You probably know this, frankly it’s hard to escape it, but just in case: A new Animal Crossing game just released. The only seven words I have waited for so, so many years to be true. I can’t bottle up my hype, my bubbling, incessant excitement, into a jar and directly compare it to other significant game releases. But if I could, that bottle would have exploded in 2015. But somehow, March 20th of the year 2020 finally did arrive, and now there is nothing else to look forward to—except every single day with Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
I can’t review Animal Crossing: New Horizons, yet, because the flavor of Animal Crossing is one that ages like… cheese? So far, being within a month of its release, players who aren’t silly cheaters have only experienced exactly that: a month. It is currently spring in the northern hemisphere, so we’ve only experienced one out of four seasons, which is a fraction (one fourth, to be exact) of the experience that will unravel over the years. That being said, while this isn’t a “review” and more of a first impressions and analysis of the quality of the game after spending over a hundred hours with it, no piece talking about New Horizons would be complete without some of the history behind the spectacularly unique franchise. If you’re a fancy intellectual that already knows facts about every meal Nintendo has ever served or you just really don’t care about the past, feel free to skip this part.
After scoring a job with Nintendo in 1986, a young Katsuya Eguchi left his home in Chiba to work at Nintendo’s headquarters in Kyoto, Japan. His early works include level design for early Mario games and various other Nintendo projects. Yet, during his time contributing to the games that laid the foundation for the entire gaming industry, the move away from his family and friends to the unfamiliar city stuck with him. Ultimately, he was a 21 year-old graduate working for Nintendo, but without friends in a place he didn’t know; he was lonely. It is a universal feeling, most people in their lives have to face leaving their home and familiar people at some point. It’s that feeling of lonesomeness and abandonment that Eguchi wanted to capture while also allowing others to reconnect with their families through a video game experience “that's playing, even when you're not”. To put it lightly, he wanted to produce the first strand game.
Alongside Takshi Tezuka, a bit more of a familiar name, Eguchi began the series with Dōbutsu no Mori (Animal Forest), a Japan-exclusive title originally planned for the Nintendo 64’s disk drive add-on before its commercial flop, landing it on a basic Nintendo 64 cartridge. Because the N64 lacked a ticking clock that the disk drive would have provided, they had to compromise by implementing the hardware feature into the cartridge itself, powered by a limited battery. It was eventually released despite technical struggles in April of 2001, once again only in Japan.
Because the N64 was on its way out with the GameCube gracing the market later that year, Dōbutsu no Mori was upgraded with shiny new features and ported to the system as Dōbutsu no Mori+, taking advantage of the GameCube’s built-in clock. It was wildly successful for a new IP and released to positive critical reception, thus leading to a little country in the west picking up on the little series that potentially could. Nintendo of America employees that had tried the game ended up in love, causing the company to fully localize the GameCube title as Animal Crossing: Population Growing! on September 16th, 2002 with even more added content to perform in the western market. Nintendo of Japan was impressed again by the English release, and worked the American content into another release in Japan as Dōbutsu no Mori e+.
Animal Crossing’s success worked to prove that the dead “sim” genre had widespread appeal. This lead to its first real sequel, incorporating elements to unite the region-specific features, like holidays, into one global experience. Thanks to the Nintendo DS being well, the Nintendo DS, Animal Crossing: Wild World took the series formula to a portable package in 2005 that sold incredibly well, reaching the wide casual demographic that the DS attracted in spades. By spreading the charm and relaxation of the Animal Forest franchise further than ever, Wild World had officially cemented the series as a success and a dominating intellectual property for Nintendo. This led to Animal Crossing: City Folk in 2008 on everyone’s favorite-least-favorite console, the Wii.
Once again, because the Wii’s status as the Nintendo Wii, Animal Crossing reached even further. However, City Folk stood as one of the lower points in the series up to this point, hardly pushing the franchise’s ideas further like the previous titles had done so well. While it was still a good game in its own right, its lack of originality led to a lesser overall reception than before. I can already sense you trembling at this thought, but do not fear, for an awakening was on the horizon for the series.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf dropped on the Nintendo 3DS in 2013 (2012 in Japan), introducing a major spin on the formula by turning the player into the mayor of their own animal town, giving more political power than ever and a gameplay wrinkle that evolved the series exactly in a way that 2008 critics craved in City Folk.
And thus, I have now touched on every major step of the series combined with my article from last year where I explained the recent history. Animal Crossing was a series born out of loneliness and a man’s love for his family and thanks to its successful past with a relatively few number of releases, it exists today and one of Nintendo’s most successful franchises. Now, let’s take a look at perhaps its best release so far and try to understand what makes the series so wildly unique.
If you’re unaware, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has a setup focusing on building an island from the ground up with the help of Tom Nook and friends. Dubbed the “Nook Inc. Deserted Island Getaway Package,” the premise is immediately enticing because it takes a step back from Animal Crossing to evaluate what makes the game tick—something that was required in a time like today where Nintendo is releasing genre and series defining games like Breath of the Wild, Mario Odyssey, and Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Instead of being thrown into an already mostly established town like in previous games, New Horizons offers the opportunity to craft every inch of the deserted island into a prosperous community. This includes the so, so much requested feature of placing furniture anywhere in the outdoors environment alongside a brand new crafting system that fits seamlessly into the established experience. Being able to farm for resources and throw together some furniture to make a nice park area without ever entering a shop is a tremendous step for the series, even if it sounds pretty basic in a vacuum.
Back to the Island Getaway Package, kindly offered by Tom Nook’s supercorporation, the “plot” of the game brings the player and two animal friends to place tents and pay off their travel fees in an overgrown land. While I could have been cheeky and treated this like all of Nintendo’s marketing has, talking about the Getaway Package rather than itself as a video game, I’ll spare the confusion that could arise there.
Being on a deserted island, initially, sets up an atmospheric shift that the series hasn’t experienced before, one that almost feels survivalist like the first time you entered a Minecraft world. It feels modest, because you can see this beautiful landscape that is at your future command and no matter what island you arrive at, it is surely going to spark bucket loads of ideas for how much potential it holds.
With all the new gameplay changes, it’s still Animal Crossing at its core. Fishing and catching bugs is as fun as ever, but this time, Tom Nook has monetized every basic act. Nook Miles are a program almost like an achievement system that rewards the island residents for tiny milestones with the Nook Miles currency. Catch 5 fish? That’s a few hundred miles. Talk to all your residents? A bunch more miles. Spend miles? Miles. Not only does this new system give series newcomers a sense of direction and accomplishment, it acts as a currency alongside bells. The Island Getaway Package travel expense is fully paid in Nook Miles, so Tom Nook graciously lets the residents pay off their vacation by just doing basic tasks in the neighborhood. And later in the game, Miles can be spent on unique furniture, clothing, flight tickets, and more so that bells, the traditional money, can be reserved for more typical island projects and expenses.
The first real-time week of the game almost acts as a tutorial before the town hall is built, reaching a state that feels familiar from past games. Blathers, the archeological-geek owl who’s hoo-rrified of bugs, returns in New Horizons as the Museum curator once again. His museum building “quest”-line is one of the first objectives on the island. After bringing him a few bugs and fish, he will start working on the construction of the Island’s museum and gives the residents access to shovels which can dig up fossils for said museum. While we’re at the topic of the museum, oooh man, once that thing is built, what lies inside is one of the most gorgeously stylized buildings I’ve seen in a game. It is so atmospheric with dynamic music and lighting and creates a similar feeling to a real museum. The fossil area shows dinosaurs at a colossal scale and has genuine educational qualities. The bug exhibit features terrain that is absolutely bursting with life once many are donated. And the fish area feels exciting with beautifully rendered water and explorable tanks that offer close up views to the realistically detailed marine life. It’s downright mesmerizing to experience for the first time, and just the fact that it’s so overtly cute offers a real push to donate instead of sell that I didn’t find present in past titles.
One interesting (offensively bad, to say the least) element of the early game is the music. In the week before the town hall is built, one song plays every hour of every day. The same song rings endlessly with a simple guitar melody, inescapable on the land you call your home. It’s a good song, for maybe the first twenty hours. But when you are playing as much as I was during this time, that song becomes almost physically painful to hear. I might be exaggerating slightly, but it stands as such a weird design choice that I cannot fathom the logic behind it. The only idea I have is that, once it’s over, thinking back to the early island does have a different, almost nostalgic, vibe to it; maybe that’s what they were going for. Regardless, once the town hall was built, I never had to hear that ceaseless noise ever again and the iconic hourly soundtrack of the series sets in.
The biggest core shift in New Horizons is probably the crafting system, and it is almost hard to believe that it is a series first considering how well it fits into the experience. Before, there were a few main things to collect each day: fish, bugs, fossils, and bells, but now, crafting materials like wood, stone, and weeds are all available every day, giving so many more tasks to do at any given moment. Additionally, crafting recipes must be acquired over time to make stuff, so DIY Recipes act as another core collectible that is exciting to expand in your personal arsenal over time. It all combines into a system that really just fits so perfectly as an additional pillar of the monotonous life, while even giving more personality to each player’s experience that can be shared as everyone will have access to different crafting possibilities.
After the Town Hall is constructed, the island is shaping into a lively town full of residents the player personally invited, shopping opportunities, and regular visitors. The game is beginning to reveal the core loop of Animal Crossing. Tom Nook offers construction of inclines and bridges to tame the terrain and Isabelle provides help with defining the island to fit any personality with custom town tunes, flags, and manage villagers. While bridges and inclines still act similar to public works projects in New Leaf, outdoor objects that would have normally taken weeks to build can be acquired with Miles and crafted in minutes. Animal Crossing is all about customization, so being able to finally really customize the outdoors is magnificent.
That outside customization goes even further with the Island Designer app that brings terraforming to the series. Once a certain point is reached, island residents have total control of the landscape and water formations of the island and the ability to lay paths. It almost feels Minecraft-y, being able to destroy and construct cliffs and shape the world piece by piece. It’s a magnificent addition that just nails in the idea of adding more personal options to every element of the game with all the new features like customizing furniture with designs as well.
Now that most of the feature stuff is out of the way, how does it all come together to create a video game experience? Well, it’s Animal Crossing alright, but tastier than ever. The series offers an experience of extremely slow, but deeply meaningful progress for the player. New Horizons feels like the full realization of the experience the series was always trying to create, probably because there are not many technical limitations holding anything back now. New Horizons shows progress, not only literal progress in the game, but progress in the series, in Nintendo, in life. I have always had a recurring thought of imagining how Nintendo games will look in the future as the medium grows on impressive hardware, pumping out jaw dropping visuals that almost make the real world pale in comparison, but for each generational shift, even as Nintendo lags a bit behind, they eventually catch up in this department. The GameCube’s games caught up to the PS2, the Wii U caught up with the Xbox 360, it all eventually happens. What I’m getting at is the fact that sometimes it's hard to visualize the future of what Nintendo games will look like when provided with more and more zigaflops, and New Horizons is no exception. When I was playing New Leaf and thinking how they will top that decently attractive game, I visualized amiibo Festival. I could have never imagined the next mainline release would be such a technical marvel as New Horizons is.
Nintendo has put out some pristine-looking games. Luigi’s Mansion 3, Link’s Awakening, and even still Mario Kart 8 are recent highlights of games that look completely modern and graphically beautiful. To think that Animal Crossing would feature some of their most impressive graphics yet was a nonexistent pipedream, yet New Horizons is stunningly beautiful at times and exactly, perfectly, magically captures the exact vibe of the world. It uses much lighter, pastel colors than in series past and brightly emphasizes lighting effects that bring the real world’s timely feelings caused by the sun right into the video game.
This all combines to make such a warm, cozy world to enter. Not only do the visuals pull you in, but the music, the characters, the style, it all builds this warm contentment that doesn’t let you leave. The animal villagers are adorable, smart, and well-written. The music ages finely alongside the world as the hourly tunes burn emotional connections to small moments in your mind. It simply, undeniably, has an inescapable effect of… making me smile inside and out.
When you were a kid and first became enthralled by a video game, probably a Mario, a Zelda, or maybe even a Call of Duty, it consumed your thoughts. Life doesn’t have much going on yet, so school, sleep, eating time, is all enveloped in the longing to play the game again. There’s a sense of wonder and anticipation to go back to explore more and have more unforgettable experiences, something that only the medium of video games can do. I first felt such a feeling when I played The Wind Waker and I probably haven’t felt that same child-like wonder since, well… Dragon Quest XI. But that emphasizes the point because it shows how in later life, even the most incredible video game experiences come and go, you can’t spend an entire summer replaying one game and discovering its deepest secrets anymore, even the best games ever created give a ride of joy that you get off of when the ride comes to an end. Yet, Animal Crossing, following a recurring theme here, is just different. It captures that youthful thrill of anticipation every single day in a way unlike any other game can. Nothing is like Animal Crossing. When I’m playing a great video game and it clicks that I’m experiencing a masterpiece of art, I’m chasing that high where the story and the gameplay climax to make me think, ‘yes, this is it, I love this.’ Animal Crossing doesn’t have that, there are no high points of excitement where my mind is blown and everything clicks. But it has its own thing: a completely unique slow burn of satisfaction not present in any other game.
Regardless of how good the game is, like every game, Animal Crossing is not for everyone. It’s pretty common to hear people say, “If you like Stardew Valley or The Sims, you will like Animal Crossing.” This is not true. Animal Crossing is completely unique. Even though it holds pretty closely to being in the sim genre, it is far different because of its realtime elements and slow grind to satisfaction. Stardew Valley is not like Animal Crossing, because nothing is like Animal Crossing. The game is especially not for people who have no interest in those games. If you think you might not be into the series, you’re probably right, but there’s a good chance you are wrong. More people are getting into New Horizons than even Nintendo could have imagined, it has such a broad appeal and offers a flexible experience that it simultaneously is for anybody and not for everybody.
While I might be singing the praises for what New Horizons brings to the table for the series formula and as an experience on the Switch, don’t get the idea that it is somehow a perfect game. To the perspective of some, Animal Crossing could be considered deeply flawed. I’ve gone on record saying that it ultimately is a boring game, but in all the right ways. But really, any negative present in the game is deep-rooted in either Nintendo or the formula. The biggest, objectively negative problem with this title is the execution of the online component. Sharing your town and spending time with friends has always been a series staple, even on the DS, and while New Horizons is not worse in this department, it’s not much better either. Just like in New Leaf, to welcome a friend to your town, you have to go into a building, talk to a guy, tell him to open the gate for online play, wait for him to connect to online, then finally your island is now in online mode. Next, your friends have to go to the same spot on their island, talk to the same guy, get connected to the online mode, search for your island, then commence a flight. While it is somewhat cute and endearing to have the flight elements happen, there is a painfully long loading screen that everyone has to wait through to arrive at an island—for every single player visiting the island. It is 2020, this should have been streamlined to a button on the Nook Phone (the device that handles most menu actions) to allow visitors, and have friends just come and go without the loading screens that take dozens of minutes out of the gameplay. The only real improvement over the previous title in the online department is the ability to send letters to friends which is a super great, much appreciated feature that the game benefits tremendously from.
To unfortunately note another negative, the multiplayer experience in general is a bit shaky. In the first Animal Crossing game, it was a big part of Eguchi’s ideals to create a game that family could bond over, even when not playing together. This meant that each family member playing on the console would have a house in the same town and would see the progress of everyone, being able to leave notes, gifts, and surprises. He wanted to be able to help people bond even when their schedules didn’t line up, and this multiplayer experience has continued throughout the series, even to today. On a single Nintendo Switch console, each user lives on the same island. This is either a great thing as it was in the days of old, or a painful restriction that is highlighted even further by the advancements in freedom of expression in the series. If some siblings don’t want to live together, their only option right now (this is subject to change with updates) is to get another Switch. This gets close to the line of… questionable business practices, encouraging people to buy more consoles to have a feature that could have been an option. That being said, there are more known and probably unknown factors to it. There is a software limitation with the Switch’s OS that can’t handle the option between a pooled save and individual islands that hasn’t been solved that also prevents Cloud Saves from being available yet. Because of this, I have a hard time believing that it was a decision made by the developers to hurt consumers, but a choice that had to be made to keep that original experience that many people look for in multiplayer Animal Crossing. Hey, New Horizons even introduced local multiplayer with the Joy-con so siblings, partners, or friends can all play on the same screen with one console.
With those out of the way, I want to make it clear that these are minor problems (especially for me, being a lone player) that could potentially change as the game is going to evolve. As a first for the series, being released not in 2013, regular updates and events are planned to occur similarly to Splatoon. While it’s not exactly clear how grand these updates will be, we know based on the early April “Bunny Day” event and the fact that Animal Crossing and Splatoon share a dev team, that updates will likely incorporate player feedback and mix up the gameplay content. Even based on some data mining, we know that some familiar faces will likely return in the future. To be frank, I really like this system. While it might not work in some games and might make people feel like they bought an incomplete game, firstly, it’s free updates, and secondly, it fits right into the spirit of this series especially. The excitement that makes it so enticing is waking up on a new day ready to see what your efforts have created from the days before and what new things mights happen based on the season or day of the week, so having updates that expand the game over time will unite the playerbase to get new surprises as the updates are rolled out.
Touching on that excitement one last time, it cannot be understated how the magic touch of the series is what New Horizons brings out so elegantly. The island is surprisingly huge, giving so much space to just do... anything. I have never been big on the cosmetic and decoration side of most games, but this one somehow makes me excited to fill every inch of the island with life, and even more excited to share it with others. For every lap that I take around the island, my mind is filled with more project ideas to beautify the land in the future, making me excited to play more. And this simply wouldn't be as powerful if it weren't for the slow progress of Animal Crossing. Any progress made on the island, in my house, for my collection, just wouldn't have the same impact if it was fast. It costs 50,000 Bells in New Horizons to move on building, and that's fantastic. If it was possible to change the entire town layout in a day without much limitation, the fun found in the mundane would cease to exist. You can't achieve your dreams in a day.
Overall, the game experience of Animal Crossing is one that you absolutely "get out of it what you put into it". Effort in island beautification pays off big time in satisfaction because it is slow and completely optionally good. So while you can "cheat" the system by placing random furniture without a thought, putting care and heart into it is far more rewarding. Similarly, villagers only grow interesting after spending time near them. Putting the effort to write a nicely worded letter to an animal friend has the same in-game effect as typing random words, but it just feels better to commit fully to the experience, and New Horizons really pays that commitment back over time as the fruits of your dedication are harvested with an island full of life because of the hand-crafted efforts that only you get to feel pride in (unless you're playing in multiplayer).
If you’ve stuck with me this far, I applaud your commitment and attention span that shows that you probably do have the mental stamina to play Animal Crossing to its fullest. Anybody that has tried to sell the idea of the series to someone knows how difficult it is to convey its appeal. It is a fundamentally boring and slow experience that should in no way have the broad appeal that it does, and yet, New Horizons is the fastest selling game on Nintendo’s fastest selling console yet. Everyone and their dog is playing the game, and taking in its slow magnificence. Animal Crossing has always had benefits for many with its relaxing, jolly escapism, and New Horizons brings the best out of its time tested formula. And as we all know, for a time where the world exists as it does right now, it is deeply beneficial for so many people for Nintendo to have released this game.
Animal Crossing was a series born out of loneliness, and New Horizons succeeds at the original vision. If it takes away the loneliness for some, even if just for a second, that’s a win; and if it gives people a sense of pride and accomplishment, even if just a little, then that’s a major win. No other game series can have the same impact in the same way as New Horizons does—because there is truly nothing quite like Animal Crossing.
But hey, if you wanted a score, or a call to action, or something, sorry, because that’s all the time I’ve got. I’ve got to get back to playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons on my Nintendo Switch.