Today marks exactly one year since the release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and what a ride we’ve all been on. On its launch week, it quickly overtook social media with screenshots and videos of players hanging out together on their budding islands. It was a smash hit for diehard fans and casual players alike.
Launch day reviews mainly agreed, citing its cosy and comforting atmosphere as a positive, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which even back in March 2020 had people isolating at home. But Animal Crossing is an experience that is intended to last months, even years. So the true test is not how it managed to wow us in that small release window, but how it continues to wow us. Now a full year has passed: we’ve seen all the events, decorated our islands to our heart’s content, met all the characters. So how does Animal Crossing: New Horizons hold up after its first year?
With more than 400 hours of this game under my belt, I can confidently say that it’s been a great ride – for the most part. Looking back on all the images I’ve posted on social media about my journey, and being reminded of just how much my island and I have changed from those humble beginnings, brought up feelings of nostalgia normally reserved for the most beloved games of my childhood. It’s hard to remember a time before I had the ability to place furniture outside or mould the landscape to my will; that’s how natural life in New Horizons feels. I can’t imagine ever going back to my town in New Leaf or Wild World. And yet, not all is perfect on my little slice of paradise.
Trouble in paradise
“I’m not exactly sure why Nintendo thought crafting the same tools again and again would be fun.”
Crafting. Oh, crafting. In my initial review, I welcomed this brand new mechanic to the Animal Crossing series, as it made collecting and customising furniture way more fun. But after my 10th hour spent shaking down trees after the death of yet another shovel, it had worn out that welcome. I’m not exactly sure why Nintendo thought constantly crafting the same tools again and again would be fun – nor am I sure why I was able to overlook it for so long. But to be frank, it sucks. I don’t think there was a single Animal Crossing fan who looked at their invincible fishing rod in City Folk and thought “You know what? I wish this would break after every 30th fish”. Even the strongest tools in the game, the Golden tools that require precious golden nuggets to craft, break eventually.
Luckily, New Horizons has enough daily methods to earn bells that you can get away with simply buying your replacement tools instead, but it still requires a trip to the store. Crafting is great fun when it comes to seasonal events and rate DIY recipes, and is only brought down by the tool durability system that I hope very much will be discarded in the next game.
New Horizons’ biggest strength is how it expanded what you could do with your island and house. Not only did they take the superior interior decoration system from Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designers to make decorating each room a breeze, but they finally made it possible to place almost any item outside and around your island. One year later, it’s still amazing. What a transformation my island has gone through! It’s unrecognisable as the uninhabited island it once was. It’s maybe due to this newfound freedom that it’s harder to ignore the ways in which New Horizons still restricts us in a lot of ways:
Although you can create cliffs around your town, you can’t place hung objects like lamps or portraits on them. You also cannot place rugs outside. That amazing Happy Home Designer interior design system is not available to use outside, bringing us back to the bad old days of painstakingly dragging furniture around at a snail’s pace. The limited inventory space, even though it’s improved from previous titles, isn’t enough to keep up with all the new crafting materials the player must lug everywhere.
I don’t mean to imply that these are game-breakers – after all, it took me the better part of a year for these things to start bothering me. But it’s indicative of the ways that the series is still haunted by mechanics of past titles, even if it’s time for those mechanics to say goodbye.
New Horizons is at its absolute best when you have a goal. Whether that be terraforming your island or collecting all of a furniture set or becoming best friends with your favourite villager, the game’s day-to-day routine is a great secondary activity; something to do in the meantime. But it suffers when that day-to-day routine is the only reason to boot up the game, and I think there are a few reasons for this.
The main one, which could not have been entirely avoided, is the massive, hyped-up player base the game had for its first few months. All the things that made it an online phenomenon – photo and video sharing, increasing multiplayer functionality, and the sudden need to isolate indoors – also created an atmosphere that in retrospect was not exactly conducive to a relaxing island lifestyle sim. The FOMO was real; if you weren’t playing Animal Crossing every day, you would fall behind your friends in no time. Get the museum! Get the Town Hall! Complete your house! I know I felt the pressure, and threw myself into collecting everything, selling turnips, and spending hours every day playing this game that actively encourages its players to do the opposite.
This dedication that many of us had resulted in many people completing the game’s main objectives and more within the first month. And I’m not gonna lie, it was great fun. The sense of fast progression and accomplishment was fantastic, and at the time, it felt as though there would always be something to do. But slowly but surely, things slowed down, and all my friends stopped playing. And while I still play, it’s far less often. So what happened? Well, while I think burnout is partly to blame, the other culprit is probably New Horizons’ weakest element, its day-to-day routine.
The Animal Crossing series has always been built around the routine of each real-time day, designed so players can participate in the day-by-day events while slowly accomplishing their goals. Repeated characters, events, and dialogue is all part of the package, but what happens when the player’s primary goal was completed long ago? There are only so many times I’m happy to mash the A button through Gulliver’s dialogue so that I can get to the part where I dig a bunch of holes in the sand.
Content updates to the rescue
What replenishes burnout more than content updates? Not much, and in that regard, Nintendo has been more than generous. In addition to the seasonal event updates, which just contained the already promised events like Halloween and Toy Day, we got the shady art dealer Cousin Redd, scrubs, ocean diving, and more. To date there have been eight major updates and even more small fixes and quality-of-life changes, which makes me confident that Nintendo is invested in keeping New Horizons fresh for a while yet. As of yesterday, the newest update of the game’s one year anniversary introduces new updates to the NookPhone and brand new items. Most encouraging of all is that the 2021 Bunny Day event will include brand new items, an indication that it won’t just be a repeat of last year.
“To really bring the players back for any proper length of time though, we need the big stuff.”
To really bring the players back for any proper length of time though, we need the big stuff. New goals that take the big bucks, more daily events to keep us invested. There’s plenty of stuff to choose from: New Horizons is still missing Gyroids, The Roost Cafe, Gracie’s Boutique, and plenty of furniture sets from previous titles.
The recent 35th Anniversary Mario themed items and clothing has been fun, but I can’t help but feel that such updates won’t be enough in the future.
But still, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been one of my lifelines this year. Even after all the worst times of 2020, after I was separated from loved ones and felt hopeless, I still had a New Year’s celebration with a countdown and fireworks and a sequined hat. And in that moment, everything felt okay.
So what’s the verdict, after all that? I will still confidently say that it’s the best Animal Crossing game to date, which is why the nitpicks I do have with it stand out so much. But Animal Crossing has always excelled at the little things, and New Horizons’ irritating tool breakability and hit-or-miss daily routine aren’t enough to ruin the magic. I’m so excited to see what another year of Animal Crossing: New Horizons will bring.
Come visit my one-year-old Island of Nightopia, if you like. My dream address is DA-2633-5909-7760. Happy 1 year anniversary!