Game Reviews

New Horizons for the Animal Crossing Franchise

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If you told me at the beginning of March that ANIMAL CROSSING: NEW HORIZONS would be the game of 2020, I would have laughed in your face. ANIMAL CROSSING, the most milquetoast game out there? ANIMAL CROSSING, which has no discernable objective, no end in sight? That ANIMAL CROSSING? Yes.

The perfect storm of circumstance just happened to brew the week before Nintendo released their latest iteration of the ANIMAL CROSSING franchise. The beginnings of a global pandemic swirled. Offices closed as workers converted to virtual meetings and home offices. And then came the stay-at-home order. Shelter-in-place. Wear a mask.  Isolate, or you could get sick.

For the first time in our lives, whole cities and states were stuck at home, with nothing to do, no one to see, and no end in sight. Friends and families began to turn to the internet, to find a way to connect with their loved ones from afar, and to escape the most bizarre, bleak time in recent memory.

And then ANIMAL CROSSING: NEW HORIZONS came out. A game that necessitated online play with friends, which also offered a sense of control and calm in an increasingly chaotic world. In ANIMAL CROSSING, you can still fish and climb and explore, nothing’s on fire, and the economy’s doing just fine.

@Lollibeepop really nailed the ACNH experience

In a pandemic-less world, ANIMAL CROSSING: NEW HORIZONS might have been a very different experience. The reason it’s suddenly exploded in popularity and onto social media is because it’s needed right now. But prior to this specific release, the series was never really “popular,” outside of the bubblegum-and-lollipop gamer girl niche. Titles like THE SIMS and MINECRAFT get the lion’s share of interest in life-sims, because they’re not bound to the Nintendo family of consoles. And, if you’re a die-hard Nintendo fan like myself, ANIMAL CROSSING was typically just the palate cleanser between tentpole MARIO, ZELDA, and POKÈMON releases.

But that’s no longer the case. Now, if you’ve got good turnip prices, celebrities will beg to visit your island. Island Design tutorials have taken over YouTube, and Tiktok is chock-full of hilarious compilations of game glitches and tarantula farms.

It’s an ANIMAL CROSSING world now, and we just live in it.

So, now that we’ve had some time to explore all of the features and a couple special events, how does ANIMAL CROSSING: NEW HORIZONS stack up?

Well, while NEW HORIZONS certainly has a few pitfalls (heh), it’s actually a really solid game—one I consider to be one of Nintendo’s best franchise expansions. It takes the most innovative parts of POCKET CAMP, Nintendo’s (arguably) failed attempt to port the series to mobile, and infuses them into the core, tried-and-true pseudo-capitalist elements. It’s still the game you love (or love to hate), but with an added sense of tactility and accomplishment that previous franchise titles could never give you.

Animal Crossing Pocket Camp

RIP POCKET CAMP

Rest assured, your soul still belongs to Tom Nook. You still have to grind the catch-sell-repeat cycle to climb out from under the mountain of debt. But you’re not just doing it to pay off a small house anymore. And you’re not just doing it to buy a coffee shop, fill a museum, and build up a town no one visits.

No, now you’re doing it to bend an uninhabited island to your whim. To literally craft your perfect world, with hand-picked residents and coordinated furniture. A true, chibi utopia.

Because NEW HORIZONS places so much emphasis on the social aspect of the game, there’s a sense of urgency and competition to it. Your friends will ferry over to your island regularly, to sell turnips or loot your stores. And when they do, they will judge, and judge hard. It’s basically an online Keeping Up With the Joneses. Who has the best theme? Best layout? Best villagers? Best house? You will constantly be assessing everyone else’s work and progress, whether you mean to or not. Because we all aspire to be the bright, shiny model of a Cool Island™, with stylish bridges and perfectly coordinated yards.

Sometimes the difference in skill is embarrassing
My island, Wyndon

@honeycrossing_’s island, Manuka

And that’s what ANIMAL CROSSING is all about, isn’t it? A virtual American Dream. If you work hard and save up, you can have it all. Friends, a lovely house, full of prized possessions and trophies. But someone will always have more. So we grind and toil to get that “more,” only for a new, shinier thing to appear after that. As humans, the itch to splurge, to collect, to hoard, never really dies… which is why ANIMAL CROSSING doesn’t have an “end.” Life doesn’t have a roll-credits moment. Time just marches on and, if we don’t take care of our affairs, literal and metaphorical weeds will grow. Meta, isn’t it?

I could write a whole essay lamenting the death of the American Dream, so I’ll move on to the nitty gritty. What works? What doesn’t?

I’ll start with the pros. NEW HORIZONS’ re-skin is probably the most overt improvement. Porting an AC title onto the Switch did wonders for the overall experience and aesthetic. Gone are the sharp angles and boxy designs. By harnessing the Switch’s computing strength, NEW HORIZONS creates a really crisp, HD experience—one that doesn’t lose the game’s trademark cartoonish style and charm. The leaves rattle when wind blows through the trees! Vapor trails streak the sky after you’ve returned to your island post-travel! And the tranquil sunsets and lapping waves are next to photoreal.

Animal Crossing beach

See the line where the sky meets the sea… it calls me!

There’s just so many small, lovingly crafted details that prove how much love went into this game. And all of these little details matter, especially when the name of the game is customization. You can edit and alter so much of your ANIMAL CROSSING experience now, down to the phone case protecting your character’s NookPhone (more on that in a bit). And while that might sound extraneous, it’s something that fans have been clamoring for for a very long time. A little bit of self-expression goes a long way, and Nintendo finally acknowledged that.

So maybe there still aren’t a lot of options for hairstyles and colors. But you can now use the design editor to make eyebrows! And maybe the clothes selection at Able Sisters stagnates after about 100 hours of playtime… but there’s now a try-on booth where you can preview them before you buy! Your character even vogues when you toggle between options, like a runway model.

Some days, my aesthetic is Elton John Jesus

Apart from the overall design upgrade, the inventory overhaul is probably my favorite new addition to ANIMAL CROSSING. Let’s be honest… in previous AC games, the inventory Sucked with a capital S. Your pockets were limited. Your in-home storage, a chaotic mess. There was no way to file, to way to stack like items. And in the last console release, NEW LEAF, space maxed out at 180 items. A mere drop in the bucket, for a game that touts a catalog of over 4,600 products.

But now, with the addition of Nook Miles, NEW HORIZONS offers several tiers of inventory expansions. Where you’d once only have 15 pocket slots, you can now have a maximum of 40! And, your in-home storage slots explode to 1,600 when all of your expansions are complete! That’s SO. MUCH. SPACE. Gone are the days of prioritizing your outfits over collectibles, or vice versus. Now you can hoard even more!

And your inventory comes with another new nifty trick: like items stack automatically! In NEW LEAF, 15 bamboo shoots meant full pockets. In NEW HORIZONS, that’s what, two slots max? You can haul almost three times as much stuff to sell to the Nooks, which means fewer trips for the same amount of bells. Efficiency is the name of the game, especially when you’re trying to speedrun and beat Karen to a five-star rating.

Animal Crossing pockets

Don’t ask where he keeps all of it

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE the new inventory system, inside the house and out. But it seems to be a little bit of a “too little, too late” scenario. It mattered more in earlier games, when you had very little space to work with. The rooms in your house were all the same size, so if you wanted to change up the themes, you had to store entire rooms worth of inventory… but there was hardly any space to do so.

And now, you have literally infinite space. The houses are bigger. Rooms wider. And you can place just about any item outside on the ground. You’re encouraged to do so, in fact. You can fence off large swaths of land and create outdoor kitchens, cafes, and playgrounds. So why would you need to store anything in your house at all? If there’s no space, just throw it down outside Nook’s Cranny. Or, better yet, create an unwanted item drop zone by your airport, so your friends can pick over your trash like buzzards on a carcass.

With the addition of Nook Miles and DIY Recipes, NEW HORIZONS makes it easier than ever to get your collect on. In the early game, Miles are your currency and a compass for the “story mode,” pushing you to interact with your villagers, shake a few trees, and collect materials if you want to pay off that tent and that first house. The more you grind, the more Miles you earn, but it will always feel like you’re just barely scraping by.

Tah, dear. Off to Kevin’s to pick over his duplicate fossils

Eventually Bells come back into favor, when Tom Nook decides he’d like to profit off of your hard work, and Miles take a back seat. You’ll still earn them, and they’ll rack up to totals you’d only dreamed of in your early game. I have about 30k Miles in my account, sitting collecting dust. Because, after a certain point in NEW HORIZONS, they don’t do anything. Once you’ve looted through Nook’s Miles catalogue, there’s really nothing you can spend them on, apart from the occasional Miles ticket, to take you to a randomly-generated Mystery Island. And even then, those are a dime-a-dozen. A drop in the Miles bucket.

While I like the new Mystery Islands, the algorithm isn’t designed for the odds to be in your favor. There’s a two-percent chance you’ll get something other than your average “Waterfall” Island, which has your native fruit, native fish, native bugs, and a minimal chance of a DIY in a bottle. Back in NEW LEAF, going to Mystery Island meant getting things you couldn’t get back home. Rare fruit—coconuts and bananas—and tropical fish and bugs. But no more. Now you have to slog through menus and snail-slow loading screens, only to arrive at the exact same island every single time.

Sure, there’s still ways to grind and profit off of these Mystery Island—where there’s a will. In earlier months, tarantula farming accelerated those brave enough to try through those prohibitive house payments. They’re scary little buggers, hissing and jumping and flying after you at demonic speeds. I’m sure my family appreciated my midnight shrieks of terror. But one night of tarantula farming could typically net you between 400k and 600k, so your pounding heart, sweats, and broken nets prove quite lucrative.

Animal Crossing bells

*Laughs in Bells*

The other, more classic approach to high-rolling is the Stalk Market. You heard right. Stalk. One of the many cringey puns written into ANIMAL CROSSING. Just like the real life stock market, you can buy shares—er, crops of turnips—and pray to God that your island isn’t cursed with a downward price trend. There’s various apps that are designed to read the algorithm and help forecast a pattern, like Turnip Prophet, but even its 100% guaranteed guesses can be hit-or-miss.

Fortunately, that’s where friends come in. In previous games, you were kind of on your own. You’d just have to take your losses on the chin. But now, there’s #ACNHTurnips, where millions of players post their prices daily. If you’re running out of time and need to unload, it will be your saving grace. But if you happen to be the one to strike oil and have good prices, prepare for the deluge.

I made the mistake of Tweeting my price once. Within minutes, my Twitter DMs crashed. Turns out, it’s a full-time job, ushering players in and out of my island like a flight attendant, but can be well worth your while if you have the patience. Most people leave tips if you help them out—and those add up. I didn’t have any celebrities banging on my door, but the likes of Elijah Wood, Brie Larson, and Dylan Sprouse have been known to spirit fans’ islands to unload their own stalks. Maybe one day I’ll get Brandon Routh. A girl can dream…

Animal Crossing celebs

Quarantine taught us that celebs are nerds too

Which brings me to my next point: ANIMAL CROSSING Online. What. The. Fuck. It’s been a decade, Nintendo. You’ve had more than enough time to figure it out.

Remember that Nintendo Wi-Fi USB stick? Well, it hasn’t gotten much better. Nintendo charges $3.99 a month for their online services, which is steep for a service that should be free. For nearly $50 a year, you get glitchy connections, errors, and crashing servers. For a game that’s built around an online experience, this is irritating and just plain lazy.

And what about those loading screens? Well, they happen every time someone travels to your island. Everyone has to stop and wait when a player travels in. Everyone has to watch that stupid loading screen, where the seaplane blinks across the sky. And if you have multiple people travelling in at the same time? You might as well just walk away for 15 minutes. You won’t be able to do anything. You’re just trapped in a nightmarish loop of arrivals and departures. It’s enough to drive you mad.

Animal Crossing flight

I’ll be happy if I never see that DAL Flight Information board ever again

As NEW HORIZONS rolls out more and more “quality of life” updates, I’m hopeful we’ll see the return of some classic features I miss. For example, HH Showcase, an area where you can study top-rated home designs. There’s also the Dream Suite, which prevented griefing by saving copies of your island. And while it’s unlikely, I do hope the fortune cookie system makes a comeback. I loved getting random Nintendo Swag, like franchise-themed outfits and furniture. There’s a whole room in my NEW LEAF game devoted entirely to Nintendo products.

ANIMAL CROSSING: NEW HORIZONS is a great way to spend idle hours and satisfy your itch to collect and customize. While the title does have its quirks and irks, it is a massive improvement over previous titles, and makes excellent use of the Switch’s hardware. So just sit back, relax, and try to forget there’s a global pandemic raging outside your window. A virtual world without COVID-19 awaits.

All your bells are belong to us

Tracy Nicoletti
Tracy Nicoletti is a freelance writer/producer and native Angelino. When not writing, Tracy is a purveyor of puns, a cosplayer, convention nerd, Anglophile, techie, hardcore gamer, and language connoisseur. Elle parle francais et 日本語.

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