Game Review: Animal Crossing: New Horizons

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Words | Jodie Ramodien

It was around March when panic over the coronavirus began to truly be reflected in Sydney’s consumerist behaviour. Waves of stories hit the news of people hoarding supplies and emptying shelves faster than they could be restocked. I wasn’t among the panic-buyers making a mad dash for toilet paper or pasta. Instead, I panic-bought a Switch, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. 

Hype over this game has been exponential. Reviewers singing praises over its charming aesthetic and therapeutic gameplay experience. The prospect of having one’s own island paradise, a haven cloistered away from the reality we are all currently dealing with, was extremely appealing to me. 

Explaining the mechanics of the game to someone that has never played it before is inherently funny as it sounds like all the worst parts of adulthood and capitalism jam-packed into a deceptively cute package. New Horizons series producer Hisashi Nogami himself struggled: “It was very difficult to explain to the promotional staff on how to promote it. How do you write a catchphrase for this game? It’s unprecedented!”

Effectively you are placed on an island, forced to pay off loans to an opportunistic racoon called Tom Nook, and must wait to enjoy the fruits of your labour in real time. 1 game day = 1 real day. That means to get the absolute most out of this game, to experience all the seasonal events, and to complete your ‘Critterpedia’ of bugs and fish, you would need to play the game for at least 1 year cycle. Enormous debt and patience. What fun!

Except that bizarrely, it is incredibly fun. 

Today I woke up, opened the game, and got excited over the fact that the leaves on the trees had started to yellow to an Autumn hue. The fact that a digital leaf changing colour fills me with joy, and what this reveals about my current mental state, is probably something best not examined too deeply. While this isn’t the challenging thrill most gamers seek, it’s the minutiae of details like this that make the game enjoyable. There’s no one to fight, nothing to beat, no big boss, no villain. The game objective, if there even is one, is self-improvement day-by-day. It’s about patience, delayed gratification, and the concept that the things worth having, and appreciating, take time. 

That said there is one very controversial way to ‘cheat’ the game. Crossers call this move ‘time-travelling.’ Effectively changing the date/time on your Switch will trick the game into thinking real time has passed. 

Whether or not a player decides to time travel reminded me of a famous psychological study created by Walter Mischel during the 1960s called the ‘Stanford marshmallow experiment.’ In this test, a young child between four to six years old would be sat down at a table with a marshmallow placed in front of them. If they could last 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow then they would be given a second. In the recreations of this experiment, the way the kids stare longing at the marshmallow, smell it, and break off little pieces of it to taste, makes those scant 15 minutes feel infinite. This is how I felt in the early stages of New Horizons and is why, despite my appreciation of a slow burn, I am also guilty of time travel. 

To read up further on this experiment I recommend reading Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker article ‘Don’t!’ This article notes some of the initial conclusions Mischel drew from the experiment. He found that those with an inability to delay reward “seemed more likely to have behavioural problems, both in school and at home… struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships.” Modern recreations of this experiment did not yield the same results and failed to hold firm under the scrutiny of new research. My advice, try not to time travel in the game, but if you do, don’t feel too bad about it, sometimes it’s okay to have your marshmallow and eat it too. 

There have been many Animal Crossing games prior to the release of New Horizons but none have achieved the same level of acclaim and cultural relevance. An obvious conclusion is that it comes down to timing. As the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise globally, and social distancing rules become increasingly strict, the perfect storm of stress, boredom, procrastination, and loneliness, was created. In the game various animals, known as villagers, move onto your island. They each have their own personalities, dreams, and quirks, allowing you to build a tight-knit community in-game. Outside of the game there’s also a community of players, sharing their uniquely customized islands, meme-able pet peeves, and discoveries. This heavy social aspect reflects why the game was conceptualised by its creator, Katsuya Eguchi, in the first place. 

In 1986 Eguchi moved from his hometown of Chiba 300 miles to Nintendo’s headquarters in Kyoto. He revealed his feelings of displacement and isolation to Edge Magazine: “Animal Crossing features three themes: family, friendship and community. But the reason I wanted to investigate them was a result of being so lonely when I arrived in Kyoto! Chiba is east of Tokyo and quite a distance from Kyoto, and when I moved there I left my family and friends behind. In doing so, I realised that being close to them – being able to spend time with them, talk to them, play with them – was such a great, important thing. I wondered for a long time if there would be a way to recreate that feeling, and that was the impetus behind the original Animal Crossing.”

The circumstances under which Animal Crossing was created echo what many of us may be feeling today. For me playing the game has the added emotions of nostalgia and sentimentality. It was with horror that my mum came upon me holed up in my room having played New Horizons for several hours. It was a reversion to my younger childhood self and a sight that would have reminded her of the countless hours I spent playing Animal Crossing: Wild World and City Folk in primary school, and Animal Crossing: New Leaf in high school. Suffice to say my obsession with this game is unhealthy and lifelong. 

Out of curiosity I rummaged through my closet and unearthed my old DS and Animal Crossing: Wild World, which was released in 2005. Opening up the game I found my character, aptly named “Junior,” asleep in the attic, which is where you start the game. The name Junior was my younger self thinking she was clever because my initials are “jr.” I was expecting some crazy funny town name but apparently as a kid I was also a realist, so I’d named my Animal Crossing world “Sydney.” Screw escapism. In-game it’s 5:59am on January 1st and my town is blanketed in snow and covered in weeds. Running through the game the first villager I come across is a purple duck called Mallary. “So,” she begins, “what do you want to bug me about this time?” My options of how to respond are, “I’m here to talk!” or “I don’t need you.” I opted for “I don’t need you,” because wow what a salty bitch. 

I gave things a second chance by talking to a Golden Retriever called Goldie. She casually asked for my blood type, remarked on the oddness of the question she had asked, and then said, “you’ll find out soon enough, Junior. I guarantee it.” My takeaway is that apparently Wild World was much more sinister than its later remakes and I love it. Briefly playing it also highlights just how far Animal Crossing has come in the 15 years since the release of Wild World, the first Animal Crossing game that I played. 

New Horizons has stunning graphics, something that the larger Switch screen highlights beautifully. There’s so much more to do in New Horizons than in any other Animal Crossing game; with the addition of crafting, countless customization options, and the fact that you can actually place furniture OUTSIDE  – fans of the series will appreciate the significance of this last point. Tedious annoyances like having a tiny inventory with unstackable items have been taken out. Any past gripes I may have had have been tweaked to perfection in New Horizons. 

Despite these changes the game keeps the soul and feeling of playing its older instalments. Much about the game still feels unexplored and unknown. I’ve yet to run into a lot of series favourites like Kapp’n and Mr. Resetti. By embodying all the best elements of its predecessors it’s safe to say New Horizons is the holy grail of Animal Crossing games. If you haven’t played it already, I highly recommend it.