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A Nintendo Switch and a copy of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Photo by Grace Reeb.

Review: Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a timely masterpiece

Animal Crossing: New Horizons marked a new adventure for all types of video game players with its release on March 20, 2020. It is the fifth major title in a popular real-time life simulation series by Nintendo to be released in the United States. The first installment, simply titled Animal Crossing, debuted in the U.S. in 2001 for the GameCube. The last major title, for the Nintendo 3DS, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, came out in the U.S. in June 2013, and flew off the shelves; NintendoLife reported in December 2019 that the game had sold 12.45 million copies worldwide. 

Within a few years of New Leaf’s debut, fans clamored for another addition to the series, but they would not hear any news until 2019. Nintendo released two spin-off games, Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer and Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival, in 2015, with both games making heavy use of Nintendo’s amiibo, small figurines that players must purchase separately.

New Leaf called an update called Welcome amiibo in 2016, which introduced a few new features to gameplay and accompanied the sale of amiibo cards, which were sold in mystery packs. Finally, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, a mobile app, came out in 2017. Players were excited about the accessibility of this free app, but it quickly became clear that it was not a full Animal Crossing game, and many criticized its inclusion of microtransactions.

At long last, in September 2018, Nintendo announced at the end of a Nintendo Direct, a series of news videos the company produces several times a year, that a new Animal Crossing game would come in 2019, for the current console, the Nintendo Switch. During the 2019 E3, an annual video game conference, fans saw gameplay footage for the first time and learned that the game would be delayed until March 20, 2020, disappointing many fans at the time.

The eventual release of New Horizons materialized amid unexpected circumstances, coinciding with the current COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, New Horizons experienced a strong start. Gamespot reported that 1.88 million physical copies had sold in Japan alone by March 25, not including digital downloads or sales in any other country.

Several factors seem to contribute to New Horizons’ success. One, undoubtedly, is the dedicated fan base, many of whom grew up playing the earlier titles and who, with unwavering dedication, discuss the series across multiple Internet platforms. As of April 2, 2020, more than 1.9 million posts on Instagram include the hashtag #animalcrossing

But for sales to continue, the game must live up to its promises, and New Horizons does exactly that. New Horizons is an absolutely delightful, fun and wholesome experience. From the standpoint of a longtime player and fan who has grown with Animal Crossing, New Horizons exceeds the hype. It fits in with the other games of the Animal Crossing series, continuing the family-friendly and day-to-day routine traditions while also bringing innovative enhancements to the table.

Two crucial changes in New Horizons that are not found in the other games are deserted island living and crafting. In all previous main titles, players moved into established towns, limiting customization. In New Horizons, players start out a new life on a deserted island and control most aspects of its development from the start. They choose where to place houses and other buildings and can decide to move them later. Later, other options become available that allow players to make their islands more truly their own than any towns were before.

Crafting is the mechanism in the game by which much of this customization occurs. Players collect materials from the island, such as sticks and iron nuggets, and use them to create a plethora of items. As with larger-scale infrastructure, the options for crafting open up gradually over time. In this case, players gain DIY recipes by finding them or learning them through interactions with their villagers.

These systems encourage players to play as much or as little as they want; Animal Crossing games have always been designed to be enjoyed for some time each day, and New Horizons reflects its players’ styles, with some built-in controls to make progression feel like more than completing quick tasks. The rewards are surprising and satisfying to reap after hours of play.

Among other notable shining qualities of the game is its greatly enhanced graphics. The art style and animation look gorgeous when playing handheld on the Switch or even on a television. This contributes to the game’s fun and soothing atmosphere, with one especially lovely location being the island’s museum. Another improvement is the multiplayer system. Now, up to eight players can gather on one island and play together, and, for the first time ever in an Animal Crossing game, there is multiplayer for up to 4 players on the same system.

Fans of the series will likely notice the seemingly small changes that game developers made for the better: increased storage in players’ pocket inventories, houses and mailboxes, more ways to develop custom patterns for clothing, and collected items of the same type stacking on top of one another.

It seems that Nintendo tested out a significant portion of mechanics like these in the smaller projects over the past 6 years, such as camping and new types of currency in the 2016 update to New Leaf. New Horizons also features a significantly updated system of placing furniture indoors – far from players having to push and pull items as recently in New Leaf before the update, the new system builds on the prototype in Happy Home Designer.

New Horizons could not have come at a better time for most people, who are ordered to remain at home and follow social distancing guidelines in order to protect themselves and the public from COVID-19. Junior social work major Kaitlyn Kylus considers herself a fan of the series since first playing Animal Crossing: City Folk on the Wii in 2008. She got the game as a gift from family and friends on its release date and wrote that playing New Horizons every day “has been a really great way to cope with everything going on.”

Kylus noted that she plays the game both to take a break from the stress and chaos of the real world and to have fun online with friends, who she cannot see in person. Her favorite activities include both the more relaxing and exhilarating parts of the game, such as “designing clothes for [her] character to wear, and trying to catch tarantulas before they knock [her] out,” respectively.

Sophomore English major Mairead Porschet had not played any of the previous Animal Crossing games, or many video games in general, and she is having fun being surprised by everything that New Horizons has to offer. She cannot currently work at her job as a substitute teacher, and is struggling with that stress in addition to not having a normal routine that usually comes with being on-campus.

She wrote that she is finding comfort in the game being “something that is purely about being happy.” She is also playing online with her boyfriend, who sets up “cute little places for [them] to hang out on his island for ‘date night,’” and Porschet thinks that this might be a good way for people in long distance relationships to spend time together writing, “it’s hard to feel connected when you can’t be with the people you love, but sometimes visiting [in the game] is nice.”

No game is perfect, and New Horizons does have its drawbacks. Notably, online multiplayer requires a subscription to the Nintendo Online service. As of April 2, 2020, a one-month membership for one person is $3.99. Subscriptions for longer periods of time and/or for more people have discounted rates, but the implication is that players must make two purchases – the game and the subscription – to visit other players online.

Nintendo Switch Online does apply to a wide variety of games on the Switch and might be worth the extra cost for some players, but one feature of the service that is not compatible with New Horizons is Save Cloud Data. Currently, there is no way for players to recover their save data if something happens to their consoles, though Nintendo plans to offer recovery services – only for Nintendo Switch Online members – “later this year,” according to their North American customer support website.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons not only protected the legacy of the series, but it also added and improved upon a vast range of key elements. The gaming experience is highly enjoyable, and a wonderful activity to do during these stressful times. One can only hope that Nintendo will continue to support and add to the game, bringing it to even greater heights.