Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020)

I’m just going to come right out and say it: I don’t like Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I know, I’m a soulless heathen who hates joy. I almost find it hard to understand how this became one of Nintendo’s highest selling games of all time. I could see a niche appeal for the Animal Crossing franchise, but to me this game was a never-ending cascade of boring and tedious tasks. I can totally understand it being a relaxing escape for many people, and I think the perfect storm of circumstances allowed Animal Crossing: New Horizons to rise to the top of the sales charts.

Animal Crossing games are what are known as life sims. You play as a villager in a town full of wacky animal characters, interacting with them and completing various tasks. Things like chopping wood, fishing, catching bugs, picking up weeds, and decorating with furniture that you collect. It’s not a question that Animal Crossing: New Horizons massively expanded upon the series, adding many new features that I’m sure will become the standard for the franchise.

In previous Animal Crossing titles, the player would move to already existing town, full of buildings and residents. Animal Crossing: New Horizons takes the sim aspect to the extreme, as it places the player on a deserted island with nothing but a tent and a couple of villagers. You take advantage of the resources available by chopping trees and mining rocks. Eventually, you will be able to get some serious infrastructure going. Houses for villagers, a town shop, a museum, a community center, bridges, paths, and a myriad of furniture to decorate your town. You get to place every component, eventually you can even terraform the landscape to fully tailor your island to your liking.

This extreme level of customization is further expanded upon by the new mechanic introduced in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, crafting. This brilliant addition allows players to create furniture as long as they have the know-how and the materials. In previous games, if you wanted a piece of furniture you would need to pray that it would show up in the shop so you could buy it. Being able to craft furniture on the spot is such a massive improvement from the previous formula as it gives you a goal to work towards if you want to make some specific item.

Another new idea is the implementation of “Nook Miles”. These serve as a point system in which you can earn points by completing tasks. Most of the time, these tasks are already things that you are going to be doing anyway like talking to villagers, chopping trees, catching fish, etc. With these points, you can purchase unique items, cloths, or recipes from a terminal. You can even acquire a travel ticket that lets you briefly visit a randomly generated island from which you can gather resources or recruit a new villager.

Probably the most important addition to the series is online play. In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, you can visit your friends’ islands and show off you own. It can be a bit cumbersome to visit a friend, but being able to hangout with your friends is definitely a welcome feature. You can even access their shop and see what items are up for sale. Seeing how other people decorated their island, and taking inspiration to work on your own is the perfect addition to the series.   

Ultimately, Animal Crossing: New Horizons serves as a relaxing way to kill time. There’s no threat, end goal, or rush to do anything. The game actually encourages you to only play a little bit at a time. It gives you daily tasks like talking to your villagers or simply logging on every day. Moreover, many things that happen in the game take real time to come to fruition. Buildings take days to be completed, fruit only grow every few days, fish and bug species are exclusive to certain months and time of day. It’s not meant to be a game that you sit down and grind away at for hours at a time until you “beat” it. There really is no goal. You make of it whatever you want.

Despite all of this, I became mind-numbingly bored of this game long before I could accomplish much of anything. I always “complete” a game before reviewing it, but in a never-ending game like this I at least try to experience most of the content. But for Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I gave up after a couple dozen hour spread across a few weeks. I initially was enticed to come back every day by the carrot-on-a-stick that the game waves in front of the player. Come back tomorrow and the museum will be built, the day after that your house will be complete, the day after that a new part of the island opens, the day after that a new villager arrives, etc. This combined with the tempting daily tasks were a clever trick to get players to become invested in the game, but nevertheless I didn’t keep playing for long.

The problem is this: the game is just boring. Every single mechanic in the game is tedium, rather than being engaging gameplay. Walking up to a tree and bonking it three times is simply not enjoyable. Catching fish and bugs is a little better as they require an aspect of timing, but I still wouldn’t classify those activities as fun. The game is a life sim, so interacting with the villagers should be a crucial part of the game, but to me they felt more like decorations than actual residents on your island. They repeat the same dialogue over and over, walking around the island in circles. I just don’t get it. What exactly is there to actually do in this game? And this is coming from a guy who absolutely adores the hiking and pathfinding of Death Stranding.

I suppose the main appeal of the game is to decorate your island however you want. At first, I spent a considerable amount of time just crafting decorations and arranging them how I wanted. I would get a brief moment of satisfaction before realizing that the tiny section of the island I just decorated took me hours of grinding materials just to adorn how I wanted. At that point, I realized that Animal Crossing: New Horizons wasn’t worth my time. Perhaps I just didn’t connect with the game’s core concepts, but I also feel like the problems don’t stop there.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a quality of life and user experience nightmare. There is an overabundance of repetitive and useless textboxes that you can’t skip. Want to donate a creature to the museum? Thirty seconds of the same exact dialogue every time. Want to sell some items? Dialogue. Want to fly to an island? Get ready to click through a minute of text. It doesn’t seem like much, but this time adds up fast. The inventory is pitifully small, and you are going to need to make frequent trips to the shop or storage to clear it out. You can’t craft things in bulk, so if you want to make ten copies of a certain item, be prepared to sit there for 5 minutes mashing the A button. Moreover, tools break fairly often for some bizarre reason. I can’t surmise a game design reason for this inconvenience, it seems like this happens just to frustrate the player and waste their time.

It seems like this might be the perfect family game, if everyone could make their own island and visit each other it would be an amazing experience for any group of people sharing a console. Yet it seems out of sheer greed the designers made it so there could only be one island per console. If you want another island you have to go buy another $300 Nintendo Switch. Well okay, at least every one can share that one island, right? Nope. Only the player who made it can actively make changes or do anything of value. Any other player is merely a spectator. These decisions are nothing but anti-consumer tactics. What could have been a game that entire families can enjoy together will instead lead to arguments over who gets to make the island.

 Perhaps it is out of the scope of a standard review, but I want to touch on why I believe this game rapidly became one of the best-selling games of all time. Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released on March 20th, 2020, at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. People were stuck inside, with a lot of time to kill, a lot of stress, and not much human contact. As it turns out, you can easily sink tons of hours into this game, it’s very relaxing and stress free, and it allows you to visit your friend’s islands and hang out. The pandemic created an environment in which Animal Crossing could appeal to the locked down populace. The game would have been successful regardless seeing as it was a long-awaited title that improved upon a popular franchise. But I wonder if the pandemic did play a major role in launching the game’s widespread popularity and made it such a viral sensation.

Overall, I came the conclusion that the Animal Crossing series is just not for me. I prefer games with more concrete goals, or at least some sort of objective. Stardew Valley has a similar vibe to Animal Crossing, yet it does a far better job at having an engaging gameplay loop. Everything in Animal Crossing: New Horizons felt monotonous and anything worthwhile just took too long. It is for these reasons that I give Animal Crossing: New Horizons a 5/10. It obviously clicked better for many others, but to me it was just a boring time sink absent of any payoff. I can see it having a niche appeal for people who just want a relaxing game where you don’t have to worry about anything.