slider’s catalog. These sounds add new depth to Animal Crossing’s signature strangeness, allowing you to be extra devious or quirky, as the case may be. Did I add unsettling wilderness sounds to my hospital’s operating room? Maybe I did... Maybe. I. did.

My favorite addition now includes hanging light fixtures and other things from the ceiling, as well as hanging clothes on the wall. Space is utilized effectively in Designer, and it’s these small details which make the game more interactive than ever before. It can also lead to excess cluttering, but your decoration skills will develop to maximize space and be aesthetically pleasing! That’s half the fun, and these new changes are the little things which make a world of difference.

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Plus, you can never have too many ceiling fans. Window fans are dangerous things which I won’t be designing into my homes, so I’m glad the option to hang a fan is there.

The Future of Design is Bright

Designer streamlines a lot of the gameplay in designing homes. You’re able to place objects, as well as copy and rotate them more efficiently than previous Animal Crossing installments. No longer will you have to drag objects manually using your avatar (which you can still do if you really wanted to do that labor). With a quick tap of the screen, you can easily rotate them or pick them up and place them. Copying multiple objects is as easy as holding L or R and tapping items, too.

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The grid on your touch screen shows you exactly how much space an object takes up, and each is represented by small squares, rectangles and circles which you can shuffle around the room with ease. Objects that can be placed on top of others are color coordinated too, but that’s not the only awesome thing about placement. You can now finally(!!) center items, instead of being limited to the two previous choices of left or right, whether on top of other objects or centering the objects themselves in a room.

One other cool aspect that Designer implements is that if you don’t have enough space between objects, your character will shimmy through these tight spaces like a sneaky sneak. Sometimes, I will place objects too close together just to shimmy and not because I made a terrible design. Mhm. That’s my story and I’m shimmying to it. Spatial awareness is awesome, and a welcome tiny change that can have potentially have some big effects. Spacing is key to good design, even if more for your sanity. Though, if an object is too close to another with no other way to get to it other than by squeezing by, that’s your cue to re-adjust.

These new mechanics makes designing homes efficient and even more fun—something future installments of the series will hopefully adapt.

Almost Instant Gratification

Each villager client in Designer comes with specific guidelines as to how they would like their house designed. Although these requests are themed, it’s not a simple matter of being told exactly what to do. Every animal brings a prized-possession (or three) with them, which you must use when decorating the interior and exterior of their homes and yards. Apart from these key items, creative control is left to the player.

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Your clients will bring along catalog items matching their requested themes as well, and taking on more clientele opens up the game substantially, allowing for an array of items almost immediately. In the beginning stages, there’s only so much you can do to make a living space interesting, no matter how much of an eye for style you possess. Even as more items became available, I didn’t enjoy it initially. In a way, Designer felt like hand-holding thanks to these limitations on items and space.

Thankfully, the game opens up rapidly in both instances, which changed how I thought about approaching my design choices. Once the catalog really expands and living areas become larger, it’s a bit trickier. You can play the game as rigidly as possible—choosing very specific related items to fulfill clients’ specific requests—but I had the most fun pooling items across all my available catalogs. Think of Designer’s homes and yards as empty canvases, and design like the decorating wizard you know you can be.

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Designer gives you the world in its selections, so why not be as outrageous as possible? It’s not as though you or your clients have to pay for any of it, and they’re all debt free! Which... really just confirms how much we should be rioting at Nook’s unethical treatment of humans.

Personal Touches

While the focus of Designer may be primarily on meeting the requests of designing animal’s houses, it wouldn’t be Animal Crossing without being able to customize your character. New clothes and accessories will be unlocked during the game, but there’s a catch — you work for Nook, and your blazer is your everyday uniform. You can’t change it (strict company policy!) but you can mix up every other part of your outfit. If there is any better analogy of how Designer feels, I couldn’t find it. It’s very much a game that limits you to a small degree then lets you get creative with everything else.

Not Enough Villager Bonding

One of Animal Crossing’s best assets are its animal villagers, thanks to their ridiculous personalities, and the friendship bonds you can make with them. With Designer, you unfortunately do not get to interact with them as deeply, nor impact their lives as their neighbour by meddling in their affairs. As clients, you meddle through designing their homes but you can also design the new facilities which you can build into your town.

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New Leaf’s Isabelle returns to oversee these public works projects, and you can design things such as a school, for instance. It’s at these facilities you’ll be able to change roles of animals by assigning them jobs of their own. You can send them to school to play the role of student or teacher. Or send them to work at the cafe, or be patrons—manipulating their lives like a virtual dollhouse, where you can drop into some of their conversations and talk to them to hear their crazy insight. But it always feels like short-lived fun, that’s not without its hilarious moments, and you still get to enjoy snippets of their humor within these settings. Like that cringe-worthy time the game assigned a mouse to serve the food at my town’s restaurant.

The animals are as snarky or sweet as ever. My horse Colton from New Leaf happens to be in my Designer town as well. I’ve a great fondness for him, so I was happy to see him. In New Leaf, I remembered I would find him asleep on the stump outside our houses most mornings. And so, when I decorated his yard in Designer, I gave him a stump. Wouldn’t you know it? He loves it and sleeps on it. Of course he does... And he’s still very much a hipster—what with his lamenting that he couldn’t eat at a popular restaurant because it’s too popular. Surprise, surprise.

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It’s nice to see their lovable personalities haven’t changed, and even though dialogues and interactions with them are relatively limited, their actions can still sting. For instance, a certain client made a design request which I completely ignored. I left her key items in place, and she loved what I did with the place anyway. Whether inadvertent humor or not, it was pretty biting to read praise of my designing prowess. It was also funny seeing her sweeping her empty house and yard.

Honestly, I probably just really miss their super imposing natures more than anything. I like when they dictate what I do or what I should be doing—like delivering their next package to their friend two doors down. I’m a sucker for punishment that way.

Your Worst Critic is You

Designer may not penalize you for doing a terrible job at decorating, but doing a bad job shows when your animals don’t get to interact with anything. It made me feel terrible at least, even though the animals couldn’t care less as the end result. During the design period, animals will hint at which items they absolutely adore or are lukewarm on but ultimately, none of your choices, apart from their key items, truly matter.

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You can always strive to personally do better in Designer and sometimes animals will indicate that they really, really loved an area or piece you decorated once you’re finished. That’s just about your only incentive, as they do not act adversely if you leave them in empty rooms, which the game could benefit to include. It’s a double-edged sword as if an animal dislikes a piece, then you wouldn’t have that creative freedom but even a smidgen of disappointment would lend more to their personalities. With hundreds of items in Designer’s catalog, how limiting could a bit of constructive criticism from your clients be?

You can get more feedback by uploading designs to Miiverse via the “Happy Home Network”, which will also net you positive reinforcement design ratings from real life peers and design enthusiasts. Maybe I should have put this little number up instead of that other one I chose...

Finding Items!

Occasionally, I would have a tough time locating items. There are a lot of tab menus which are self-explanatory, and there’s also a ‘keyword’ search function. Designer also lets you easily access new items once you take on a new client. However, some items don’t seem to fit the categories they are listed under certain icon designations, or at the very least they take a little bit of figuring out to find later on.

There’s a reason why games like Designer can be addictive—they’re good for short bursts of play. Animal Crossing’s real-time, 24 hour clock is replaced by the in-game day job time. Once you complete a design job, you clock out at work to save—and go home...where? That remains a Designer mystery— and a new work day begins. Designer feels like a focused game with set goals, immediate achievements and crafted for on-the-go play.

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You can re-visit houses to re-design areas too, or just drop in to clients for a visit. When those possibilities are endless, with new items unlocked along with new requests and hundreds of combinations the game offers, it’s easy to play this game constantly.

If you love the Animal Crossing series, particularly adding details to houses and customizing rooms, then there’s joy to be had in challenging yourself as a decorator. All the new tools make Designer streamlined, with some new fun features that gives designing a fresh coat of paint along with Animal Crossing’s brand of polish—great for relaxing sessions of play. If designing in Animal Crossing is something you dislike, or if you think outfitting personal spaces as the most boring things games can offer, then Designer isn’t the game for you.

Of course, Happy Home Designer also isn’t the game for you if you don’t want to work for Tom Nook. Especially since it seems you get paid through the joys of learning emotions, only.

We’re on to you, Nook...


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Follow N. Ho Sang on Twitter at @Zarnyx if you’re feeling adventurous, or you can read her articles here.