Animal Crossing: New Horizons has some amount of ‘New’ but can it be both not enough and too much?

Opinion, Video Games

Day 8 of the Write A Stupid Thing Every Day, or W.A.S.T.E.D., quarantine challenge that I’ve imposed on myself.

By: William Chandler

I, like many, was extremely excited for a new Animal Crossing game to release. I’ve given the Animal Crossing franchise many dutiful years of service from a young age, beginning with the Gamecube game simply titled Animal Crossing. It released in the United States on September 16th, 2002, a full year and a half after the Japanese version’s debut as Dōbutsu no Mori on the N64 and about 9 months after the Japanese Gamecube port. This game still represents the franchise at its most pure. The mechanics were simple, the art style unique, and the charm endless. I played Animal Crossing for a year, from the age of 8 to 9, nearly every day. I would return to it periodically for years afterward. There truly was nothing like it.

Fast forward to 2020 and I am 25 years old. Time has seen to the release of three more main entries in the Animal Crossing series, Wild World for the Nintendo DS in 2005, City Folk for the Wii in 2008, and New Leaf for the 3DS in 2012. This is to say nothing about the several spin-off games released between 2012 and now. New Leaf seemed to ignite a passion in the greater world that needed, nay, demanded more Animal Crossing. Something that I, as a small boy crouched on the floor in front of a TV in 2002, could have never imagined. Animal Crossing was… weird. Hell, still is weird if you forget just how used to it you are. A talking, capitalistic Tanuki places you in debt as the first order of business in this new and foreign world and then repeatedly preys on your inability to pay. A tunneling mole yells at you if you neglect to save your game. A dog, the only animal in all of the world of Animal Crossing who wears absolutely nothing in the form of clothing, is the foremost musician and his super-stardom inspires a fanbase so rabid that it would make the K-Pop industry red with envy. How could a game so strange develop a similarly rabid fanbase?

The answer probably has equal parts to do with just how comforting the game is to play and its irresistible cuteness. These two things combine into a sinister product that is fun and addictive. It is designed to keep you coming back day after day and that’s okay. In terms of addictions, this has to be the least predatory of all time. “Ah, I need to check on my flower bed every day,” ranks low on the list of cries for help. And originally this was about as complex as the games were. In the first Animal Crossing, you could count the number of mechanics on two hands. Talk to villagers, shop at the store, donate to the museum, upgrade and decorate your house, just to name a few. The genius of the game lies in just how easily these few and simple mechanics spiral out into a much grander vision of a living, breathing town full of likable, goofball characters. A town that you slowly begin to call your own as you exert your influence over it with every passing day. I never played any of the Seaman games but I feel there is a kinship between the two series in that they both give this feeling, although one more successfully than the other.

And, after 7 long years of waiting, our collective prayers were answered. Animal Crossing: New Horizons released on March 20th, 2020 to immediate success and became the best selling game in the franchise in only six weeks. I imagine we’ve all changed a lot in 7 years and it seems as though I’ve changed into a person who no longer enjoys Animal Crossing. Or perhaps it is Animal Crossing that has changed for the worse. The doldrums of the day-in day-out style of play began to wear on me within the first month. Why, I wonder, is it that a game so much like the one I love can be lesser in my eyes? It could be that they are too similar and I’ve simply grown tired of the formula after five entries in the series. After all, all of the mechanics that I listed as being in the first game are still present and accounted for nearly twenty years later. Or is it the ways that the franchise has changed that makes it less lovable? The additions of the crafting system, Nook phone, Nook miles, and mystery islands only work to complicate something that was once purely about interacting with your villagers and your town. More likely, it is both of these things and more.

A small complaint I had early on, but one that bothered me far beyond reason, is just how frequently I noticed villagers repeating themselves, sometimes as soon as the very next day. Penelope, a villager I really dislike, said her ‘Moon Mouse’ line to me maybe 20 times in 60 days. Perhaps it is rose tinted nostalgia, but I don’t recall this happening as often in older entries. Speaking of disliking villagers, the villager tier lists out there represent a new and sort of dark version of Animal Crossing in which people min/max the game’s mechanics in order to achieve the perfect island. A utopia of sorts, populated by only the exact villagers deemed “good enough” to be allowed there. This is, in my eyes, against the spirit of the game which is, to some extent, learning to love thy neighbor even if you don’t especially like them. You can’t always pick the people in your life. That said, players should enjoy the game the way that they want and I, by no means, am judging anyone for enjoying playing this way. However, for me, seeing the game enter the public consciousness primarily in this way has been off putting. Why is it that the buying and selling of turnips for maximum profit has been discussed so in depth over the last two months despite its relatively minor focus in the game itself?

Likely, I am just sad that I’m no longer a part of the club I helped found. All of the charm of Animal Crossing is present and perhaps better than ever in New Horizons. The writing is more clever and oh, God, the music. The music continues to be a highlight for every entry in the franchise and their ability to iterate on some of the same themes while still having a unique style for each game is to be commended. I would never insinuate that New Horizons is a bad game but I do feel as though some bit of Animal Crossing’s soul is lost with each new release.