The game of the decade was released last week, I’m calling it now. “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” was released on the Nintendo Switch, the latest iteration in the Animal Crossing series that has come eight years after the release of its predecessor “Animal Crossing: New Leaf,” and it was well worth the wait.
“Animal Crossing: New Horizons” takes place on a formerly deserted island that tanuki Tom Nook has acquired to develop into a personal island paradise. You take the role as one of the first villagers moving onto the island to settle it. The other inhabitants are two random animals who will hopefully win your heart. I started with Dom, a little pink ram who loves to work out, and Renée, a pink rhino wearing a sailor shirt. As your island grows and develops, you can invite more and more villagers to come live on your island, in all varieties of animal species and personality. I managed to find my favorite villager, a smug little gazelle named Lopez, on one of the other islands you can travel to a few days in on the game.
“Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” like all in the series, runs on real-time and operates off of the time set on your console. Each day, something new will arrive on your island if you’ve put the work in the day before, and the music and island scenery gradually changes as the day goes on. Progression, for the most part, is linear, but you aren’t rushed to go onto any sort of path and you can really take the time to stop and smell the roses, or whatever flower your island started with. Of course, if you are not patient, this can make it hard to fully enjoy the game.
Luckily, “New Horizons” has included a new system that gives players little quests to work toward that earn “Nook Miles,” one of two in-game currencies. There are smaller daily quests that are simple, such as catching a certain type of bug or talking to your fellow villagers. There are also long-term goals, such as catching 40 fish in a row or selling weeds. This helps to give it a slightly more structured feeling. When I used to play “New Leaf” I would constantly get a little lost, not sure what goal to work on next. Here, if I’ve done whatever has been requested of me for the day, I can go about and focus on earning “bells,” the other game currency that allows you to buy clothes, furniture and upgrade your island’s infrastructure.
In terms of common time-filling activities, if you are wanting to stay on your island and need to acquire bells, the two main ways are fishing and bug-catching. Bug-catching has been more fun for me overall, even if it currently doesn’t seem to be as lucrative as fishing. It’s not that it’s easier, in fact, it came be hard to track down some bugs and is more dangerous than fishing, but I like being able to run around the full island instead of just along the shoreline. Most bugs in the game are chill, waiting to be caught to be put into the museum and pampered until the end of their buggy days. The only exceptions to this are tarantulas, which spawn at night and you must carefully approach lest they attack you, and wasp nests that fall from trees and will unleash a swarm of them on you.
One thing that did “bug” me was the fishing mechanic. I love fishing in video games a lot – or at least I’ve warmed to it more recently – but there is nothing more frustrating than casting your line and having the fish turn away right as the bobber lands. That said, there are good times to be had when you and a group of friends get together on one of your islands while it’s raining and try to get the rarer fishes that spawn, even if it can be a little stressful when you’re the last to catch one and everyone’s standing around clapping as you pull out another sea bass.
You can play this game entirely single player, however, there are a few online options that allow you to connect and play with friends, including visiting each others’ islands via the airport, which is run by two dodo brothers. You can send mail and gifts as well, which led to my first overly-strong emotion while playing the game.
My dear friend sent me a gift and I almost teared up from how kind the message that was sent along with it was, until I realized that was simply the default message sent when one buys an item through Nook’s Shop. Well, the sentiment was still there at least, because he gave me a t-shirt and a poster of my favorite villager and for that I am eternally grateful. You can erase the default messages and put your own, such as when I got doctor’s masks available to buy in my own shop and wound up sending one to each of my friends with a gentle reminder to please social distance. Just remember to be respectful and follow Nintendo’s code of conduct.
Customization isn’t just limited to the messages you send. You can also customize your island, building bridges and terraforming it to your heart’s content. Your house is free to be decorated, as is the rest of the island, saving for villager houses. Certain decorations have the ability for you to choose a different look for them through the customization option of workbenches. You can even change the color of the tools you make. My favorite part of it all is that I can make an island tune and hear my villagers sing it anytime I talk to them. Currently, they’re all singing a high pitched version of the Tetris theme song, which, as we all know, is an absolute bop.
To unify the island, you can also make a town flag, but that is slightly more difficult. To make a town flag, you must make a design through the game’s drawing mode or use a tool to scan a pre-existing image into the game (there are guides out there for this). The bright side is that through this same interface, one can design their own clothes, if they can’t find any that are just absolutely perfect.
The characters of the island are iconic. Long-term fans of the game will recognize most of their favorite villagers of games past in “New Horizons,” though there are also a few new villagers thrown into the game. In past games, the online community for fans of “Animal Crossing” set up an underground trading ring, trading bells for access to villagers who they hoped would move into their own village. I haven’t yet seen such a strong market for trades like this yet, but I’m sure it will come. People who have been playing the games for years have gotten attached to their favorite villagers and miss them when they move on. It’s genuinely impossible for me to dislike any of the villagers currently in my village, even though I’d really like to find my old villager Diana out there in the waters of the sea. I tried to get Rhonda, a white rhino, to move out, but that effort only lasted half a day and ended when she said she looked forward to being friends. It makes me shudder to think where I will be if I don’t manage to get Diana by the time I hit the limit of 10 villagers. I don’t think I’ll be strong enough to evict anyone from my island. When it comes down to it, the villagers are the soul of the game, the main attraction.
At its heart, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” is a sweet and genuine game, where you can escape from the terrors of the day to decorate your own island and home, dress up your character in a wide variety of outfits and befriend colorful animals each with their own personalities. And really, isn’t that just what we need right now?