Last Updated on April 22, 2020
Nintendo’s Most Successful Simulation Game
Animal Crossing is one of Nintendo’s most popular franchises. It’s a game that reminds us of the small things in our lives and caresses you in a world where violence and deceit is not needed to win. There is no ending and no general goal in Animal Crossing. All you need to do is live and wander across the land you stumbled upon.
The series began as Animal Forest on the Nintendo 64 in 2001. It was a game that was way ahead of its time for the system. Animal Forest played in real time, had a rather lengthy narrative script with dialogue choices, randomized towns, an extensive soundtrack, a vast cast of characters to interact with, and a catalog of thousands of pieces of furniture and clothing. It even included in-game SNES and NES emulations of classics such as Donkey Kong, Excitebike, and Punch-Out. Animal Forest pushed the limits of the legendary console and it was probably one of the few life simulators on the Nintendo 64 outside the Harvest Moon series. Animal Forest was not released outside Japan. But it was ported to Gamecube worldwide with a few graphical improvements.
I got Animal Crossing on the Gamecube when I was 11 years old because it came with a free memory card. I didn’t expect it to be one of my most played games outside Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town and Pokemon Sapphire. Animal Crossing is a game that allows the child to imagine life outside school and a household environment constructed by their parents. It builds a world with adult values and life duties such as paying off debts, saving money, taking care of the environment, and maintaining your house and relationships, despite all the chores you must do. The Animal Crossing series is a form of pure escapism and teaches players to value the daily trials of life and preserve our land and society as a pay forward.
A Timeless Classic Returns During Crisis
Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out in mid-March, which thrilled many bored fans who had to stay home because of the COVID-19 epidemic. It also started an ethical storm on whether people should buy online or go to the nearest GameStop. It was a long anticipated mainline release, with New Leaf being released in 2012, 2 years shy of almost a decade ago. AC fans that have known the series since Tortimer was mayor and Mr. Resetti would yell at you for hitting reset on the Gamecube are finally met with a new installment of a beloved childhood classic.
This is the common plot of every Animal Crossing game: You are a human who has decided to live on their own, the player is taking a train or taxi to a new town, and you are greeted by a talking animal who soothes your frazzled nerves on this journey to a new life and a foreign land. You have a couple of “bells”, which is the currency of every AC game. One of the first people you meet when you step off that train or taxi is Tom Nook. Nook, a generous tanuki, helps you start your new life. He gives you a job, clothes you, and gives you a house. You return the favor by paying a mortgage. You then learn how to make a living and assimilate with the rest of the animal villagers.
In every Animal Crossing, you fish, dig fossils, harvest fruits and other objects of nature. You then sell them for cash or donate the rarities to the museum for showcase. You interact with villagers by having conversations with them, making jokes, gossiping, and performing tasks for them like delivering gifts or forgotten items. The game focuses on how you live and maintaining friendships. Don’t hit your friends with nets, send letters to them on a regular basis, and keep your town clean, fruitful, updated with infrastructure, and blooming with flowers. All the animals have their own personalities, which mainly fall into one of the following: Quirky, Lazy, Sassy, Coy, Athletic, and Cranky. But they’re all mostly friendly. The villagers are very much human with their bars of patience for how you maintain these relationships. You will lose and gain friends in every Animal Crossing game, which is one painfully human experience that the game imitates.
New Horizons Has Fresh Land But Still Has Old Roots
Animal Crossing: New Horizons switches up the formula. You get off an airplane that has landed on a mysterious, uninhabited island with Tom Nook and his young twin relatives: Timmy and Tommy. The Nook family houses you and two other animals with tents. You are the only humanoid villager and it is up to you to improve islander life and populate this abandoned piece of land.
New Horizons is vastly different from Wild World (2005) and New Leaf (2012). It absorbs influences from series spin-offs that essentially served as prototypes, which were Pocket Camp and Happy Home Designer. Pocket Camp was a mobile game that came out in 2017 to whet the palettes of AC fans longing for a newer release, especially since Happy Home Designer was essentially a house builder game and not a tangible sequel.
In Happy Home Designer, you are an official employee of Tom Nook. It was the first game that introduced designing the houses of your animal friends, unlike previous versions where you simply gave or exchanged furniture with villagers who would later place it themselves. In Pocket Camp, you end up in a communal village where you’re all stranded on an island, live in a tent and craft furniture and tools. New Horizons is an amalgamation of its two step siblings in the series, with a dose of the mainline installment, New Leaf.
I managed to get New Horizons on the day of release through the digital store as a gift from a family member. I had a blast with New Leaf, playing it on college lounge sofas, in the back of the car, and on my bed as a stress relief before and after digging into the homework pile for about a year and a half. I got all of the fish and fossils and upgraded my house and all of the businesses in the span of a year. It wasn’t as great as the Gamecube version; I did not have my own copy of Wild World, and never played Animal Crossing: City Folk on the Wii. New Leaf was fun and helped me cope with my emotions for my first college year. But something felt missing. I longed for the Gamecube version, despite that there were a horrific amount of limitations for storage and you had a dunce cap perma-attached to your head.
The First Month of New Horizons
For the first week of New Horizons, I was mind blown at how much the game keeps you busy. Collecting resources and crafting furniture and tools takes up most of your time in the game, since you’re building a new civilization. The creators were not kidding about putting you on an uninhabited island. You need to hoard resources to make life essentials. You literally live off the land, unlike the predecessors where you merely buy everything from Tom Nook. You can travel to other uninhabited islands or your friend’s islands for more resources, and meet new villagers and recruit them to your island. Eventually, you will be allowed to take a shovel and start carving the island’s foundation to your heart’s desire.
Paying debts is still the main goal of the game. But now you have Nook Miles as your second currency, which is earned by performing daily tasks a certain amount of times. Productivity in Animal Crossing has never been as this goal oriented before. Every action in this game is rewarded with currency. Nook Miles allows you to buy clothes that weren’t available at the store, single records to play on the radio, and tickets to the uninhabited islands.
There’s plenty of customization: you can now change your skin tone, facial features, and hair style without having to go to the salon. The gender of your character is completely ambiguous since you’re not forced to wear one type of outfit like in the GameCube version, where girls were required to wear solely dresses. The clothing catalog is as vast as ever before and it now also allows you to purchase articles of clothes in various colors. Now, you are officially a designer of all trades. You can design clothes and modify and customize your furniture. In the older versions, you were only able to design clothing items and throw a custom patchwork on your door.
Since I never played Pocket Camp or Happy Home Designer, and barely remember New Leaf due to the 5-year gap, most of this game came off new to me. I was hooked, enjoying the new story line and the amount of power that was absent in the previous installments. The game has an addictive quality because everything you do is rewarded.
The graphics are eye candy and incomparable to the previous versions, due to it being brewed in a more advanced game engine that has birthed other recent Nintendo works such as Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. One of the first things you notice when you turn on New Horizons is that the trees are no longer static and windy days have finally been added. You now see cherry blossoms blowing through the wind and floating in the lakes. The villagers have basic human expressions. And they can sit down, drink beverages, and craft items. You can pretty much witness them interact with the environment like you. They are more expressive than ever before, whereas in the previous versions – especially in Wild World and the GameCube version – they merely walked, with occasional dancing, singing, and shivering.
Animal Crossing has never been this lively before and it now has revived a whole entire community that died with New Leaf.
Underneath the Sun Drenched Trees, There’s Some Issues
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a satisfactory release for what it is. It’s a calming game for performing mind stimulating tasks. But it feels somewhat unfinished. New Horizons has taken almost ten years to release, yet it seems like it has been having a weekly update to patch for bugs and to resolve frequent complaints, such as the infamous overabundance of Easter Eggs that reduced the spawning of resources needed for crafts. Players who didn’t buy the game on the first day became frustrated by the curse of the Easter bunny, known as Zipper T. Bunny.
One of the irritating quirks I noticed about the game is that there is always a need to be switching between the storage and pockets for stones, wood, and iron nuggets while crafting. A better UI design decision should’ve allowed a combined storage and pocket screen when you craft at home. This UI flaw has led to constantly switching screens to retrieve resources from storage and pockets while crafting. There is only so much you can carry in your pockets and you shouldn’t have to hold onto your branches, stones, and minerals in your own house while crafting. When you go outside, you do not have the omniscient decorating feature that you have at home.
So oftentimes, decorating outside your house, especially when placing down gates, is much like the outdated method of decorating in the early AC games. Maybe a way to resolve this issue for players is by providing a recipe to build a chest, so that we could access our storage outside our house and just combining storage and pockets while inside your house. Another resolution to make the crafting system less tedious is to allow the player to craft things in bulk, not one by one, and having to press the “A” button to speed it up. New Horizons has an outdated crafting system from the mid 2000s, while Minecraft has existed for years and doesn’t have a crafting system as tedious as this.
Online play is oddly outdated compared to the predecessors. Neither you nor your friend can decorate, move or even pick up furniture while you’re in town together and you cannot donate or assess items at the museum. Mailing items is a good way to send items to friends if it weren’t limited to only two per day. Funnily enough, the limit of letters you could send to a friend in the first Animal Crossing was up to 10, and you could send 5 at a time and they would be delivered to your friend’s house twice a day. So in New Horizons, your friend still has to come to your town if they want your pile of unwanted goods. You also have to make sure your friend is added to your “best friends” list or they will not be able to perform functions such as tree chopping or shoveling, so they won’t be able to help clean the town, garden, or get fossils unless you do that.
Interactions between online players is extremely limited for a game in 2020. But this may have been due to a dark past in Animal Crossing forums, starting in Wild World, where malicious pranksters would “grief” people’s towns by “seeding” them. For some players, it was merely a nuisance. But there had been cases where towns became so bugged that they couldn’t load the file or the game altogether. I appreciate that Nintendo wanted to prevent such a mean-spirited prank, especially since most players during that time were kids. And we know our parents worked hard to buy us our games. New Leaf wasn’t all that cheap when it first came out. Sadly, “griefing” may continue since people will always create and exploit a bug or cheat code. So far, I have not heard of any players complaining about this issue with New Horizons.
The game also has a lot of unneeded pauses and cutscenes. It does not give you the ability to skip the airplane cutscene that occurs when your friends arrive and leave your island. I’m sure by now you’ve seen it plenty of times since you bought the game. The cut scene literally stops you in the middle of your work to show your beloved friend arriving on and leaving your island. You cannot talk to animals or look at your phone or it will block your friend from flying over and thus lengthening the scene or even worse, boot your other friends off the island because of the broken connection. Simply taking out your phone while your friend is coming over just creates a forest fire of broken connections, unsaved progress, and lost items. It would be less annoying if maybe Wilbur and Orville sang for me like Kapp’n did in the Gamecube AC, but the boat ride to the island doesn’t take as long as the loading for the online play and the airplane cut scene, and Kapp’n’s boat doesn’t collapse in the middle of the ocean because of sucky online service.
And Tom Nook calls you on the phone to deliver money to you if you placed items in the drop-off box instead of simply mailing it to you or just having the money automatically appear in your wallet, making yet another unneeded cut scene. Imagine if you played Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life and you had to wait for Takakura to hand you the money you earned from shipping crops, instead of just getting it instantly when you wake up in the morning? Furthermore, how come there is still a limitation of how big your bell wallet is? You cannot carry more than 99K bells and you will have to store bell bags in your pockets instead of squeezing it in your wallet. So if you hit the turnip stock market on a good day and you’re packing your wallet with bells, you’re going to need plenty of room in your pockets too.
Another similar cutscene annoyance is when you shop for clothes at Able Sisters and decide you want to try on and purchase entire outfits in the dressing room, you can only choose one outfit and have to witness a cutscene of leaving the room and having Mabel compliment you when you purchase it, even if you choose not to wear the outfit. You have to constantly go in and out of the dressing room, choose what you want, witness this cutscene, and then return for more. You cannot purchase all clothing items in one visit. When you enter the dressing room, you get to pick clothes that are being sold that day in different colors, which is why you spend most of your time in the dressing room at Able Sisters, because you want the blue version of that one dress that’s on sale. In real life, when you’re shopping at Dress Barn, you don’t try on one outfit in the dressing room, pay for it, leave the store, then decide “Oh I wanted the blue pants too!”, and return to the store, try on the blue pants, and then repeat the cycle when you want another color. You usually walk in with a pile of clothes you want into the dressing room, try them on, purchase them all, and leave in one go.
Limited Interactions With Villagers
It is also noticeable how interaction with the villagers has become slightly less diverse compared to the previous games in the series, especially compared to Animal Crossing on the GameCube. I’ve noticed that the villagers rarely ever get angry at you, never beg for letters, and only exist to perform cuteness, compliment you, and give you gifts, with the occasional exchange and returning forgotten items. While harking back as far as Animal Crossing, they get sad or outright angry if you talk to them too much. In 2001, you could trade carpets and furniture with villagers, get scammed for your bells by surprise force purchases, and gamble for furniture with dialogue choices that was akin to playing the shell game. I loved listening to nasty comments from Monique, the snooty cat, about Lily, the sweet green toad. I remember angering the grumpy eagle, Apollo, and having him beg me to leave him alone because I enjoyed his pad way too much.
I would spend hours performing delivery tasks for my favorite villagers and getting money, furniture, and clothes in exchange. Fetch and delivery quests do exist in New Horizons. But they are very rare, which is unfortunate because I spent most of my time doing those tasks in previous AC games. It was usually the way I would interact with the villagers when I got tired of simply just talking to them. It was also a way to get rare furniture to complete your sets. While not getting scammed by villagers is nice, it’s also not fun that they have become one-dimensional in comparison to their previous versions. Complaining that the animals are “too nice” seems to be an obnoxious criticism for some people. The interactions still are enjoyable. But I wished they would have more emotions outside “niceness”, as it’s not natural, nor is it interactive enough for the narrative design of the characters.
Crafting and Earning Bells
There is an obvious imbalance in what you can craft and what you can spend on. In New Horizons, you have to use the pole vault to cross over lakes. But eventually, you will want to build bridges so that islanders can finally travel around the rest of the island. You’re able to build one bridge out of resources when your first set of newly recruited villagers start moving in. But after that one instance of bridge crafting, you now have to pay in bells just like the previous games, instead of crafting one. So instead of building another bridge out of wood or stone, you have to throw down more than 100,000 bells in Nook’s palm, despite once having the freedom to build one. What was the point of crafting that one bridge if I was never going to be able to do it again?
I personally felt that New Leaf was easy and I managed to pay off all of the debts without cheat codes, which is fine with me. But now, this game brought back the difficulty of the GameCube version. Earning money is much more difficult. Why do I need to pay and wait for things that I could craft and was able to do bell free before? Luckily, there are more methods to make bells that don’t consist of solely selling red snappers, barred jaws, and fossils as a get rich quick scheme. However, selling craftable holiday themed furniture still doesn’t earn as much compared to investing in the turnip market, which remains the best money maker in the series as always.
The game depends so much on the crafting system. You craft pretty much most of your furniture, and there are tons of furniture sets that have disappeared as the series has gone on. Some of my favorites were the Regal, Lovely, Modern, Cabana, and Green. So far, I have seen some classic furniture sets, such as the Kiddie set in Cookie’s house, but that has to be a recipe you get from a villager or from a friend so it can be crafted. Regardless, even if some of these classic sets are craftable, there’s still barely any furniture in this game to a point where it’s almost disappointing to go to Nook’s Cranny. Apparently, Nintendo expects me to craft the sets I want, using an image as a reference from a fandom site. Because from what I’ve heard, a lot of sets from New Leaf have disappeared. Everything is craftable, except bridges, which makes no sense. And gyroids – creepy, strange objects that existed as NPCs and as a furniture set – have completely disappeared from this game.
The Animal Crossing OSTs have always been known for their minimalist, charming melodies, with Animal Crossing and New Leaf being the standouts of the series. In New Horizons, I barely hear the OSTs and the only songs I remember are the K.K. Slider singles I place in my radio. This OST is missing the emotion of the previous games. Animal Crossing and New Leaf have tracks where you can feel the solitude and the coolness of the early morning and the evening, and the lift in your footsteps as everyone is fully awake in the afternoon. The New Horizons soundtrack has a guitar for almost every track as its main instrument, with an occasional “tropical” influence on it and synthesizers.
Holiday theme songs like Christmas and Halloween basically disappeared as a concept when Wild World came around, with only New Year’s themes remaining. None of the OST tracks really stand out as much as the 12AM track of New Leaf, the Rainy Day of Animal Crossing, and 2PM in Wild World.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a blast, particularly to start the warmer seasons of 2020. But it’s also surprisingly incomplete. The game is the most revolutionary in graphics, technology, and customization. But it also feels somewhat hollow. The characters are not as interactable and personable as the previous entries. The process of crafting can be tedious due to a few UI issues that could be easily resolved. The game is still currently receiving updates to fix bugs and complaints about sparse resources due to the overabundance of holiday item drop rates.
It is still very much enjoyable. But it could be much better. Long-time fans will be baffled by the amount of freedom yet also disappointed at the removal of the gyroids and many beautiful furniture sets. The series has massively improved in many ways since its Nintendo 64 origins. But there are a lot of outdated quirks that shouldn’t be in the game, especially since it took about a decade to complete. New Horizons is ultimately very satisfying. Hopefully an update to resolve the various technical and UI issues comes sooner than later.
Wei Yuan Lee is a interactive fiction writer and game dev. He enjoys spooky interactive fiction, quirky platformers and RPGmaker games. He checks Itch.io religiously.