A new Animal Crossing release is an incredibly special occasion. Its real-time clock and shifting seasons make it a game that’s meant to be enjoyed for at least a year or longer. Since the series skipped the Wii U (we refuse to acknowledge amiibo Festival), fans have long been anticipating the first true HD Animal Crossing game.
After nearly 8 years, the wait has finally ended. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the first mainline entry on an HD console, and the high-res graphics aren’t the only update to the series. Nintendo has shaken a few trees up and introduced several brand new mechanics to the series. Crafting, Nook Miles, and terraforming are dramatic changes to the series’ formula, which give players much greater control over collecting and customising than in previous entries in the series.
Your getaway to an island paradise
In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Tom Nook sells you the “Nook Inc. Deserted Island Getaway Package” and sends you off to your personal, private island. Like any great salesman, Tom builds up those expectations with a beautiful ad of your future life in paradise. Step off the plane, and you find you’ve landed on a dump. Not only that, but you’re also the one who’s expected to fix it all up.
The entire game is designed around the premise of growing your island in any way you envision. You’re quickly thrown into the familiar world of anthropomorphic animals, business-savvy tanukis, and magical furniture that turns into leaves which somehow fit neatly in your pocket. But the new island setting offers so much more than ever before.
Crafting and customising everything
Never in an Animal Crossing game have we had the power to customise and decorate the entire world. But, I would be remiss not to at least mention the character customisation that is available from the game’s onset. As a person of colour, I’m all too familiar with the hoops we’d have to jump through to maintain a darker complexion in Animal Crossing. New Horizons fixes that and allows us to freely choose our skin tone, hairstyle, eyes, nose, and smile.
Customisation doesn’t stop at the character level though. The new crafting system and island designer gives us the power to build and place items anywhere we’d like. Older games restricted our creativity to the interiors of our homes, but now, the island is our canvas. Think a bench would look good next to your neighbour’s home? Place it there and you’ll soon see villagers enjoy their new lounging area!
Crafting also lets us acquire new items and tools at any point instead of waiting for a shop to open each day. Additionally, there is a deeper personal reward for the items you spent time collecting. Each item you craft exists because you made it. The pride you feel when decorating with the items you made is much more satisfying than decorating with something store-bought.
Growing your island with shops and facilities
Even though you have the option to craft much of what you need to make island living comfortable, Animal Crossing just wouldn’t be the same without shopping. As your island starts to grow, it garners the attention of many from the mainland. You’ll soon see familiar characters such as Blathers, the Able Sisters, Kicks, and more, with each offering a variety of new items and activities.
You’ll see many of these franchise favourites rotate through your island, but eventually, they may choose to settle on the island. This is where one of the most exciting features comes into play as you have complete control over where a shop or facility is located. Unfortunately, the view when placing buildings still falls a bit short.
To place a building, you must stand in a spot, choose the building from the inventory, see where it lands, and repeat until you are happy with its position. Once the building is placed, the game offers no way for us to move the camera and inspect the placement. Despite its problems, the feature is greatly redeemed by the freedom of placing a building anywhere.
Nook Miles keep you addicted
One of the most difficult aspects of life sims is making the freedom offered by sandbox-style gameplay compelling. Animal Crossing is truly what you make of it and for some, the lack of goals in previous titles was too much to digest. It was a game that forced you to create your own fun. New Horizons takes those players into account with the new Nook Miles system, which is constantly feeding you tiny goals that earn you additional in-game rewards.
The standard “Nook Miles” challenges are a list of long-term stretch goals players will only complete once, while “Nook Miles+” provide rewards for smaller, repeatable goals. Because you get another challenge immediately after completing a Nook Miles+ challenge, it keeps the game rolling and incentivizes players to explore all the different activities available throughout the game.
While it was difficult for some players to see the fun in Animal Crossing in the past, Nook Miles inform players on different aspects of the game while gamifying them even further. Each Nook Mile you earn can be used toward new pieces of furniture, upgrades to your apps on your Nook Phone, teaching you crafting recipes, and more. You see regular tasks around your Animal Crossing town transform into rewards that give you even more to do.
Terraforming your landscape
I wasn’t sure I’d partake in any major renovations through the terraforming feature in New Horizons, but after getting a small taste by adjusting a cliff to allow for an incline, I understood its true power. I quickly planned to terraform a huge portion of my map and change major areas around my island.
I destroyed an entire portion of river on my island. I then built mountains in their place and added rivers and lakes to those areas. While I was terrified to mess with the feature initially, I became more confident with every strike. Every cliff and river brought me closer to the island home I always wanted.
There are aspects to the terraforming that are slow and sometimes confusing. It can take a while to learn how to work the landscape. Once you get the hang of terraforming, however, you can create some amazing features. I spent 2 days completely reforming the western and northern portions of my island and I greatly appreciated the ability to turn a large section of my island into more mountainous terrain.
Holidays, events, and seasons
Animal Crossing’s real-time clock is brought to life through holidays, events, and seasons. As the dates change, you’ll find your world adjusting to the changing seasons. The cherry blossoms have bloomed in the northern hemisphere and given way to new crafting materials and recipes. These special events spark change in our daily routines and give players more reasons to check in regularly.
Nintendo is handling holidays much differently than previous titles. Rather than being built into the game from the start, players are receiving them in updates at later dates. As somebody who chooses to play in real-time, I find this to be a refreshing change for the series because I know I won’t have to worry about having the events spoiled for me in the future. I’m sure this change is much less welcome by those who enjoy time travelling through their playthrough.
Regardless of your preferences, I believe this change creates a much stronger community around New Horizons. With events occurring in real-time, the conversation around the game stays relevant. Good or bad, social media has been atwitter regarding the current Bunny Day event. It has been an incredible time interacting with others as we all try to achieve similar goals.
Connectivity with other islands
Animal Crossing was born from a feeling of loneliness and a desire for human connection. Nintendo has always described it as a “communication game” and the gameplay features of Animal Crossing are clearly focused on that concept. New Horizons is no different and offers an easy way to travel to other islands for a change of scenery and, more importantly, you can see how your friends and family express their creativity. The ability to visit and connect with somebody across the world cannot be underestimated.
Dodo Airlines offers a postcard delivery service that can send letters to any resident on your island or residents on other islands. You can easily send special messages and presents to your friends, which has resulted in me sending mail to my friends constantly. Whenever I collect an item that reminds me of somebody, I’ll run down to Dodo Airlines to send it to them immediately.
New Horizon’s best friend feature further adds to this concept of communication and allows you to instant message any best friend who is online. Want to know their turnip prices? Send a message! Have a villager teaching a hot new recipe? Let people know and invite them over! It’s so simple to get a quick word in with friends and relay the most vital information in an instant.
NookLink is the saving grace for Nintendo’s Switch Online App. While the app remained mostly ignored, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has brought convenient features to improve your experience with others. The most useful features are the QR code scanner and the text messaging system. The ability to make use of old designs is an honest blessing. As is the ability to avoid using the game’s built-in keyboard in favour of your smartphone.
The pitfalls of New Horizons
Animal Crossing: New Horizons has done so much to advance the series forward, but it still falls into some odd quality of life issues. The most obvious among players is the online infrastructure. If you’ve ever tried to get 8 players to a single island, you know the constant interruptions that take place along the way. Each person that lands on the island causes the entire game to stop for any new visitor. Yes, this may be how it has always worked, but it’s not how it should work.
Another annoyance is the inability to access your storage when crafting. I often put excess supplies in my home’s interior storage, but cannot access them from my crafting table. It would also be wonderful if we could choose the exact numbers of materials to separate from a bundle instead of just “Grab 1”. Shopping runs into the same issue when you are unable to choose exactly how much of something you’d like to buy. You have the option of buying 1 flower or 5 flowers. If you want more, you’ll need to repeat the transaction.
One major change long-time fans like me will notice is the surprising lack of certain characters. While some replacements have made sense, there is a huge cast of animals that didn’t make the cut. Some of the most notable cuts being Crazy Redd, Brewster, and Luna. In previous titles, these three characters represented some wonderful features. Redd and his black market are often associated with the art exhibits in previous Animal Crossing Museums, but the art exhibit is completely missing from New Horizons. Brewster had a love for coffee and gyroids, but there is no coffee shop or gyroids to be found on the island. Luna ran the dream suite that allowed us to visit a dream of another town. Now, we have to rely on other players to let us in for a visit.
Missing characters often mean missing features, some of which are more near and dear to our hearts than others. There is always the possibility that some or all of these features may eventually find their way into the game (and there seems to be some evidence cropping up in villager dialogue to support this idea) but as a long time fan of the series, things do seem a bit empty without them.
The future of Animal Crossing
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is still very young, and as I mentioned, it can take at least a full year to experience everything the game has to offer. While some features from previous titles may be missing, and quality of life updates are needed to improve the gameplay, I’ve still spent over 100 hours with the game.
Nintendo has packed this game with activities and collectables, and it doesn’t seem like they’re done. With future updates on the way, we will likely see more characters, more items, and more activities to fill our deserted islands to the brim. There is also the possibility that some of the missing features will eventually find a one-way ticket to New Horizons.
One thing is for sure, New Horizons is the future of the series. Crafting, Nook Miles, and terraforming fit incredibly well within the world of Animal Crossing and the game still offers so many of the staples we know and love. I look forward to seeing how this game looks in a year after every holiday and character is finally integrated into the game’s code. Until then, I don’t see myself putting the game down any time soon.