While reviewing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the year’s first major Nintendo Switch-exclusive game, I was pretty distracted. I received my review copy of the game at the end of February, pretty much the moment when my hometown of Seattle went on high alarm over coronavirus fears. As each day passed, citizens were encouraged to become more vigilant: to work from home, avoid large gatherings, engage in “social distancing,” adjust travel plans, and otherwise reduce contact with the outside world.
As such, my impressions of Animal Crossing: New Horizons will be forever colored by how it fit neatly into a quarantined life—and I imagine I won’t be alone in that impression.
For nearly every real-life scenario that I’ve become anxious about, I’ve gotten a comforting virtual version on my new Nintendo-designed island. Yes, I can go to friends’ houses (friends who happen to be cute, anthropomorphic animals). Yes, I can go shopping. I can help strangers with everyday tasks. I can wander freely and finish a series of zen-like errands and chores. And I can hop on a plane and fly to other islands without facing scrutiny from community leaders (which, in this game, is a talking, sweater-wearing raccoon named Tom Nook).
I say all this to admit my bias. In spite of the “New Horizons” subtitle, this game leans heavily on existing mechanics, systems, characters, and even Easter eggs. Which isn’t a bad thing—especially for anyone who somehow missed the game’s last monstrous entry on the 3DS in 2012. As a longtime Animal Crossing fan, I have loved slipping into something comfortable, and that’s been doubly delightful with an incredible HD-resolution overhaul. But even in my cozy, quarantined apartment, where the game’s repetition and old-school sensibilities shined brightly, I found myself puzzled and annoyed by just enough content to furrow my brow.
Only slightly, however. I have really enjoyed playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and it’s the kind of game that will reinforce whatever bias you bring into it. If you’re a lifelong AC fan, or if the idea of a pre-Internet, “building a community” sandbox video game sounds deliriously quaint, this will be in your year-end top-ten list. If older games hooked you at the outset, then lost your interest, this version’s updates have you in mind the most. And if older games in the series have left you cold, or if you don’t much care for sandbox-y, building-and-gardening games, New Horizons has left too much the exact same to change your mind.
So let’s treat the game like a Tom Nook field of flowers: stop to smell the roses, then pick the interspersed weeds.
Clearing the air about what this game is not
What is Animal Crossing? On a macro level, the series lands somewhere between a feng shui simulator and a digital version of a bonsai tree. You go about life in a small town, do errands, talk to your colorful neighbors (all packed with reams of text, matched to the sound of 8-bit digital gibberish), accumulate and arrange furniture, and take on a series of admittedly repetitive tasks.
However, the series’ identity has been sullied in recent years by the smartphone-only spinoff Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. If you’d only seen that game, you might assume the Animal Crossing series is a cheap Farmville clone, because the 2017 smartphone version is everything that the AC series’ best games are not. It has microtransactions for items and perks. It has timers, which you can pay real money to accelerate. It has a subscription service. And, crucially, its gameplay has been altered significantly from the original to remind you, through its systems and quirks, that you can get the coolest, best, and fastest stuff by spending in-game tokens.
I don’t blame Nintendo for trying to make a buck, but Animal Crossing is the most shameful series to get this kind of free-to-play translation. The original series shines because it revolves around the exact opposite philosophy. It drops you into a town with very little to do. There’s no “quest” to speak of, no villain, and no major conflict. Every 24 hours in real time, certain elements of your aimless little town are updated. Sometimes, you have to wait two or three whole days for updates, content, or surprises. And if you try to cheat by manually ticking the game’s clock forward, and somehow screw that up, the game will notice your trickery and punish you.
Get it? The original series (and, thankfully, its new Switch game) told you to slow down. The smartphone game lets you spend money to speed up.
Nintendo’s first version of Animal Crossing, a Japan-exclusive N64 game, was an early example of the “cute simulation” genre, right there with the Super Nintendo classic Harvest Moon. Even within that small niche, Animal Crossing‘s limitations, repetition, and sluggish speed make it a one-of-a-kind experience. And its unmistakable charms have only grown more compelling in a world where its mantra of “play a little bit every day,” which was once unique, has been spoiled by free-to-play games. Nowadays, that sales pitch comes with the malicious intent of getting players hooked, then charging them for microtransactions.
AC:NH‘s first great success is in threading the needle between that classic mantra of patience and giving addicted players more to do when they want (without charging them more money). Like in prior installments, the game starts with players moving into a sparsely populated village—in this case, a remote island—and being informally tasked with helping the village develop. That impetus is doubly emphasized by AC:NH‘s island gimmick, because your new home is billed as a getaway to an uninhabited island. Your travel agents, the Nook family of raccoons, decide upon your arrival that, hey, maybe we should all stay on this island—and work on building homes and other infrastructure to attract residents and create a fully fledged town.
Miles and crafts
This brings us to the two biggest jolts to the old formula: a crafting system and a new currency for completing various tasks, dubbed “Nook Miles.” Both of these in their current pre-release implementation are good, because they each offer an extra pipeline of optional, satisfying busywork—without breaking the series’ emphasis on patience and long-term play.
Nook Miles work a lot like “achievements” or “trophies” on other game consoles, only cranked to maximum. Animal Crossing games include a lot of little tasks that players can do in a given session, and these range from daily chores (talk to all of your island neighbors, harvest flowers and fruits when they grow, pick any extraneous weeds) to uncommon opportunities (help a stranger who stumbles upon your island, buy special once-per-week items at the market). The Nook Miles system tracks pretty much every task imaginable in a massive laundry list that players can easily scroll through, and each category includes multiple tiers of completion. You’ll get a little reward once you’ve caught ten fish from nearby rivers, ponds, and ocean shores. There’s a bigger reward for catching 200 fish. Get up to the thousands, and an even bigger reward awaits.
A few days into your island’s life, Tom Nook unveils a clever “Miles Plus” system with additional, easily attainable rewards for random tasks. Some of these dole out a few more Nook Miles for things you’d already do by the end of a given day (catch five bugs, water five plants). Others may nudge novice players into trying new things. (The first time someone sees a reward for “banging a stone with a shovel five times,” they might finally learn the series’ classic gimmick: you can get items this way, and you can get more items if you block your villager’s feet so they stay still while you bang multiple times in a row.) After completing the day’s first five Miles Plus objectives, additional objectives are worth fewer points. They’ll still pay off, just not as much.
These points flow pretty freely, and they can be spent on a narrow, yet large, assortment of items and boosts that can’t be gotten any other way. Nintendo balances this tremendously: you’ll feel rewarded for following various reward options, yet there’s also a clear wall you’ll run into if you focus on them too much. Nook Miles only get you so far in the game, and their bigger payoffs come from tasks that you’ll naturally complete in the course of weeks of play. The result is easily Nintendo’s best take on the practice yet, and that’s a big compliment, considering Nintendo consoles have never included achievements as a default on a console.
Crafting, on the other hand, feels like something that you could have sworn was in previous Animal Crossing games, because its system fits so neatly into the traditional progression. As usual, you can spend in-game money on tools, items, clothes, and more (a currency still known as “bells”), but you can now also transform detritus found on your island into many of those things. At the outset, you’ll find a lot of sticks and wood on your island, thanks to an abundance of trees, and these are the building blocks for a ton of the game’s basic items.
Nintendo does a neat job of spacing this progression out, as well. Every one to three days, another few pieces in the crafting system drop onto your island. For example, you need to learn recipes for each item you might craft, which you can gain from finding bottled messages on the ocean shore, talking to neighbors, buying them from the Nook’s Cranny store, or other ways. Then you eventually need to find additional materials, which might be in limited supply, or only appear on specific days of the week, or even require traveling to other towns and islands.
Now, instead of waiting for random items to appear in a “buy now or they’re gone for a while” fashion (which is still one way to get stuff), you can additionally make plans for what you’ll build next based on your recipe catalog. The series has always emphasized putting together “matching” sets of furniture, for example, and I really enjoyed having a handful of matching pieces’ recipes and building specifically toward their completion. My “citrus and seashells” bedroom is nowhere near completion, but it’s in my sights.
But what if you want to share your Switch?
Before I get down to listing little things I liked and disliked, I should get my loudest complaint out of the way: New Horizons kinda stinks as a shared experience for multiple people on the same console.
Let’s say you plan to buy the game for your entire household and share a single copy with a partner or kids. Like in previous Animal Crossing games, this means all residents become individual characters in a village, and they each get their own house and their own progression track (particularly in paying off Tom Nook’s loans for an expanded house). There is no way to create multiple islands on a single console, should people prefer to have a village to themselves. Each new island requires buying an additional copy of the game and an additional Switch, due to how Nintendo has structured AC:NH‘s save files.
Maybe that structure is fine by you and your likely Switch-sharing posse. Like in older games, this sharing style promotes some cute moments, including the ability to leave surprises on neighbors’ virtual front lawns or have the game’s non-player characters (NPC) refer to your real-life friends in conversation. If so, you should still be warned that only one of your island’s residents will be treated as a first-class citizen.
Whoever turns the game on first is dubbed the “Resident Representative.” Tom Nook immediately puts most of the island’s progress on their shoulders. A few early, tutorial-like missions, including building the island’s first store and welcoming the island’s first new additional residents, can only be accessed by this person. Logically, that makes a certain sense, since all players are able to affect the island; why would Tom Nook ask each player to build the island’s “first” general goods store? But Nintendo didn’t come up with alternative island-building ventures for each additional resident who moves in.
Worse, only the Resident Representative can build some of the biggest updates for each island, from a new series of bridges and incline ramps (designed to let players move more quickly through the series’ largest villages yet) to sillier customizations like the town’s flag and song. If you’d like to contribute to any of this stuff or any of the quirky village-building missions (particularly an early mission that revolves around inviting a “celebrity” to your island), secondary players will have to coordinate in real life with the Resident Representative.
I had high hopes that the game’s local-multiplayer mode, in which up to four players run around on the same island at the same time, would be fun for families or friends to share on the same couch. And, sure enough, it’s a cute way to involve a larger group in a relaxing sweep through the village’s various chores. But its camera doesn’t zoom out very far, and worse, this style of play only really works if everyone is on board with its required hoops to jump through. First, additional players must register as new island residents and go through the full tutorial sequence before they can join in. Second, they’re hamstrung in same-screen play, as anything they accumulate or pick up during a session must be given back to “Player One” at the end.
It’s just an exercise in assisting someone else. In spite of this, Nintendo does not include a “guest” option, should you have zero personal investment in a character’s progress and just want to help Player One pick up more seashells, fish, insects, and the like. If you’d like to hand a controller to a kid or a guest and have them run around your village as a helper, you’ll have to go to the trouble of moving so many residents into your village and running the tutorial sequence for each possible guest, in advance.
In other words: if you care about accumulating junk in Animal Crossing, playing as a “companion” isn’t for you. And if you don’t care about accumulating junk in Animal Crossing, playing this way might not be for you, either.
Trashy front yard
Other than the two new systems I described above, AC:NH (in its current state) is not significantly different from other console versions on a mechanical level. How much so? I’ve been able to rely on existing online FAQs for nearly everything I’ve stumbled upon in my two-week pre-release testing period. When NPCs have arrived with offers or requests, I’ve generally seen them before. The “stalk market” still happens every Sunday. Your island gets a museum, and it still revolves around your donations of fish, insects, and buried fossils (and nothing else). And on and on and on.
The exception to this familiarity is that AC:NH spreads its introduced concepts out pretty thinly. As of press time, for example, I haven’t seen a coffee shop open up on my island with a snooty barista pigeon serving refined espresso. I had to wait various amounts of time for familiar stores like Nook’s Cranny and the Able Sisters’ fashion shop to open their doors, which is similar to how shops opened over time in 2012’s New Leaf. But even this is handled differently in AC:NH, as this time, I was given crafting-related missions to spur them into being built. Think of it like a “legacy” board game. Instead of booting AC:NH and having a shop-filled town ready for you, you get to instead permanently press a sharpie onto your town to decide where major elements go.
That malleability extends to an offer from Tom Nook to move your home around the island at a later time, or build bridges and inclines, for a fee. As I mentioned earlier, AC:NH‘s towns are the biggest in a console entry yet: 36 “square acres,” if each acre measures 16 objects long by 16 objects wide. (As a comparison point, the towns in the 2012 3DS game measure 30 square acres.) Nintendo has opted to split your island up with rivers and harsh plateaus, and by the fourth day on your island, you should receive the vaulting pole and the ladder to scale each, respectively. Which is to say: the option to build bridges and inclines is a faster way to contend with the game’s new “pull an item out to reach certain zones” annoyance, and nothing more. I could’ve lived without this change, or at least with the pole and ladder being combined into a single tool; there’s a lot of tool-swapping in Animal Crossing, after all, and cutting even one tool would spare me roughly 7,000,000 button taps in the game’s lifespan.
Speaking of tools: a new quick-switch tool wheel brings up a radial menu of eight tools on the fly, and it’s a much faster way to get from your shovel to your fishing rod than repeatedly tapping the d-pad. This is met with a welcome jump in default “pocket” inventory size, up to 20 items and tools (some of which stack) at the outset and expandable to at least 40 items within the game’s first two weeks. If that’s not enough, your home comes with a massive storage pool by default, and that grows every time you pay off a Nook loan for an expansion.
If you’re a series addict, you’ll appreciate this tweak to the game: you’re now encouraged to decorate the entirety of your island. You’ll still receive ratings and rewards for decorating your home’s interior, but now you’re asked to create outdoor gardens, complete with a variety of fence types and other outdoor-friendly collections of decorations in an effort to raise your town‘s rating. In other words, you get bonus points for designing a trashy front yard.
As an obvious follow-up question: yes, you can get pink flamingos. (So far, I’ve found a nice matching set of “Mr. Flamingo” and “Mrs. Flamingo.” I’m still keeping an eye out for “Baby Flamingo” to finish the spot in front of my New Horizons house. You know, right next to the inflatable above-ground pool.)
A stunner in looks and sounds
How do you remake Animal Crossing for its first 1080p-capable platform? Like this. The game isn’t shy on zooming in to every anthropomorphized animal you talk to, and they all look cute as hell this way. Since we get many repeats from previous games in the series, Nintendo is careful to bulk up the polygon count and visual effects without ruining the original super-simple designs that have been adored for 20 years. Basically, everybody has been designed to look the way the old Wii console’s “Mii” characters should have looked: bold, clear, cartoony, and detailed. Though, clearly, the Wii couldn’t have rendered some of this game’s best stuff. Fur and clothing, in particular, come with realistically dense textures, and Nintendo’s design team has implemented some incredible material-based lighting effects and handsome, high-resolution shadow effects.
From a technology perspective, all of these updated visuals still lock to a firm 30 frames-per-second refresh, all while maxing the Switch’s pixel resolution (1080p docked, 720p in portable mode). Like in older games, the game’s camera remains fixed on a limited perspective, and AC:NH seems to make the most of this FOV limitation by turning the dial up on every handsome visual effect imaginable.
Say goodbye to cheaply implemented 2D sprites mixed into the 3D antics. If you pick up an object in this game, it’s always rendered in 3D. If you catch a fish, your celebratory pose with your catch includes a nice shot of Nintendo’s 3D handiwork, typically in the form of insanely detailed fish models. And if you think that sounds rad, get a load of Blathers’ dizzying ornate museum. The dinosaur fossil collection, in particular, is a sight to behold once you start putting entire skeletons together (which, as usual, requires finding and donating their random fossils over a period of weeks).
You’ll have to play for about a week before you unlock the game’s “different song every hour of the day” tweak, and for some players, this soothing, masterfully orchestrated soundtrack will be worth the cost of entry alone. Nintendo’s use of real-life instruments, including acoustic guitar, upright bass, and trumpet, lands delicately in a mix of familiar and brand-new melodies that are all otherwise anchored by synthesized organ and keyboard tones reminiscent of a 16-bit game. The combination, like so much of this game, is charming.
Not enough touch, plenty of feels
Beyond my multiplayer gripes, my biggest complaint is the new game’s lack of touchscreen support. As much as I loathe the way the smartphone-only Pocket Camp was poisoned with microtransactions, it’s quite dreamy to control, thanks to context-sensitive tapping options. Tap a tree to chop; tap a plant to pluck; tap an open spot of water to fish; or just tap the screen to move. After that, returning to joysticks and buttons is a bit of a bummer. Even with the tool-switching radial menu, you’re still expected to pick an item, then position your character just so, then use your item in the correct direction. Aiming my shovel to dig the exact spots I want continues to make me groan. And having to line up my fishing rod’s casts from a top-down perspective, in hopes that I’ve cast them in a way that a nearby fish will notice and react, often feels downright tedious. If you’re not fluent with gamepads, or expect to share this game with a controller-hating novice, be warned. You’re going back to a circa-2000 control archetype.
Weirdly, the game does support the Switch’s touchscreen when you either write a letter at the post office or post a message on the town’s bulletin board. Doing this makes it easy to draw on the screen with a finger, which is fun. However, the game also includes a series-standard option to draw and design your own flags, shirts, and signs… yet this mode does not include touch support. This is a game all about collecting cute outfits. Why do I have to use a clumsy joystick to enjoy one of the cooler outfit-personalization options?
One small complaint I have that many players may shrug off is that the crafting system includes one apparent drawback in the game’s first few weeks: tools that break. Roughly once every 36 hours, I have to use crafting materials to replace items like the fishing rod, the net, and the shovel, because these things keep breaking (and they break more frequently in the first four days, before you unlock “sturdier” recipes). This reminds me of Nintendo’s similar gimmick in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, only with a much longer “ugh, I gotta run back to a work bench” ordeal when stuff breaks. I pray that I eventually unlock “durable” versions of the tools.
And I must raise a Nook-sized eyebrow at the game’s ESRB rating, which, as of press time, warns that the game will eventually include “in-game purchases.” What shape will these take? Nintendo representatives didn’t answer this question as of press time, and the game’s pre-release version doesn’t include hints. This could be anything: “expansion packs” a la The Sims, a la carte purchases of cosmetics, or converting real-world money to the game’s virtual currency. No mainline Animal Crossing game has ever included these kinds of post-launch purchases, and if Pocket Camp is the example to look to, I’m not excited in the slightest.
The only comfort I take in that regard is how much content, and how many surprises, I’ve already stumbled upon in the game’s offline, “1.0” version. Meaning: if I never connect this game to the Internet or to any add-on purchases, I expect to be kept in a zen-like, busybee state whenever I get the urge to boot my island up and knock out 20-30 minutes of virtual tasks and decorating, especially as more seasonal events unfold in the coming months.
I must concede that Nintendo kept New Horizon‘s design risks to an utter minimum. Animal Crossing‘s core loop of activities hasn’t been updated with, say, putting together an arboretum with a massive variety of fauna, or a crafting system that enables fine-tuned, Minecraft-like pieces out of blocks, or letting players burrow a hole into an underground alternate universe. Instead, they focused on taking what is already beloved and winning over lapsed players with more stuff, big and small, to accomplish in a given session.
People will talk about this game as an ideal escape during uncertain current events, but I’d like to emphasize how much I enjoyed AC:NH even when I had other viable social and outdoor entertainment options. Animal Crossing games have always delivered a compelling version of self-quarantine, and this one overflows with quantity, without sacrificing quality, to do so at a scale series fans have never seen. Consider this a very high recommendation for anyone who thinks shooting the breeze with neon-colored, gym-loving ponies and hot-pink, coffee-chugging kangaroos is a great idea for a video game.
- The classic Animal Crossing formula returns, and this version’s newest systems give on-the-fence players more to do without disturbing the original series’ vision of patient, long-term play.
- Building your island piece by piece expands upon New Leaf’s mayor gimmick and adds a satisfying layer of progression.
- Nothing about the game’s pre-release state resembles the obnoxious gating and prodding found in the smartphone-only Pocket Camp.
- Aesthetic upgrade nails the series’ simple, cartoony aesthetic while still making room for handsome, high-tech upgrades.
- You couldn’t ask for a better Animal Crossing game soundtrack.
- If you thought older AC games were broken, this game’s subtle upgrades won’t seem like a fix.
- Lack of touchscreen support is a real bummer after seeing the smartphone version implement welcome touch options.
- Jeepers, virtual islander, can’t you face the correct direction so I can cast this freaking line and catch this freaking fish?!
- Until Nintendo tells us what the game’s teased microtransactions are, we have to assume the worst. (Should this matter be clarified in a positive manner, then we have nothing for “the ugly” beyond, like, losing a lot of productivity to the sinkhole that is Tom Nook’s bidding.)
Verdict: Buy. Your quarantined soul will thank you.
Listing image by Nintendo