Thoughts on Animal Crossing: New Horizons


Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Title screen of Animal Crossing: New Horizons 1.5.1

I came of age at the ideal time to enjoy the first Animal Crossing game on GameCube, so it holds a place of nostalgia in my heart—paying off Tom Nook, hunting for rare fish, basement gyroid-dungeon, lectures from Mr. Resetti, collecting all of the K.K. Slider songs, and playing Balloon Fight and Excitebike—my sister and I both played the game excessively.

I finally decided to pick up a Nintendo Switch (ironically, the Animal Crossing special edition—though mostly because it was in stock at the time) at the end of the summer and Animal Crossing: New Horizons was one of the first two games I purchased with it.

So how does the fifth entrant in the main series hold up nineteen years after the first release and how does it hit now that I'm nineteen years older?

New Horizons is an extremely well executed game. The mechanics are good, the art is good, the setting is fun and interesting (essentially expanding the animal island from previous titles into a full game), and the museum is unbelievably gorgeous. If this is your first visit to the Animal Crossing universe, then it's hard to go wrong. The Switch's portable/home dual-personality is a great fit for an Animal Crossing game, since it's easy to pick up and put down quickly with the Switch's sleep mode and you can play anywhere.

Animal Crossing litter box
A neighbor made me deliver the litter box as an apology gift. She does not have a cat.

What I'm looking for out of an Animal Crossing title is about twenty minutes a day to unwind with relaxed gameplay. This fits well, because Animal Crossing is a series that encourages slow game progression. Returns diminsh quickly after the first thirty minutes of gameplay each day. Gather your harvest, dig up the fossils, collect the shells, talk to your neighbors, sell or donate what's left, and done!

While there's a lot of depth in the interior decorating, my lack of interest in this core game mechanic reduces the overall game appeal. Grinding for twenty hours to get enough furniture to get your home style to something around "eclectic hot mess" and spending another forty trying to stumble onto matching furniture to pull off a cohesive look isn't hugely appealing to me. Slow burns are good—especially for this sort of game—but the time investment for the goal of an aesthetic and highly-HHA rated home isn't worth it for me when I don't get much out of the mechanic.

New Horizons expands decorating by adding the ability to place furniture outside. This greatly expands your options to customize your island—which is both good and bad due to the slow-burn. It drastically increases the potential time investment to get the whole exterior of the island looks how you want, but you have the option if it appeals to you.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons no news today
They say no news is good news

Having revisited the series for each of its five main installments the novelty of the formula has started to wear off for me. There are only so many character archetypes to befriend and critters to catch. Filling up a museum for the fifth time just doesn't have the same appeal it did before. Some of this is likely due to me being older, and while there is newness much of it is focused on stuff that doesn't resonate strongly for me.

I think part of the magic of a slow-burning game like Animal Crossing is in the mystery of the undiscovered. My first encounter with Mr. Resetti on the GameCube was a jaw-dropping gaming experience that didn't get repeated until I played Undertale. The first gyroid I encountered left me wondering what in the world it was and were there more of them. The slowness of content reveal leaves a lot to the imagination, which gives the player a sense of depth that may exceed the actual content. Once you've plumbed these depths a few times, though, the mystery abates and the grind overtakes the allure of the undiscovered. The shop will get bigger periodically, there'll be a museum and it'll have these four sections, we follow this progression with Mr. Nook and his expensive home expansions, we'll have these special events, find these critters, gather these fruits, etc., etc.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons new shop ceremony
Ceremony for the new shop

Unfortunately some of the features of the original that really added to the mystery are gone from New Horizons. Gyroids are no longer with us—except as the donation-accepting construction attendant Lloid—and the NES games from the first title have never made a reappearance since (I guess Nintendo doesn't want to undercut revenue from Virtual Console sales). On the plus side, updates to the game has been coming almost monthly since its release and Nintendo has added new content with each major point release. Perhaps we'll get gyroids back at some point in the future.

The time I spend on video games has been tapering off dramatically over the past five years. This seems like mostly a function of getting older, but other pursuits (more pro-social and productive) have drawn my attention. If this review of New Horizons sounds negative, it is, perhaps, because of my own bittersweet sense of loss at games no longer holding my attention as they once did. Animal Crossing is an excellent casual game that's executed very well. It's impossible for me not to recommend it, even if some of the magic which made the first game so impactful has fled for me. Such seems to be the arc of growing older.