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Quarantine Island: The Challenging Joy of Animal Crossing Local Co-op



What it’s Like to Play Animal Crossing: New Horizons Local Co-op

“I think I’m ready to share an Animal Crossing island with you.”  

Brave words to be uttered in any relationship, but deeply serious in ours. Little did we know that we’d be sharing an Animal Crossing island while obliged to share a small New York apartment in the middle of a national quarantine. Were my partner and I ready for such close quarters in both real and  animal life, or would the battle for bells and apples tear us apart like so many citizens of Earth battling for toilet paper?

Nearly eight years after its last main-line series entry, Animal Crossing: New Horizons released to a clamoring menagerie of Nintendo fans on March 20, 2020. Animal Crossing’s devout followers would have been ravenous for an island getaway in normal times, but with the backdrop of a world under quarantined isolation, the timing of its release borders on magical synchronicity.

Since its initial release on the Gamecube (N64 in Japan), local multiplayer has been handled differently for each entry in the Animal Crossing series. In New Horizons, for the first time ever, two to four players who share their Switch can play simultaneously on the same screen in real time. This is a game changer in the realest sense. The deep wrinkle is that early on Nintendo declared that any given Switch could only house a single island. This means that if you are both playing the same game on the same system, you must share all of your furniture and fruit and neighbors and and fish and…

“That oar fish should be mine!”

While I’ve been digging fossils since Animal Crossing’s birth, my partner had never set foot in an Animal Crossing village, but I had a strong suspicion she’d be right at home under Tom Nook’s unwavering paw. Her past gaming obsessions spoke to an animal-life-predisposition, and included similarly-rooted  treasures like The Sims and Stardew Valley. While her initial impression of Animal Crossing was a tepid, “It looks cute,” the moment she saw Timmy and Tommy chirp their little welcome, she was as hooked in as crucian carp, ready to shake trees and catch beetles with the best of us.

Despite the outcry of many meta-critic bombing cranks, the mechanics of two-player on a shared island mostly work well. While playing together on the same screen, one of you is ‘the leader,’ and controls the main action of the game. If the non-leader scampers too far chasing butterflies, they are neatly *poofed* back to the side of the leader, split-screen is not a thing. The leader is the only one with access to their full inventory, but the follower does have access to their own tools, and anything they collect magically transports itself to the community recycle box for pick-up. 

It may sound challenging and as if the follower is getting an inferior pile of bells in this deal, but much of the potential frustration is alleviated by an intuitive and responsive system for switching who is in charge while you play simultaneously.  The leader simply shakes their controller, and the follower presses the A-button to take charge. This process is seamless, and critical to keeping the dynamic fun. Changing tools when you are the follower can feel cumbersome, particularly since they inexplicably map functions differently when you’re in follower-mode. But in light of the ability to flip who is in charge so readily, it’s possible to establish a fun rhythm playing together.

“Do you wanna collect wood or chop?”

Initially, this simultaneous co-op space felt uncomfortable. Who would be in the lead? Who would get the fruit or the fossil? But with minimal creative cavorting, we’ve already established a variety of joyful and unique systems to balance our on-screen time together. 

In the morning, we listen to Tom Nook’s announcements and pronouncements and take turns getting mail and organizing our inventory. We then hit the surrounding forest and shores and take turns as leaders with a specific task in mind. If, for instance, we’re collecting wood, one of us chops while the other collects and shakes trees, and we share the spoils as needed. 

We both love fishing, so in the evening we always conclude our day by crawling the island’s ocean shores and fishing simultaneously in an ad-hoc mini-competition. The leader’s inventory fills up while the follower’s inventory pushes to the recycle box. When we see a fish, we both drop our lures and the best cast wins. Once the leader’s inventory is full, we head to the recycle box to clear it out, swap who is the head fisher-person, and repeat. 

There are moments when one of us is legitimately sore to see the other catch a giant oar fish or valuable sturgeon, but we also get excited for one another, too. The back and forth makes for a fun and competitive dynamic, and really feels like we’re playing on our island together.

“But who shakes that money tree?!”

Alas, there are some deeper challenges to sharing an island. Animal Crossing is, in many ways, a game about resource management. While many new systems are in place in New Horizons to keep you busy, there are only so many peaches on a tree. But really, the most limited resource of all in a game that begs to be played compulsively is that of time.

We are both playfully competitive and we both want to expand our houses, and in Animal Crossing the way to do this is by accumulating all-powerful bells to sate Tom Nook’s boundless hunger. We quickly learned that always playing simultaneously would not be enough, and we agreed to allot time for one another to have solo-play. Inevitably, one or the other of us accumulates more fossils or finds a cool toilet. 

The solution we found is simple and resonant: let it go and have fun with it. In practice, this is challenging, but ultimately, it’s been rewarding. Really, there’s plenty to do and find and see, and why are we playing this game if not to have fun?

“Go check out what I put on the secret beach!”

Animal Crossing has always been about expressing yourself, and there is no greater form of this than in decorating your home. Thankfully, when you share an island, your island partner can’t move things around in your private sanctuary, as in all entries to the series your home is still all yours to turn into a baroque bedroom or mad science lab as you see fit. But one of the biggest changes in New Horizons is that you can also decorate your outdoor areas, and that is where some of the finest entertainment grows while playing together.

Players can move objects and items anywhere on the island, and that is awesome. While we each covet our private time chatting up our hamster and kitten neighbors, we also delight in surprising each other with new features. Our party beach suddenly has an Easter Island head! The double waterfall of the sacred raccoon is now full of tulips! This emergent cooperative space is unlike anything we’ve experienced in a game, and these little delights are endlessly joyful to share and surprise each other with.

“Hey, why can’t I craft that?”

It is great fun to share our island together, but there are a few inherent problems with the game mechanics outside of the awkward controls in simultaneous play. New Horizons is set up such that the first player to start the town is also its ‘primary resident.’ This means that this player is the only one who can usher forward major changes, such as where to put new neighbors. And while it’s still possible to talk and coordinate through those changes, the primary resident often benefits by getting exclusive recipes to craft and associated rewards. It feels imbalanced, and less like there is room to include the other player, and hopefully, Nintendo will recognize this and find a more balanced workaround in future updates.

“Aw! I remember catching that oar fish!”

As we practice navigating a lot of time together in the real world while figuring out ways to give each other our own space, the same collaborative practice has evolved on our island. As much as we’d like to, neither of us should be playing the game for eighteen hours straight, so we make room for each other and celebrate each other’s accomplishments. If something feels particularly limited such as fossils or a non-native fruit, like the last roll of T.P, we leave some for the other. 

We are simultaneously co-existing in a real-world and a simulated shared space. The key to digging in to both is one thing: honest communication. Add a healthy dose of letting go and having fun together, and you’ve got a winning recipe to craft an incredibly enjoyable cooperative experience. It’s really fun, and it’s still evolving.

Like being quarantined in an apartment together, Animal Crossing co-op is not a perfect situation. But in the midst of this struggle, we continue to be struck by how rewarding and inspiring this shared space is, too. Sure we get frustrated with one another, but we also get real joy and delight in each other’s shared accomplishments and ideas. 

With less than a week of play, we’ve already found ourselves thumbing through in-game photos and remembering when we first met Blathers or what our houses looked like when we first arrived. We got a lot more than we bargained for, but it turns out we were indeed ready to share an island together.  Our Animal Crossing: New Horizons island is a living and breathing shared space, and that is something special in gaming, and in our lives together.

A copy of Animal Crossing was generously provided to us by Nintendo. All photos were taken from the author’s game.

Marty Allen is an artist, writer, and creative producer who lives in Brooklyn. Marty loves to write about video games, pop culture, and all sorts of things. He's written a pile of books and made a bunch of art and songs, but mostly he just plays Animal Crossing and eats watermelon.