Back in the summer of 2002 I was lucky enough to be one of the first U.S. press members to get an early copy of a game called Animal Crossing for the GameCube. It came in a non-specific clear plastic case and up to that point I had no idea what to expect from this new title that Nintendo was describing as a communication game. What set it apart from most other games up to that point is that it took place in real-time (sort of like the hit show 24, except with less torture) and the game encouraged users to check in every day to see what was new. After a few hours with the game I was hooked, booting the game up every day for years just to check in with my fellow villagers, catch a few bugs, and go fishing. This core concept of dropping in once a day to escape the pressures of the real world still holds up today – now more than ever. Who doesn’t want to chill out on a deserted island with friends?
It’s been entirely too long since we last had a full-fledged Animal Crossing game. That’s partly to blame on the failure of the Wii U to gain momentum, but whatever the underlying reasons are, it’s great to have it playable on a TV once again with Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I know some think of this series as a handheld game and others as a console game, but now both camps get their ways thanks to the hybrid nature of the Switch. Having played extensively (over 80 hours as of this writing) in both docked and handheld modes, I can report back that the game runs fantastic no matter your preference. When possible I like to soak in those HD visuals on my OLED TV, because man do they look fantastic!
The core elements of prior Animal Crossing games are alive and present in this newest iteration. While the game does start off very differently, with you moving to a deserted island where upon you must build up the businesses from scratch, after a week or so you’ll be on track to creating a bustling island. You’ll be tasked with filling up the island with animal inhabitants and constructing essential buildings, like the massively improved museum and Nook’s Cranny, a small store that sells a variety of items that change on a daily basis. It’s here where this new game makes one of its biggest gameplay improvements: crafting. You can now collect resources that will be used to create new tools, furniture, and other objects. There are twigs to collect from shaking trees, three different types of wood that falls off trees when you take an axe to them, rocks to hit with your shovel or axe to grab stones, clay, and iron nuggets, and even pulling those annoying weeds will have an upside. As you learn new recipes your catalog of available items to build will grow and you’ll soon be creating a vast array of cool stuff.
This crafting gameplay loop is quite addicting and probably my favorite part of the game. There are some cons to it, as you can only craft a single item at a time. At first this might not seem like a big deal, but as you play the game more and more you’ll realize that sometimes you want to create 10 of something, but you have to go through the same prompts and animations for each one. Another issue is that your tools frequently break. You start the game only being able to make flimsy tools, like the axe, shovel, net, and fishing rod. Soon you get access to creating stronger versions of these, but those too will break after some use. Given that most of the stuff you’ll be doing in the game uses one or more of these tools, having to craft new ones each time they break becomes tedious. One other annoyance is that if you want to craft the better version of a tool you first have to craft the flimsy one…again making you go through the crafting process twice just to get the object you wanted. It would be nice if the game would just know that you have the supplies needed to create the flimsy version and after that’s created you’d have the supplies for the superior version and just let you skip one of the steps.
In addition to crafting items you’ll gain the ability to customize many of them later down the road. This is really enjoyable as well because you never quite know what new colors or patterns you might be able to apply to an item until you try. This adds another layer of individuality so no two islands will ever be exactly the same – even if they have some of the same furniture.
Speaking of furniture, you can now place most of it outdoors as well! This is a fantastic addition that really adds a ton to the game. Your imagination is about the only limitation as to how you want to decorate your island. You want to place a bed outside and a fire pit in your house? Go for it. For the most part you’re free to do what you want with very few restrictions. Once you upgrade your tent to a house you’ll also have a generous amount of storage, where you can place items for later use. No longer do you have to fill up your rooms with fish or bugs as you wait for the store to open – simply throw them outside or put them in your storage to easily access later on.
It’s obvious the developers at Nintendo took a hard look at the UI of past Animal Crossing games and pretty much gutted most of it. For New Horizons there’s an all-new inventory screen that’s easy to access and use. Early in the game you’ll have the option to spend some Nook Miles (more on that in a moment) to increase the number of spots in your pockets to carry even more items. You’ll also gain access to a tool wheel to make it even quicker to change tools on the fly.
Perhaps the biggest quality of life addition to the entire game is the ability to take a birds-eye view of the rooms in your house and move furniture and objects with ease. Those that have played previous games will remember that you previously had to place an object on the floor and then manually drag it and turn it, something that often got annoying real fast. Here you can select the object and move it to wherever you like with ease. You can even do this for items hanging on the walls, which is really awesome. If you want to grab multiple pieces of furniture and move them all at once (handy when your rooms grow in size) you simply hold down a button, drag across them and grab them. Ironically the items outside your house act like the items used to inside the house – in other words we’re still relegated to placing an object and them moving it manually. Still, I’ll take this restriction as it’s light years better than New Leaf where you had to have Isabelle come out and evaluate where each object would fit. All in all, the interior-decorating portion of the game is vastly superior to any other in the franchise, and a huge step forward.
If you’re completely new to the Animal Crossing experience you may wonder what it is you do in New Horizons? Well there are often numerous tasks that you can tackle on any given day. You’re always on a quest to earn more Bells (the currency in the game) because you’re going to want to be able to purchase the items in the store every day as well as upgrade your house and even the town’s infrastructure. To earn Bells you can sell things like fish and bugs that you catch. As you might expect, some of them are worth more than others, so discovering which ones will earn you top Bell and knowing when and where to find them is half the fun. Other random events, like a balloon floating over your island with a present attached that you can shoot down with a slingshot, are constantly occurring. You’ll have random visitors that are selling new things or other strange happenings like a spirit needing your help. Many times it’s a good idea to pop into the game at different times of day because you never know quite what to expect when you do!
As if the core mechanics weren’t addictive enough already, there’s a new Nook Miles Rewards system. You can think of these as achievements that you earn as you complete specific objectives. As you reach more milestones you’ll earn reward miles that can be exchanged for special items that you order through a kiosk. Early in the game you’ll gain access to the plus version of this reward program and when that happens you’ll have five randomly selected objectives that you can work on to earn more miles. As you complete one it goes away and another one pops up in its place so you’ll always have something new to work on. This may be as simple as catching five bugs or talking to three villagers and as complex as catching a Stringfish.
A reward you can purchase for 2000 miles is a ticket to a random island. When you do this you can fly off to a small remote island that will often have more resources, like iron, for you to collect. Some of these (most in my experience) will have the same native fruit you started the game with (peaches for me) and similar fauna. In this regard the steep cost of 2000 miles might not seem worth it – and it probably isn’t unless you’re in dire need of iron. If you’re lucky you might end up on an island filled with exotic fruit (worth 500 Bells instead of the normal 100 Bells) or filled with fish that are typically very difficult to find otherwise. There are even accounts of islands filled with money rocks or crawling with tarantulas – either of which will get you rich quick. Despite having been to over 20 of these getaways, I haven’t been so lucky. The best thing that’s happened to me so far is I came across two islands filled with bamboo. I took some back with me and now I have a plentiful supply for some of the recipes that require it.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is by far and away the prettiest game in the series so far. The colorful graphics are a sight to behold and the entire graphic engine has been overhauled from prior games to include things like realistic lighting. Nearly every object casts a shadow, and that’s constantly changing depending on where the sun or moon is located overhead. The entire color palette shifts as the day turns into night and the skies are often beautiful shades of orange and pink right before the stars come into view. The furniture and objects you collect are really fantastically rendered this time around with highly detailed textures. There’s a huge variety in the clothing you can wear and everything just looks so good. It’s obvious every single item in the game has been reworked from the ground up to look its best. You now have full camera control when inside houses to take a closer look around, something that I’ve wanted for a long time. The museum has seen the biggest upgrade with huge sprawling exhibits to explore. I simply love hanging out in the aquarium and looking at all of the fish I’ve donated so far.
At first I was disappointed in the soundtrack because the first week or so you’ll hear the same music on the island on repeat. In previous games every hour the background music would change and I always loved that about the series. Thankfully after I completed an objective in the game this feature returned. You’ll once again be able to craft your own town theme, which plays every time you talk to someone and at the top of every hour. As usual the “animalese” sound effect is back, so be prepared to hear some garbled noise when you talk to the various animals. I find it kind of adorable even after all these years, but it might not be for everyone.
Not everything is bright and sunny and perfect in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I have some pet peeves and grievances that I must mention (in addition to the ones above), in hopes of someone at Nintendo seeing this and relaying it to the development team. First up, although this doesn’t have an impact on the way I play the game, it should be noted that the local multiplayer experience isn’t that great. Although the game has been promoted as a co-op experience for families to enjoy together, the sad truth is that only the first person that creates the island is truly in charge of what’s going on. Any one else that moves in can still create a house and collect resources, craft, shop, fish, etc. However, the big decisions, like where to put buildings, bridges, ramps, etc. can only be done by the first person that created the island. This can make other players feel like second-class citizens, and in reality they really are. Adding insult to injury is the restriction that only one island can be created per Switch system. If you want to have multiple islands you’ll need to have multiple consoles, and that’s not cheap!
Another area ripe for improvement is the online element of the game. It’s still a bit cumbersome to invite people or go to someone else’s island. You have to sift through multiple menus every single time and really there’s no need for all of the complications. Every single time another person flies to another island the people on that island are treated to a 30-second black screen with an icon slowly showing the plane’s descent. At first I thought this was kind of novel, but if you’re on an island with a lot of visitors, each time they arrive or leave the entire game has to pause to allow for it. I do like the idea of being able to add people to a “best friends” category, which allows you to message them even if they aren’t on your island. I wish Nintendo would have taken this one step further and let me see if they currently had their gates open to visitors so I didn’t have to go to the airport, cycle through several menus, connect to the internet, and then do a search only to find out no one has gates open. A little icon next to their name would suffice.
Staying on the topic of online, there’s a severe lack of activities to partake in with your friends. Don’t get me wrong, I find enjoyment in visiting other peoples’ islands, trading items, and checking out what their stores are selling. But beyond that, there’s precious little to do that’s even remotely entertaining. I’ve spend several hours just hanging out with some of my friends while we fished and talked via the Switch Online app, but it would have been so much more fun if there were some mini-games to play. Also, what’s up with there not being a way to take your friends to a remote island like we could in New Leaf? Overall it seems like the online mode is specifically there to share things with your friends, but there’s little gameplay to be had.
The original Animal Crossing on GameCube included NES games that could be played in the game. Now I understand Nintendo has moved on to things like Virtual Console and Switch Online, so I wasn’t expecting that to be the case here. However, one thing that has persistently bugged me over the years with this series is the sever absence of interactivity of many of the game’s objects. Despite looking better than ever, if you happen to get a pinball table for your house you can’t do much with it. You can go up to it and hit “A” and watch the ball go around and the flippers move for a few seconds. Same thing goes with so many other things, like a bike, a teacup ride, springy horse, darts, billiards, and the list goes on. This is Nintendo we’re talking about – the king of the mini-game! They sold how many copies of Wii Play and you’re telling me they can’t repurpose some small mini-games for this one?
How cool would it be to buy an air hockey table and then when you go up to it you actually play air hockey? I’m not asking for the moon here, but I think it’s a huge missed opportunity and something Nintendo could easily afford to do. One of the latest things I got in the game was an actual in-ground swimming pool. It sure looks pretty, but there’s nothing interactive about it whatsoever. It would have been cool if I could walk up and jump in for a quick dip. I also just got a telephone booth and you can’t even open it up and go inside. Things like that really irk me. A lot of appliances turn on and do a cute little animation, but it would be fantastic if maybe 20 or so items in the game went the extra mile in the interactivity department.
Despite these issues, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is still an amazingly fun game. As usual the writing is excellent and you really become attached to the various inhabitants. There’s a definite grind to the game that some will instantly be addicted to. It’s easy to lose hours upon hours to this game in what seems like minutes. Although it’s supposed to be a slow-paced vacation getaway, I often find myself hustling about trying to get as much stuff done as I can as quickly as possible. Whether you just want to relax on the beach catching fish or try your luck in the high-pressure stakes that is the stalk market (buying turnips low and selling them high), how you play is entirely up to you. I’m looking forward to what’s in store for us in the future with upcoming holiday events and changing seasons. In this trying time of social distancing, at least I can escape to my island and forget about it all – even if for only a few hours a day.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review
- Graphics - 10/1010/10
- Sound - 9.5/109.5/10
- Gameplay - 9/109/10
- Lasting Appeal - 10/1010/10
Final Thoughts: EXCELLENT
I absolutely adore Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Fans of the series will appreciate numerous quality of life improvements, especially when it comes to interior decorating. The new crafting mechanic and Nook Miles Rewards system are welcome additions to an already addictive experience. With beautiful graphics, charming characters, memorable soundtrack, and an unbelievable lasting value, this one will be on my Switch HOME screen for years to come.