It has been one year since Animal Crossing: New Horizons released and we first stepped onto a weed-filled island at the behest of a greedy raccoon. So much has changed. But at least on our Switch, it’s been a wonderful year.
Miss You Like Crazy
In 2001, 21-year-old Katsuya Eguchi moved from the Chiba Prefecture to Nintendo’s Kyoto office. He missed his family, and that feeling inspired a game. Twenty years later, amid a worldwide crisis, the universal longing for human-to-human connection was everywhere, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons arrived at that moment to meet it.
Eguchi said of that time in his life, “I realized that being close to them – being able to spend time with [family and friends], talk to them, play with them – was such a great, important thing. I wondered for a long time if there would be a way to recreate that feeling, and that was the impetus behind the original Animal Crossing.”
Great Game, Perfect Timing
The dire circumstance surrounding the timing of New Horizons‘ release undoubtedly leant itself to the game’s worldwide success, gathering new fans from across the cultural spectrum. But it also helps that the newest Animal Crossing is simply an excellent game.
New Horizons is the evolution of a long-running series, and stripped of the context of a world in quarantine, it is still a pinnacle for the franchise. Animal Crossing has always been an adorable social simulation game that has grown iteratively. And while Animal Crossing still has some room to grow, this latest edition is the finest yet.
Originally released in Japan for the N64 in 2001, the first Animal Crossing was created by the Eguchi along with Hisashi Nogami, and published by our monolithic friend, Nintendo. It arrived titled Dobutso no Mori, which roughly translates to the arguably-more-logical Animal Forest.
In its infancy, much was already alive in this forest, always dedicated to, as Eguchi said, “family, friendship, and community.” You, a cute little human, moved into a cute little town and met cute little animal friends. You went fishing, caught bugs, and decorated your house, all while seasons and holidays passed by in real-time. There was no defined goal outside of paying back Tom Nook for house expansions, which could be done at whatever pace you’d like. Mindful activities set in a calming environment were always there, and they were always what separated Animal Crossing from any other interactive experience.
After its initial release on the N64, Dobutso no Mori was then ported to the Gamecube as the first Animal Crossing, poised to spread its cuteness across the world for decades to come. Following its initially warm critical reception and fan success, there were three more ‘mainline’ Animal Crossing games over the years: Animal Crossing: Wild World in 2005 for the handheld Nintendo DS; Animal Crossing: City Folk for the Wii in 2008; and Animal Crossing: New Leaf for the 3ds in 2012, followed by a few smaller-scale spin-offs of varying levels of artistic and commercial success.
Each charming iteration of Animal Crossing brought with it their own small new twists, but due in no small part to its real-time clock, Animal Crossing has always felt most at home on Nintendo’s handhelds. While console editions boasted a little more processing power, if you can pick up and leave with your game, it’s easier to catch a fish at night or see KK Slider at just the right time. So it’s no surprise that New Horizons benefits from Nintendo’s magical hybrid console, able to mix the best of both animal worlds.
A Brand New Day
Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released on March 20, 2020. The fans had waited, even enduring one final delay before the newest Animal Crossing arrived, but when it did, they were met with the most evolved and polished of all of its animal simulations. New Horizons is the culmination of twenty years of small refinements made into one adorable island that millions of new fans would soon join them on.
Freshly stepping into an unprecedented time of isolation from one another in our real world, we stood ready for a fun little island away from it all, and Animal Crossing was ready for us.
The largest and most striking changes to New Horizons are a set of features that are easy to take for granted after a year on the island. In past games, aspiring villagers could only really grow and customize their houses. Sure, in previous games you could craft a Parisian Cafe in your basement, but with the exception of well-curated flower beds, your randomly-generated town was yours to live with largely as you found it.
In New Horizons, players can decorate, shape, and customize every inch of their islands. Not only can you plaster your island with an endless array of exotic furnishings, bears, and cardboard boxes, you can also change each island’s entire landscape with construction mode. This changes the game.
From rebuilding the Titanic to recreating Ocarina of Time, players across the world are stretching the boundaries of their imaginations for what their islands can be. Excepting the grid-based limit of the foundation of the island, the ability to customize is now nearly infinite, and every island can be made into each player’s dream (or nightmare).
The Little Things
The flexibility found in island-creation is enough to mark New Horizons as a monumental leap in an already-excellent series, but Nintendo went ahead and varnished countless other aspects of the Animal Crossing experience in New Horizons. Refinements are everywhere: the island looks more beautiful than ever, the museum is a sprawling mini theme park to explore, the villagers have more to say and do, and you can now blessedly access your wardrobe and tools in their own adorable little menus.
Menu improvements don’t end with your outfits. Pulled directly from one of the more successful spin-offs, “Happy Home Designer,” is the improved method for moving and placing furniture in your homes. In the past, you were made to move and drag things about the room yourself, but now a polished and intuitive overhead view opens up and connects to your storage, making it less frustrating and much more fun to create the Vaporwave minimalist bedroom of your dreams.
On top of that, the countless small details sing – from the varied pitter-patter of your villagers running feet to the rain that shakes down from a tree after rainfall, every New Horizons island has been crafted with love.
One of the sweetest details that have subtly emerged are the new transitions between seasons. It’s no longer suddenly winter – some snowflakes appear while the weeds change and evolve. A keen eye can sense that spring is near. Like so many little details, these in-between moments help stoke the excitement of the new season to come.
But it wouldn’t be an Animal Crossing game without some confounding design decisions that linger. While so much has been fixed, much and more is, like all Animal Crossing’s before it, curiously frustrating. We can complain, and therefore we will.
Despite a much-needed storage upgrade, item management remains an issue, particularly when it comes to what your villager can carry at any given moment. And the ability to batch-buy a few items sure would make the intriguing new crafting and customization system a lot more fun.
And more than anything else, one of Animal Crossing’s greatest strengths is also its weakness: connecting with other real people. A new set of characters and a new conceit surround the core in-game travel mechanic, the (wonderful) Dodos and their airport have arrived in New Horizons to fly us to and fro. And while it is charming in its idiosyncrasies, it is also painfully slow to get from island to island.
Additionally, the new Animal Crossing also boasts single island multiplayer. Sharing an island is neat, but the lack of an option to have your own has been met with understandable criticism. Similarly, playing together simultaneously on one island is a wonderful new feature, but this feature is severely limited by the more direct control of the primary player. If Nintendo could ever follow in the footsteps of its proud little brother, Stardew Valley, and implement split-screen gameplay, it wouldn’t just be KK Slider dedicating songs in their honor.
Sharing Is Caring
Despite these limitations, sharing islands thrives, and is the cornerstone for why New Horizons is so very special, particularly at this time. Seeing other people’s creations is half the fun, and visiting friends’ islands has effectively stood in for person-to-person contact for a year of our lives. Birthday parties, weddings, memorials, and Saturday hangs – it’s all happened in countless games, bringing people together in utterly unexpected ways at a time when we needed it most. As Eguichi had fervently hoped, we recreated the feeling of togetherness.
One year in, the world is in love with New Horizons, but one of the biggest questions is how Nintendo will maintain its commitment to updates. This is a space where Nintendo has historically been inconsistent at best.
By design, Animal Crossing has already received a year’s worth of mostly holiday-themed updates, all of which go a long way to encourage lapsed islanders to jump back in. From Halloween carriages and fishing tournies to dancing birds and impossible snowmen, they’ve all been fun (except for the eggs). But Tom Nook has taught us too well, and we want more.
Most recently, New Horizons treated its fans with an excellent series of Mario-themed items to celebrate Mario’s 35th birthday, including the game-changing warp pipe. But in past Animal Crossings, one year was the bulk of the game’s cycle, and once you were through, it was time to repeat and try to fill in any gaps in that fishing and bug catching catalogue.
While there is much to love in New Horizons, many fans still yearn for more. Past games have included many other Nintendo-specific items. Fan favorites like Brewster’s coffee shop, gyroids, and the fortune-telling kitty cat Katrina are all still conspicuously absent. And what’s with only one expansion to the Nook market?
A few new items and events have already been announced as the one-year clock has ticked on by. Some fun with April fools, Sanrio items, as well as expanded customization. Hopefully these are signs of continued support in 2021.
Time will tell if Nintendo keeps updating Animal Crossing in real time. But its fans will be there no matter what.
Just What We Needed
Animal Crossing: New Horizons arrived when we needed it most. It is the best version of one of Nintendo’s most treasured game series, a truly special way for us to feel connected. Mister Eguchi’s sense of loss was our gain.
Animal Crossing is and always has been a game that exists in real-time. Minutes, hours, days, months, seasons, and years pass by alongside our own lives.
For many of us, 2020 felt frozen in time. But with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, we had somewhere else to go. We were able to escape, if only for a little while, to a better place. And thankfully it was in one in one of the greatest games ever made.
This article owes an enormous debt to the author’s tremendous group of island (and real life) besties and quarantine cohorts, all of whom are featured in above photos: Bex, Ports, KT, Paradise, and of course island co-captain, Leigh, who it has been a joy to share and island with, in every sense.
All photos taken from our beloved Monster Island. Animal Crossing: New Horizons was graciously provided to Goomba Stomp from the good people at Nintendo for the purposes of review.