The year was 2013, and while waiting for the plot events of several notable sci-fi films to come to pass (or could Twitter actually be wrong about the day Marty McFly travels back in time?) I, like many others, had my eyes glued to YouTube videos of Animal Crossing: New Leaf—or should I say Tobidase Doubutsu no Mori, because at the time the game had yet to be released in English. As is often the case with some of the juiciest titles for the 3DS, the latest in the Animal Crossing series came out in Japan several months before it was due in North America. Where eager fans may have once had to pore through a handful of screenshots printed and re-printed in magazines, we now had access to hours and hours of footage recorded from the Japanese version of the game to scratch the itch until it was available in English.
But it doesn’t really scratch that itch, does it? Sometimes they even make it worse.
That’s exactly how things stand now for those eagerly awaiting Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer’s debut in the west, myself included. Although it came out at the tail end of July in Japan, there’s still more than a month to go before its domestic release. So if you’re desperate to get your hands on Happy Home Designer and YouTube’s just not cutting it anymore, here are nine games you can play (and one you can’t) to try and curb your cravings.
It’s the obvious one to mention, so let’s get this out of the way. So long as you don’t mind loading yourself up with a little harmless virtual debt, Animal Crossing’s home décor has been a delight since day one. But there’s one thing about the decoration and customization tools that I never realized until New Leaf came along, and once I saw it in action I felt as though my tiny, adorable, animal-filled world had been blown to pieces. Before New Leaf I had never considered using the game’s built-in pattern-making tools to build paths and roadways and other exterior features. As far as I was concerned they were for clothes only. Cue New Leaf’s ridiculously easy screenshotting and random town browsing and I realized I’d been living in a series of pathless, swagless towns while everyone else was dashing around on sidewalks that looked like they were made of chocolate bars and cookies. Thankfully, Tom Nook hasn’t found a way to wring money out of anyone for pattern-making. Yet.
What makes housing and décor in Ultima Online special is just how important it can be to other players. While most MMOs that offer player housing offer it in isolated pockets that aren’t really a part of the world at large, the location and facilities players build on their land in Ultima Online can make their plot incredibly useful for passersby… So long as they make their plot public. Keep all the amenities to yourself or share your wealth and comfort with the locals, become a merchant outpost or a miserly hermit, it’s your call.
As if it wasn’t satisfying enough tugging on all those little felty pieces and ribbony tabs in the plushest of all Wii platformers, Kirby’s Epic Yarn put its collectibles to good use by letting players decorate a pastel apartment in the game’s overworld with them. Neighbors also begin to move into the adjoining apartments as Kirby progresses through the world, making this something like a bite-sized take on Animal Crossing ideal for those who want more traditionally structured gameplay alongside their hyper-adorable homemaking.
In most RPGs, the best way to flaunt your success is through your equipment. Fancy-looking armor, powerful weapons, enchanted jewelry stacked on or hanging from every part of your character like they’re getting ready for just about the gaudiest pirate wedding ever. The problem is that you can only wear so much, and the rest of your glorious spoils typically have to stay in storage. Housing in Skyrim allows players to put their most prized (or second and third most prized) possessions on display in a variety of houses scattered across the map’s major cities. These houses are pretty static, but they do allow players to inject a little bit of personality into them. I had a habit of filling my glass-topped weapon cases to the brim with loose jewels, for example, but basements full of cheese wheels and sweetrolls are also quite popular. Then the Hearthfire expansion came along. Now not only can players purchase a pre-furnished home, but they can build one more or less to their specifications. You stockpile resources to earn every room, every amenity, and pack the place wall to wall with trophies from your finest kills. And then, you know, fill the place with cheese wheels anyway.
I don’t know that MySims deserves a place on many lists, but it sure as heck deserves one here. One of the most interesting features in this simplified take on The Sims franchise is the ability to build furniture and various other objects out of materials found in the world. For example, players can shake a few apples out of a tree and pick them up, which gives them access to a handful of different apple-inspired materials to build with. Now, say they build a cute little apple-printed chair and set it out in their house. That apple print will appeal to sims who like “delicious” things in particular, and affect their mood accordingly. If you’ve ever wondered why The Sims 4 is peppered with all those little MySims collectible figurines, it’s most likely an homage to this game’s unique, mood-driven décor system.
Rest in peace, City of Heroes, because you had one of the most interesting player housing systems in any MMO to date. In City of Heroes, groups of players could pool their resources to construct elaborate bases of operation for all their heroic and/or villainous needs. They could make a pleasant waiting room with a convenient watercooler that leads directly into an absolutely diabolical lab cast in the most eye-straining violet lighting you can imagine, tweaking everything from overall layout to wall designs along the way. While this player housing system wasn’t quite as flexible as some of the others that came both before and after it, in the context of a world of superheroes and supervillains it did exactly what it needed to do, and it did it well.
Although player housing isn’t as uncommon as it used to be in MMOs (as you can probably tell based on this list) it’s still far from standard. It’s a feature that often gets added a few years after a game’s initial release to give die-hard players a reason to stay and fairweather players a reason to come back. Unfortunately a lot of player housing systems kind of look the same: big samey houses full of big samey rooms, which usually can’t be furnished in a way that adequately distracts you from just how big and just how samey it all is. Rift made its mark by giving players their own “dimensions,” spaces that they could shape almost entirely to their tastes. I’m not just talking about dropping a few chairs and crafting stations around and calling it a day, but rather building elaborate shrines and temples and cottages and player-built landmarks that few other MMOs can hold a candle to. See for yourself.
If you’ve ever wanted to live in the matchy-matchy house of all your Sears catalogue-inspired dreams, then the Create-a-Style feature present in The Sims 3 is a godsend. Though it’s apparently a bit of a resource hog, the feature lets players adjust the textures on almost every object in the game, which makes The Sims 3’s design tools unbelievably flexible. A couch can be plain and red one moment, neon and floral the next. A free external program was also released to help players create their own seamless patterns for Create-a-Style and, better still, the Ambitions expansion pack added an architect career path that allows players to remodel and redecorate other sims’ house to their heart’s desire. Unfortunately none of these features made it into The Sims 4, but that’s what modding’s for, right?
I’m not going to wax poetic about the endless possibility of content creation in Second Life because frankly making things that actually look up to this virtual world’s current standards often requires serious 3D modeling chops. That said, name one other game where you can buy a cool looking shoe, scale it up, and then put all of your furniture inside. I dare you.
Where most of the games on this list are concerned with the way furniture helps a room come together, this particular Early Access gem is more interested in how that furniture itself comes together. Home Improvisation offers players the opportunity to do what they probably don’t have the time, money, patience or floorspace to do in real life. Specifically, it provides them with all the tools necessary to make a serious mess out of some Ikea-esque flatpacked particleboard components. Of course it’s always an option to play by the rules and assemble each item as cleanly as intended and arrange them around the room in a pleasing manner, but when you’re provided with all the tools necessary to connect each piece in any way your heart desires, why limit yourself?
Janine Hawkins is a games writer based in sunny Canada. You can find her written and video work on HealerArcherMage.com or follow her on Twitter @bleatingheart.