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How I built a shared Animal Crossing town on PC with my friends across the country

My fondest memories of Animal Crossing, which I played religiously on the GameCube in the early 2000s, are of sharing a town with a friend who lived down the road. We took turns playing all summer, building up a town together instead of visiting one another's. That's what I wanted to experience when I got the urge to play Animal Crossing again a few years ago, but I no longer had a neighbor to share it with—becoming an adult can have that effect. So I hatched a plan to recreate that experience we had as teenagers.

I still play GameCube and Wii games from time-to-time on my PC thanks to Dolphin, a truly incredible emulator. I even bought a rare DVD drive years ago that could rip the discs. I still had my copy of Animal Crossing: City Folk for the Wii, and it ran flawlessly in Dolphin at a crisp 1440p, far better than the Wii could output. Dolphin's online play support was a bit dicey at the time, but I didn't want to visit other towns, anyway. I wanted to share a single town with my friends, who lived on the other side of the country from me. Turns out the solution was incredibly simple: We used Dropbox.

Cloud crossing

I briefly ran a Tumblr blog about this experiment. It didn't last long, but I did have fun making a logo for it.

Instead of setting Dolphin to save my memory card files to its default folder, I switched the location to a shared Dropbox folder. I could play Animal Crossing for an hour, save and quit, and the file would update and sync to my friends' PCs in seconds. We couldn't play simultaneously, but that was part of the idea. We all had jobs and different schedules, separated by a three hour time difference. This gave us a way to hop into a shared town and leave remnants of our time spent for the next person to appreciate.

I was thrilled with how well it worked. The game had no way of knowing the four people accessing that save file lived hundreds of miles away from each other. We were all next-door neighbors. Which meant we could do things like spy on each other while sleeping...

Indoctrinate the villagers with our dumb catch phrases...

Or troll each other by burying garbage in front of one another's houses.

Before long we did run into an issue, though. If two of us happened to try to play at the same time, we'd have conflicting updates to the safe file, and one person's play session would be erased.

We started this Animal Crossing town before Discord existed, and at the time we used voice chat app Mumble when we played multiplayer games. I ran a lightweight Mumble server for the four of us and a few other friends, so I created an "Animal Crossing idle" channel to deal with this problem. Whenever someone was playing, they'd just pop into the idle channel to signal they were online. If no one was idling, the town was up for grabs.

The friends I dragged into playing with me weren't quite as into Animal Crossing as I'd been, and honestly half the appeal for me was just seeing this harebrained scheme of mine actually work. Our town petered out after about two months. But I still have some screenshots to bring back the good memories.

You were a good home for awhile, Broville. Maybe we'll see you again someday—if I can find your save file.

If there's a good Switch emulator in 10 years, I expect I might be trying this scheme all over again with Animal Crossing: New Horizons when nostalgia strikes me again.

When he's not 50 hours into a JRPG or an opaque ASCII roguelike, Wes is probably playing the hottest games of three years ago. He oversees features, seeking out personal stories from PC gaming's niche communities. 50% pizza by volume.