Supported Platforms: Nintendo Switch
I have been stuck at home for almost four weeks now. Even before the bulk of the United States started self-isolating, my wife was showing symptoms of Covid-19. At the request of her doctor and the county health service, we went into total isolation. We had friends bring us groceries, and we ended up watching a lot of TV and movies.
But, I don’t want to talk about any of that. Instead, I want to talk about Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020), the latest entry in Nintendo’s long-running life-sim franchise. Released on March 20th, ACNH came right in the midst of our isolation and was, quite frankly, a godsend. I know a lot of thinkpieces hit the Internet in late March about how ACNH is the perfect quarantine game, so I don’t want to spend too long on that subject, other than to say I agree. However, I want to take it one step further: For my wife, who had grown more sullen and depressed with each day of isolation, ACNH provided a bright, positive way to pass the time.
Like previous Animal Crossing games, New Horizons involves the player-character, at the behest of eternal entrepreneur Tom Nook, moving to a remote area to develop a village. In this game, that remote area is a deserted island paradise, and Tom has fully embraced the island lifestyle with his Hawaiian shirt and laid-back attitude. Tom sets you up with a tent on the island (with a bill, of course), and then you are sent into the world to catch bugs/fish, chop wood, and break rocks to create your perfect island paradise — ready for new islanders and shops to move right in!
For the most part, ACNH plays very similar to previous games in the franchise. There’s not much of a goal or victory condition, at least at the beginning, and how you proceed in the game is really up to you. For this reason, the game became a perfect timesink for our days in isolation. You can literally spend hours running around and catching bugs to sell for bells, working to pay off your property loan, or buy stuff for your tent — which eventually becomes a house once you decide to take out a second loan. Eventually, you are given additional tasks like building furniture to welcome in new residents, selecting locations for their houses, and even building bridges and ramps to make navigating the island easier. But the primary loop of the game remains: do stuff on the island to earn money, buy cool stuff for your island, rinse and repeat. It works, and it’s wonderful.
In fact, there are only a couple of new additions to the Animal Crossing formula. The first is a new currency called Nook Miles. You earn these miles by participating in daily island life, like collecting materials or talking to the other residents. You can then spend these miles on cool things for your island, or you can use them to buy a plane ticket to a random island, which you can pillage for additional resources used to build and sell.
Probably the biggest addition to ACNH, though, is a crafting system. While previous games required you to buy items and decorations for your home, New Horizons allows you to collect recipe cards that you can then use to craft new items with the materials you collect around your island. The crafting system is a nice addition to the game, and allows you to customize your house to a much greater degree. While you used to have to rely on luck by logging into the store every day in the hopes that Timmy and Tommy Nook have that new stereo you want, you can now find or buy a recipe card and build it yourself. The store is still there, and they still rotate their product every day, but the crafting system provides a nice alternative.
Overall, I have very few complaints about New Horizons. It’s a Nintendo game, so it’s incredibly polished, and everything works exactly as it was intended. It’s fun, quirky, and both my wife and I still love it immensely. Even now, a month later, we still enjoy loading up the Switch to just roam around the island, placing new items and setting up new areas. We have a campfire area on our beach, where we can sit on logs and enjoy a nice fire. We created a park in another part of the island, which features, among other things, a workout area and picnic table. We’re quite aware that this is all digital and none of it actually exists, but that should indicate how well the game is polished. You can know it’s not real and still cherish it.
In fact, I can only think of one criticism of this game, and that’s actually the multiplayer. Specifically, I’m talking about sharing a Switch within a household. While Nintendo does make it easy for each profile on the Switch to have its own character on the island, their decision to delegate the primary responsibilities only to the first player to log on feels a little weird. I told my wife to play the game first, because it came out during the height of her sickness, and I knew she was having trouble sleeping. In doing so, she became the island resident representative, which means she was tasked by Tom Nook with all of the important decisions, like where to build buildings or bridges. She can ask my opinion, but the decision is ultimately hers. As the second player, there’s not a lot for me to do, other than to play the simulation part of the loop, catching bugs and collecting materials. I have a house, and I have a loan to pay off. But, the primary progress of the game is tied to my wife’s character.
This was not a huge deal for us, and I can see the appeal of this for families – say a parent who plays the primary roles with small kids who serve as the later residents of the island – but for siblings or roommates that all want to play together, the second player kind of gets the shaft in the primary progression of the game. It’s an understandable decision on Nintendo’s part, but it would have been nice for them to at least give us the option to create two separate islands, or at least to delegate some tasks to the secondary player.
Aside from that little nitpick, though, I have no complaints about this game. We live in an interesting time at the moment, where social interaction can actually be dangerous to those we love. And in that time, there’s very little I can imagine that I would want more than an opportunity to move to a deserted island, catch bugs and fish, and maybe craft myself a table. Animal Crossing: New Horizons gives us exactly what we need.