After playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons for a few weeks, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve played every game in the series, with the lone exception of City Folk for the Wii, and comparing those games to the latest entry in the series has shed some light on what made these games appeal to me in the first place, what I love about them, and why New Horizons isn’t captivating me like its predecessors.
To be fair, it’s hard to judge an Animal Crossing game after not even a month has passed. After all, the point of the series is that it plays out in real-time, with the real-world date and time synchronised within the game. For that reason, it’s basically impossible to fully experience the game without playing it for at least 365 days, and even then you’re unlikely to see and find everything it has to offer.
However, even spending such a relatively short time with the game, it’s evident that New Horizons has made significant changes to how the game approaches its own core concept and the player’s place within its world. It’s a difference in tone and priorities rather than changes to the specific events or gameplay loops. And while I still really enjoy the game, it’s made me appreciate the earlier ones more by comparison. Here’s why.
Turning Over a New Leaf
The signs of change are subtle, but obvious from the very first scene. New Horizons starts in a completely different fashion from any previous game. Most games in the series – including Animal Crossing, City Folk, and New Leaf – all begin with the player alone on a train or bus. At this point they usually meet Rover, a cat that strikes up a conversation and becomes the catalyst for the player character ending up at their final destination.
In all of these scenarios, the player is shown to be on their own with no clear goal. They’re going to a new town with no prior arrangements. They own nothing, they know no-one, their pockets are empty. The mood set here is immediately one of uncertainty and slight unease. While there’s a sense of optimism about moving to a new town and starting anew, it’s underlined by also leaving something else behind.
It’s hard not to read this is any other way than your character escaping something, leaving it behind in a rush with a minimal amount of planning for the future. This is most obvious in the intro to Wild World, where the player is alone in a taxi cab in the middle of a huge downpour. For a series of cute animal games, this is a very affecting first note to start off the adventure.
Animal Crossing games have historically revolved around this feeling of leaving one life for a new one with an uncertain future. They are about making your way in a place you initially don’t belong, to meet new people, and find a place in an existing community. As someone who made this very leap in real-life, I can tell you the juxtaposing feelings of elation about the possibilities and dread of being in an unknown place is captured perfectly in these games.
Immediately, New Horizons contrasts with this by starting inside a clean, bright travel agency. You have booked a trip to a deserted island, where you, two strangers, and a group of entrepreneurs are going to create something new. It’s exciting and optimistic and it sets the tone for a game that is relentlessly upbeat. You and everybody in your town are all in the same shoes, you are all rearing to grow roots in a brand-new, hitherto unclaimed place that you can mould exactly how you like it. If anything could be the diametric opposite of being alone in a taxi cab in the middle of a rainstorm, I think this has to be it.
Everything Is Fine
This is because New Horizons is not really about becoming a member of a community – it’s about creating a new one in your own image. That is the fundamental shift this game makes away from the rest of the series, and it affects every aspect of the gameplay and atmosphere.
New Horizons is a much more upbeat and carefree Animal Crossing game. Many of the sharper edges of the previous entries have been filed down to create a softer game that focuses more on the player’s ability to express themselves through the town they create. There are no rude villagers that insult you constantly, or too many annoying hoops to jump through as you progress.
This is definitely a change with both good and bad consequences. On the positive side, the game no longer punishes you too harshly for not playing every single day, which was a big reason why a lot of players eventually stopped coming back to the old games.
Instead, it rewards you for almost every thing you do. You rack up “Miles”, which is a separate currency from the standard “Bells”, mostly by fulfilling different tasks and milestones. Plant 5 flowers, chop 3 trees, catch 3 fishes, talk to 4 villagers. It works to give you something to do and it’s familiar from phone games that prioritise instant gratification. Yay! You did a thing – here are some points!
Your Island, Your Rules
What gets lost here is the actual life part of this life simulator. Instead, everything is a means to an end. I find myself completing different microtasks to get points so I can get a recipe so I can build a thing so I can improve my island’s score so I can build another thing so I can get the island to look like I, the player, wants it to.
Because this is my island. I am the one who chose it, named it, set down my flag on its untouched soil, and planned every single aspect of its infrastructure. It’s mine, and everybody else is the outsider. I can make the rivers flow any direction I want. The island is here for my benefit, not the other way around.
There’s no room for getting to know the place and its people if you are in control of everything. Ironically, this makes my island seem far less personal than any of the Animal Crossing towns I’ve previously called home. Those games made me slowly earn my sense of belonging. I learned the geography, which wasn’t always the most user-friendly, and I got to know my neighbours, who all had distinct personalities.
In New Horizons I can pick my neighbours one-by-one. They all have slight changes in their interests, but everybody is so generically positive that they seldom feel like different people. The best parts of the game so far have been moments where I’ve spotted them engaging in different activities, like Skye doing tai chi on the beach, or Rhonda examining the flowers in my garden with a magnifying glass.
These are the moments that shows personality beyond what I – the almighty player – dictate. It doesn’t feel created solely for my benefit, and that gives my island a sense of life that otherwise feels kind of lacking.
KK Slider, International Celebrity
KK Slider is a guitar-playing dog. He’s awesome. He visits your town on Saturdays, usually sitting alone on a box or in a largely empty cellar, noodling away on his acoustic guitar. If you ask, he’s play a song for you.
It’s one of the best moments of any game. It also further highlights the series’ theme of transitioning, with KK travelling around, living the life of a vagabond with a guitar, moving as the wind takes him. Every so often it takes him to this spot, with just me and him and a song.
In New Horizons KK isn’t a mysterious drifter who just happens to end up in your village. He’s a worldwide celebrity. He’s a big deal, everybody knows him, and oh my god, if only we could get the famous KK Slider to visit our town!
In previous games, the KK encounters felt personal because they had an air of just happening at random. Of course, they were as regular as anything else in the games, but the framing of the chill dog just passing through town was so strong that it never really felt like that. They also had minimal actual mechanical purpose – they were just a cool little reward at the end of each week.
Now, having KK Slider play in your town is the reward for completing the last introductory guest in New Horizons, after which the game opens up fully. KK is just another point to score, a few more Miles to collect. After KK visits is also when Tom Nook gives you the ability to terraform the island, completing your role as god-emperor of this universe.
Something Lost, Something Gained
Despite how it may seem, I actually do love Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I enjoy being able to express myself through the game’s world, and I think the cheerful attitude is a nice change of pace. While it treads a lot of old ground, Nintendo did also take some risks here, but inevitably something is lost in the process.
That loss is the mood, replaced with a more palatable and user-friendly tone. Once upon a time Animal Crossing was a niche franchise, but now it has to be another one of Nintendo’s tent-poles, alongside the Marios and Zeldas. That means appealing to an audience that might bounce off rude villagers or the annoyance of not being able to do anything you want with your surroundings.
That also means giving them Things to Do. Players need tangible rewards for the gameplay they consume, rather than just enjoying the experience for itself. This is also why a game like No Man’s Sky can’t just be about the joy of exploration and journeying for the sake of it, but has to be turned into another space simulator about driving cars and building space stations.
These have always been charming and overwhelmingly cute, happy games, but they all had a more personal edge that gave them a certain emotional depth. That unique charm is very much still here and New Horizons is undeniably a rewarding and fun game that I’m sure I will keep playing for at least another 11 months.
And I do think there is value to going in a more carefree direction, especially when the game so heavily emphasises online multiplayer, which frankly might end up being the best part of the entire experience.
I just can’t help but miss the melancholy that made the earlier games something more than colourful adventures full of instant gratification and player customisation. I guess, ultimately, I like it when Animal Crossing makes me feel a little sad and lonely sometimes.