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In the late '80s there was competition amoung small human-like animals. This has led to some confusion over which is which. This guide should help you identify the different animal sets.

Sylvanian Families
The most famous small animal figures are Sylvanian Families. Even to this day, Sylvanian Families characters have a sticker on the bottom of their feet with the date 1985, proving that they were indeed the first. Even more remarkable is that Sylvanian Families toys are still sold today and their popularity has only increased. In fact, recently, Japan opened a Sylvanian Families theme park to go along with its numerous stores devoted to Sylvanian Families. However, durring the height of US competition, Sylvanian Families began using the name "Original Sylvanian Families," while Maple Town began placing stickers saying "Genuine Maple Town Friends." By the begining of the '90s, Maple Town had lost the battle and Sylvanian Families survived. However, due to legal issues in the US, they were forced to change their name. While they are still called Sylvanian Families in the rest of the world, they chose Calico Critters of Cloverleaf Corners for the US. The name (being based around a leaf) and even original logo reflected the still lingering popularity of Maple Town in the US.

There are several distinct differences between Maple Town and Sylvanian Families/Calico Critters. The first is general appearance. It was especially the case durring the time of Maple Town that Sylvanian Families looked more like real animals than Maple Town characters. Since Maple Town toys were based on the popular cartoon series, they naturally had a more cartoonish look to them. They had brighter and more varried colors and had unique outfits.
The outfits of Sylvanian Families animals were often so simular between families because Sylvanian Families were based around a classic, or traditional family structure with little character distinction, especially at first. Every Maple Town family was based on the television series and had a different profession. If the Calico Critters Dalmation Family were Maple Town, for example, they would be dressed as firefighters (as fire fighters often have dalmations), just as the Maple Town Rabbit Family runs the post office (as rabbits are quick). Note that Sylvanian Families did create its own cartoon series, but it lacked the magic of Maple Town because it lacked enjoyable stories or likably characters due to the fact that the only repeat characters were the bad guys.
Another difference between Sylvanian Families of the time was that Sylvanian Families had closed hands, which Maple Town had hands that could hold items. After Maple Town and once Sylvanian Families became Calico Critters in the US, they adopted open hands in every part of the world except for Japan, where they still have the same classic hands. Another key difference is the type of plastic used. With the exception of Maple Town figures that were released only in Japan, Maple Town animals were made of a soft plastic that allowed bending. This even allowed for their limbs to be removed, which was not necessarily a good thing. On the other hand, Sylvanian Families were and still are made of a sturdy, hard plastic. Sylvanian Families are universally considered of supperior quality compared to any of their now extinct competition. Over the years, this quality has only increased. Note that Japanese Maple Town figures were higher in quality than elsewhere and were made of a sturdier plastic and often included accessories.
Forest Families
Another animal set that has been confused with Maple Town is Forest Families. Forest Families were made out of an even softer plastic than Maple Town and, like Maple Town, had open hands. However, Forest Families all had a happy expression on their faces and their children did not have possible arms or legs. They were also slightly larger than the competition. Most unique to this line was the variety of unusual animals that were released, including turtles, birds, elephants, etc. They had a sheep family over a decade and a half before Sylvanian Families. Unfortunately, they are near impossible to find anymore, especially in their packages.

Here's a link to the one and only Xara's Forest Families site:

Now that the competition is over

While Maple Town can no longer be found in stores and no new Maple Town items are being produced, you can still go down to your local store and find Calico Critters in the US or Sylvanian Families elsewhere in the world. New animal families are still being made, along with new playsets and detailed accessories. They are high quality and easy to love. They simply aren't Maple Town.