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One year of Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Real-world and virtual reflections on one of 2020′s biggest titles.

Before the world as I knew it came to a stop, my first thought was: I should finally buy a Nintendo Switch.

It was a thought that pestered me infrequently in my day-to-day life, but as USC kept extending our Spring Break, I knew this was it. So I found a good deal on a Switch Lite and ran for it. And I pre-ordered Animal Crossing: New Horizons the minute I turned it on.

I was not alone. On March 20, 2020, Fans lined up at GameStops around the country for the latest installment in the cute, task-based life sim franchise even as the nation began lockdown orders and Switch consoles were hard to come by.

New Horizons takes players to an island, rather than a new town as in previous installments, to decorate it to their liking and befriend animal neighbors, far removed from the issues of real life. I think the pandemic made this game even more successful than it would have been in a non-pandemic timeline. But I also think the way people consumed it during the pandemic has also led to its gradual decline of long-term players and revealed so many of its flaws. What served as an escape started to mimic the frustrations of feeling “behind” in real life when looking at others on social media. And what was meant to be a relaxing game began to feel like a chore.

I am a longtime Animal Crossing fan who has played nearly every title in the main series and still plays the Pocket Camp smartphone spinoff every day. The nostalgia factor of the franchise is a strong selling point for New Horizons, but it lets longtime players down with the exclusion of fan-favorite Non-Playable Characters and items. And with the amount of anticipation the fandom had for a game seven years in the making, it is understandable that it may have fallen short of perhaps impossible standards (especially in the wake of delays and developer quality of life challenges).

New Horizons is the first title I burned out on so quickly. During the first few months, I logged over 300 hours into the game. It moves painfully slow at the start, especially for those who do not time travel. (Full transparency – I do). Each minute in the game is a minute in real life, and you sometimes have to wait a full day before you can advance in the game. As someone stuck at home where the days already blended together, rather than figuring, “I should log off and do something else now,” I had nothing really to log off for. So I skipped ahead.

It was almost freeing to see that spring would end and turn to summer and fall, even as my everyday life went by as slow as molasses. There were new seasonal materials to find and another set of furniture with each season. I enjoyed having set tasks to complete and a sense of routine in the game as my real-world ones went away. And the background music was as relaxing as ever — Animal Crossing’s soundtracks are one of my favorite things to study to and can be found on countless video game soundtrack compilations. The New Horizons soundtrack diverted a bit from its traditional sounds, with more jazzy and tropical influences thanks to its new setting. The 5 p.m. music is...vaguely sexy for a cutesy game. Nevertheless, it became the background of my life at that time. At this point, it now just transports me right back to April 2020, just as TikTokers feel Doja Cat’s “Say So” reminds them of The Before Times.

Once I progressed past the tutorial stages, the game felt unfinished. Perhaps it is my fault for speeding through the content, unlike the way it was intended, but I needed more.

It is also hard to compete with Pocket Camp, which churns out new cute furniture and outfits monthly to sustain its gacha and microtransaction model. While I am thankful the mainline series does not have that component, it is clear that there is a pull for players to have a wealth of items to choose from and it is disappointing that a mainline game would fall so short compared to a free-to-play smartphone spinoff.

Additional updates and events have rolled out slowly, steadily adding new items and NPCs to the game (to prevent time travelers like me from getting them early). Each release has been a bit of a breath of fresh air that revitalizes the game for a while more. The first updates were clearly meant for a non-pandemic player. The spawn rates for the Bunny Day seasonal materials were absurd and lasted for a long period of time. After spending hours glued to my Switch, fishing up Bunny Day Eggs when trying to round out my museum collection grew aggravating.

A large update arrived in time for the release anniversary, bringing back customizable parasols and cutout stands from games past and additional design spaces that fans have asked for. But the game still lacks previous title staples NPCs like Brewster and key collectible items like gyroids.

In a game that sells the promise of unlimited customization through crafting and terraforming, it is weird the building mechanic of alternate buildings like The Roost and Club LOL from previous games has been cast aside for traveling merchants. With the addition of the crafting mechanic, one would think there would be more furniture than games past. While there are a variety of themes of furniture, it lacks many of the fan-favorite series of the past like the Robo and Rococo series. While it is nice that players can make the furniture they want and in different colors, rather than hopping it appears at Nook’s or falls out of a tree, it feels as though we have traded variety for convenience. You can make some craftable furniture in different colors, but it feels more like things out of an IKEA catalog rather than the quirky nature of the furniture series in games’ past.

Perhaps this is inspired by the way New Leaf players in the past aestheticized their towns. The developers clearly took notes of the way New Leaf Players painstakingly created custom paths to look like rivers with floating cherry blossoms and different colored brick paths by adding the custom path feature in New Horizons. They understood the love for custom designing clothing through the Able Sisters and improved that design process as well. And they attempted to infuse that spirit into the furniture crafting aspect — but cast aside the non-craftable furniture’s potential as a result. There are a few different series with different color variants — but it is random which ones you get, and you can only get the other variants from other islands. The Nook store also does not really expand, save for a seasonal item spot after later Downloadable content.

New Horizons has a slicker feel due to the smoother graphics, which I enjoy even though I have a penchant for its more pixelated past. The changing sky, shadows and wind make the game feel so polished and new. And with that aesthetic change, it feels there is more potential to create “realistic” spaces on the player’s island. It is insanely impressive what people do with their islands in this game and how many hours it can take to complete it. But it is hard for the average player, especially one that doesn’t time travel, to maintain that stamina. And while it was exciting and inspiring to see people take to Discord, Reddit and Instagram to share their perfectly aesthetic islands, it was almost frustrating to feel I wasn’t living up to the expectations of the game.

I remember avidly checking the data mine channels on the ACNH Discord server for hints of my favorite NPCs from past titles or additional content. I was active on the server and trading on Nookazon, which kept me invested as I hunted for Dreamies and furniture variants unavailable on my Island. I was finding islands to sell my turnips at a high price to make enough money to move all my villager’s houses so I could build a three-tiered neighborhood I saw someone else make. And I wanted to have a cool town, something to show for all the hours I played.

There was something different about the social nature of New Horizons, more so than any other Animal Crossing title I’ve played. New Leaf technically had more gameplay with friends with additional minigames on the tropical island, but I have never had so many people who wanted to play Animal Crossing with me before. There also is a lot more incentive to visit other islands to get different color variants of the purchasable furniture or to meet certain random encounter NPCs.

But Animal Crossing was, at first, more of a solitary franchise. Creator Katsuya Eguchi made the game after moving away from home and feeling lonely. The solitary aspect of tending to your town is a key component of the game. I still enjoyed rounding out my bug, fish and (later) art collection and obtaining new items and crafting recipes. But it still felt like I somehow had less to do daily, especially when visiting NPCs weren’t in town. The islander/villager dialogue was also much more repetitive than past titles, which made me less interested in talking to them as well. While New Horizons is still solitary in terms of the regular gameplay, it feels like the one of the only games in the console franchise you can’t fully play alone. And when a Nintendo Online subscription is $3.99 a month, it feels a bit unfair.

My first Animal Crossing title was Wild World for the DS. It was a game I loved to indulge in on long car rides or summer nights at my grandparent’s house. I only had about one or two friends who owned it and was elated when I finally had someone to help me get the final Nook shop expansion. Both Wild World and New Leaf were games I continually felt drawn to again, no matter how long it had been since I last played. Sometimes I felt inspired to start my town completely over, just to go through the process again. Even Pocket Camp’s monotony is worth the cute items and animals they add.

But not New Horizons. The thought of starting over my half-decorated town after all of that time was daunting. So was the thought of finishing it.

Soon, my friends and I began logging off. Real life adapted to Zoom, I graduated undergrad and soon we were expected to go on with our lives. I didn’t have the time to dedicate to my virtual tasks because of my real ones and many of the bigger projects I had planned for my game felt out of reach when playing a little each day. But many players have remained, chipping away at creating their perfect island. I still follow many accounts and players that do, and the longer it has been the more impressed I am that they have kept up.

As the initial hype around the game died down, the pandemic persisted. And, like many dying trends, more mainstream brands and figures found out about it. The brand Gillette offered downloadable outfit designs and fashion brands like Marc Jacobs and Valentino did Animal Crossing fashion week shows that were written up in Vogue. Even President Joe Biden used the game as a means of campaigning — creating an island as well as signs and shirt designs in-game. (This also spurred Nintendo to ask users to leave politics out of gameplay).

But it seems that these mainstream marketing pushes also keep the fandom alive. There was a huge influx of Animal Crossing posts after the ColourPop makeup collaboration and the upcoming Build-A-Bear collaboration. Someone even recently recreated all of the musical “Hamilton” with their island.

But is this hype for New Horizons or just the Animal Crossing franchise?

As a longtime fan, it’s exciting to see so much merch and mainstream hype for the game. I just wish I maintained the same momentous enthusiasm for the game as marketers did.

No matter how many players put it down, there will always be someone there to pick it up. As of now, New Horizons has sold millions of copies since its release and that number is growing. For some players, there is no older Animal Crossing to compare to. Just like the Pokémon franchise, perhaps old fans crave too much of the old inside of the new to find a bit of that childhood nostalgia again. But we forgot how this game, for so many, is their first introduction to the series.

New Horizons always seemed like the End All Be All Animal Crossing title — a cumulation and expansion of what has come before. But that expansion has gone slowly, perhaps intended to spread over years. Maybe that’s really who this game is for – the slow-burn, dedicated players who, before this, visited their New Leaf or Wild World town every day for years. Or maybe for the new players, falling in love with the franchise’s world for the first time. But it somehow lost a bit of its sense of wonder from my youth that titles like A Short Hike and Stardew Valley have retained for me as a more sporadic and casual player.

Maybe it’s the game. Maybe I’ve just grown up. I wish I had a definitive answer of which it was.