Animal Crossing Came Just In Time
Initially slated for release in September of last year and unfortunately delayed by Nintendo, the release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons was pushed back to the 20th of March, 2020 - little did they know how crucial that date would end up being.
It ended up releasing amidst the worldwide period of self-isolation, with countries around the globe in various states of lockdown. Switch sales have skyrocketed, with over 52 million units sold as of March 2020. There are shortages of the system, due in part to logistical issues relating to the Coronavirus, but due no doubt to the spike in home-bound folk wanting to get their hands on Animal Crossing to get them through this period. And let me tell you - Animal Crossing is the perfect getaway title to sink a few hours into. Relax, escape from the real world and express yourself in the sickly-sweet wholesomeness that is Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
But before we go any further, what the heck is Animal Crossing? I think the best way I could describe it in laymen's terms is that it is like a bizarre mash-up of Minecraft and The Sims, with some classic Nintendo wackiness thrown in there for good mix. New Horizons on the Switch is the fifth* edition of the series, and although it expands greatly on the original premise, its overall gameplay, atmosphere and style have ultimately stood true and unchanged since the original Japan-only release on the Nintendo 64 back in 2001. The player plays the role of the only human in a town full of quirky anthropomorphised animals, and is responsible for performing tasks such as fishing, weeding, growing fruit trees, and digging up fossils. You have a mortgage that you have to pay off to a chubby Raccoon called Tom Nook, and you can collect a wide array of furniture, clothing and accessories to customise your player, your house and your town. As well as a number of pre-set characters such as Tom Nook, your town will be populated by a handful of the now 400+ villagers who can reside there.
It's one of those games that really has to be seen to understand, as it probably sounds very mundane on paper. The entire thing is dripping in Nintendo's charm - the characters are memorable, the visuals are vibrant and unique, the music is upbeat and catchy, and the dialogue is very amusing. The game runs in real-time, and this adds a real sense of immersion to the experience. Shops have opening hours, different bugs will come out depending on the time of day and the weather, and the entire look of your town will change depending on the season. Characters in-game will remark on your absence if you haven't played in a long time, and over time your town can become unruly and messy if you don't tend to it. This feature in particular has been toned down over the years, but it's still a neat addition that makes the game feel alive. And, the fundamental gameplay loop of gathering your daily fruit, bugs, fish etc. and flogging them to the shop for a quick buck is rewarding and addictive; and getting to know your villager buddies and working towards your mortgage or town projects is a slow, yet rewarding journey that keeps the player enticed.
With each iteration of the series, the player has been given more and more freedom. In the previous iteration of the game on the 3DS, players took on the role of Town Mayor and were able to build community projects such as bridges, fountains and recruit or evict other occupants. This time around in New Horizons, you're given complete control of a deserted island, and a much more diverse set of tools to play with than ever before. You can now choose the location of literally any building that gets built on your island. You can pave your own paths and fences, move buildings, cut down trees, destroy stones in your path and even eventually terraform rivers and cliffs, moulding them to suit your needs. Not only that, but the game has taken a leaf out of the open-world survival genre that is popular right now and added a wealth of crafting materials to the game which you can use to build and customise your own items in the game. It does an excellent job, however, of drip-feeding all of the aforementioned features to you, resulting in an experience that is neither overwhelming, or deprived of long-term unlocks to look forward to.
Since Wild World on the DS, Animal Crossing has enjoyed multiplayer connectivity, which adds a whole additional element of enjoyment to the game. Not only can you send mail and gifts to your friends, but you can visit each other's towns, which makes showing off each other's creations all the more interesting. Villagers will remark on players who have visited your town, or even show off mail that other players sent them. But even outside of the multiplayer in-game, it's a game that thrives in communities. It's a game full of wonder, mystery and rumours - even back on the older entries I was always hearing about cool secrets, quick money-making schemes or tricks you could do in the game, and it's no different now on the Switch. It's a series that is absolutely enjoyable as a single-player experience, but looking out for gifts for friends, showing them around your island or just sharing stories with adds that extra enjoyment to the whole ordeal.
Animal Crossing is the kind of game that requires patience. It also requires a certain level of initiative from the player, because whilst the game does give you a number of projects and tasks to work on, a lot of the long-term appeal relies on you making your own plans and working towards them. And whether that's filling your museum with every single bug, fish and fossil, paying off your immense mortgage to a raccoon, or turning your island into a theme park, you can take baby steps and just enjoy the journey towards your overall goals. Ultimately, it's part quirky sim game, and part self-expression tool. You get back what you put into it. I think that it's best enjoyed in short, frequent bursts, but I frequently find myself losing hours at a time! Despite everyone's initial dismay that the game's release was delayed, it ultimately could not have come out at a more opportune time. I think that the world needs more of the kind of positive energy that Animal Crossing embraces. And right now while the rest of the world is essentially shut, I can't think of anywhere better to hang out than my lovely Goo Island.
Below are a few pics I've taken of my adventures so far!
* New Horizons is arguably the sixth entry in the series if you count the original Japanese Animal Forest as a separate release to the enhanced Gamecube port. I am choosing to count them as one edition of the game. I also acknowledge that there have been three spin-off titles; Amiibo Festival, Happy Home Designer and Pocket Camp, but these are not counted as mainline series entries. Yes, I'm a huge nerd!