I’m struggling with how I should approach this review — should I review the game as it is? Or should I review it as I hoped it would be 8 years after Animal Crossing: New Leaf?
I’m going to approach it both ways to explain why I’m pretty disappointed with this latest release in the Animal Crossing series.
How It Is
If you are new to the Animal Crossing series or haven’t played since the 2011 Gamecube Animal Crossing release — this is a 100% must-buy game for you. The premise is simple — you’re dropped on a new island and you’re expected to live your daily life. But not the daily life as we know it here in the world (or as we used to know it before we all became state-mandated shut-ins.) Daily life on your private Animal Crossing island includes catching bugs and fish, planting flowers and trees, picking up seashells on the seashore, crafting and buying new items and tools, and interacting with anthropomorphic animal inhabitants of your island all in an attempt to make ‘bells’ — the form of currency in the Animal Crossing series.
Along the way, you’ll use that money to get your own home to decorate with furniture, flooring and wall decorations. You’ll also be able to personalize your own look with different hairstyles/colors and a plethora of clothing options from shoes, socks, pants, tops and head accessories.
It’s a life simulator in the same vein of The Sims, Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley — but with a Nintendo-ized cartoon slant. As the game progresses you’ll also unlock new stores and buildings like museums, clothing vendors, a town hall — and a few others that will join your island community. It’s a very fun, albeit repetitive, life simulator. On the audio/visual side the game has crisp cartoony graphics and animation and a catchy, cutesy soundtrack with adorable sound effects.
If you weren’t born when the last Animal Crossing game was released (2012’s New Leaf for the Nintendo 3DS,) or haven’t played since the original Animal Crossing, or have never played an Animal Crossing game at all — this game would get a 9 out of 10 from me. Really fun and fresh approach to the life simulation genre.
How It Could Be
However, if you poured a lot of time into the Nintendo 3DS’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf — the rating for me drops to a 6.5 out of 10. Yes, the game is still cute, sounds great and runs well — but the formula seems tired and is suffering from the typical Nintendo S.O.S. syndrome — and I’m not talking about morse code.
Nintendo again brilliantly scheduled their main series game releases. Their last major title release — Pokemon Sword & Shield, was released almost exactly 4 months prior to Animal Crossing: New Horizon. Between Pokemon’s November 15th and Animal Crossing’s March 20th release date, there have been few if any, good game releases for the Switch. People with Switches, like myself, must’ve just been hankering for a new game since Animal Crossing broke Pokemon Sword & Shield’s sales record.
For new players, New Horizon’s main game mechanic of catching fish and bugs is addicting! “Oh! There’s a fish-shaped shadow! What can it be this time?! A sea bass! I don’t have one of those yet! What is that butterfly? Oh wow! A common butterfly! I haven’t caught one of those yet!” For seasoned Animal Crossing players — you catch that sea bass and you see that common butterfly and you know what’s inevitably coming — the dreaded Animal Crossing wall. Yes, at first the hunt is exhilarating! The mystery, the skill, the museum! It’s all so fun! But what you quickly realize on about your 4th or 5th day — the ocean is OVERFLOWING with sea bass. Your island is INFESTED with common butterflies! The novelty of catching that fish-shaped shadow wears off when you catch your 347th sea bass. If you’re like me you were optimistic though.
“But it’s been 8 years since the last Animal Crossing — they must’ve doubled or even TRIPLED the amount of fish and bugs since last time! I’ll definitely be seeing so much more!” 8. 8. Eight. E-I-G-H-T! Eight new fish — 8 new bugs — in 8 years. I think real-world scientists have discovered more new fish and bug species than Nintendo has added into this game. I was tired of catching 100s of sea bass in 2012 — I’m sick and tired of catching 100s of sea bass in 2020.
“That’s okay though — that’s okay! There’s still fossil hunting! So many huge new fossils! Once you unlock the recipe to dig up fossils they DEFINITELY added more fossils.” NOPE! Same amount of fossils as 2012’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf.
“… More fruit?” You already know the answer.
“You know what — I bet they added new locations to this one! Maybe you can visit a forest, or a cave, or go deep-sea diving and find a WHOLE NEW WAY of catching bugs, fish — maybe even mushrooms or minerals or some other new collectible item right?” Nope. You’re on an island this time — but you might as well still be the mayor of that new small town back in New Leaf.
“Yea, but I can’t wait to customize my house with all those sweet, sweet items!” This is undeniably one of the best parts of the game — decorating the walls and floor of your house and filling it with cool furniture. Unfortunately, this game suffers from the same thing I experience when playing Minecraft. Once you build this amazing home base, get the walls and floor to look exactly how you want and fill it with all kinds of cool furniture and decorations — — — — all you can do is look at it. Sure, you can interact with some items and they’ll make a noise, or move a little — but that’s it. This is Nintendo we’re talking about. We can’t expect them to give us a little more? There’s an electric scooter item that I recently bought in the shop on my island. How AMAZING would it be if you could actually zip around your island on that scooter? Nope. It just sits there. When you click on it the light on the front turns on and off. One of the first things I built was a wooden ringtoss game. How great would it be if you could actually play this game? You click on it and you get a ring — take a few steps away and then you play a ring toss mini-game. This would be so fun to play with your friends when they come to your island! I have a lawnmower that is sitting in front of my house. When I push it around my front lawn wouldn’t it be so cool if it actually cut down weeds and flowers? That doesn’t seem too difficult for the coders to include in the game — the removal of weeds and flowers is already a process coded into the game. But no — instead you just tap the lawnmower and it makes the noise of it failing to start. A beautiful metaphor for a majority of the items. These are just a few HUGE missed opportunities that I believe Nintendo is capable of providing to us — but they don’t. And I refuse to just sit back and say ‘Oh well. They didn’t give us the best product possible ho-hum.” No — let’s hold them accountable and not accept their mediocrity so in 8 years when the next Animal Crossing comes along — I’m not writing the same review.
“But there’s been over 400 confirmed villagers in this game — that’s awesome!” How many villagers are you expecting on your little island? The max you can have is 10. And unless you’re a REALLY lonely person — the interactions with them are extremely shallow. I’ve got this blue eagle on my island and he really doesn’t have much to say except that he loves to work out and get swole. Each day I can give him a new item and maybe I’ll get an item back from him that I’m interested in having in my house. Often times, however, it’s a knife block, or a drying rack, or a dishwasher, or women’s clothing. No judgment here — but next time just give me the bells I’m going to sell this for.
Let’s talk about what IS new though. I’ve started venting my frustrations about how Animal Crossing: New Horizons is just New Leaf with a fresh coat of paint and people are scoffing at me pointing out the few new features that are present in this game. But here’s the thing — these additions are minor. The core gameplay, environment, and point of the game remain unchanged from New Leaf.
- Crafting: You can now collect wood, stone, iron and other building materials to craft your own items. This is legitimately a fun addition. But again — simply aesthetic. Minimal to no interaction with the items you can create.
- Breakable items: You know what everyone’s favorite thing about the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was? That the really amazing, powerful sword you worked so hard to get had a limited amount of uses. Let’s bring that feature to other games! Let’s make it so Mario can only jump 20 times until you have to craft him a new pair of shoes! In New Horizons, the tools you need every day to catch fish, bugs, dig holes, chop trees, etc — have a limited amount of uses before they break. Extremely frustrating and artificially tacked on to make it so you’re to collect resources and spend more time using their crafting system. If your hope is that eventually you’ll be able to craft an unbreakable golden tool — I’ve got bad news for you: these can break too.
- Terraforming: Eventually you can change the layout and structure of your island. A great and much-desired addition for sure — but how often are you really going to do this? Once? Twice when you realized you messed up the first time? Again — this doesn’t really change the core of the game. It’s just a nice way to fix something they should’ve let you do, to begin with.
- Placing items outside: Cool, but not a game-changing addition and again — minimal to no interactive elements.
- Nook Miles: All games should institute a similar system to their games: achievements (that’s all these really are) that you actually get something out of. Playstation’s trophies are a nice achievement — but they don’t really mean anything, do they? With New Horizons’ Nook Miles achievements system you get another form of currency in which to spend. However — there really isn’t much to spend those miles on. I’m seven days into the game and I’ve bought the few upgrades from the computer terminal — and I’ll buy the occasional plane ticket — but other than that they’re just accumulating and rotting away in my wallet.
- Visiting random islands: Yea, you can spend 2000 Nook Miles to get a Nook Plane Ticket to fly to a random island. Here’s the thing though — often there’s nothing special about these islands. They’re filled with the same bugs, fruit, and fish as your home island. There’s 1 new villager you can invite back to live on your home island and coconuts/bamboo. Apparently there are special islands that have a lot of tarantulas and fruit — but you have no control over what island you get. I’ve been to 5 islands now and I might as well have just been on my own island because there were no differences. Again — a missed opportunity to provide a fun new experience.
- Multi-player: You can visit your friend’s islands, but in true Nintendo fashion it’s a convoluted, overcomplicated process. First, your friend has to open their island up to visitors, then they have to give you a special code, then you have to give that code to the dodo at the front desk — then you’ll fly there. However, once you’re there — there’s not much to do. Your friend can give you their fruit and new items — and you can fish their island and catch bugs — but there isn’t much to do. I wish I could just click on one of my friends and say “Go to Island.” I get it — they’re protecting kids — but maybe there could be a parental lock feature where this option could be blocked?
- Couch multiplayer: My wife is one of the people who is absolutely loving this game because she has never played an Animal Crossing before. However, having us share one island is an awful idea. There have been many times already where most of the things that needed to get done — were already done by me simply because I wake up earlier than her. We’ve now had to divide tasks so she can have fun with the game. I’ve stopped donating to the museum because all the pale chubs, carp, and butterflies of March in the Northern Hemisphere are already donated. Unfortunately, we also can’t share DIY recipes. So right now I’m at the part where I need to build furniture for the 3 new houses — and I have the recipes — but my wife doesn’t. Hopefully, they can patch the game where people on the same Switch can have different islands — but are those people really going to want to go through the trouble of catching all those sea bass again to pay off the Nooks?
“You sound like you just don’t like Animal Crossing so just don’t play it and stop bitching about it!”
Unfortunately, that’s completely not the case — I was obsessed with New Leaf and threw 100s of hours into it. I ran into a lack-of-content wall with New Leaf and I’m already seeing the content wall coming down the tracks for New Horizons earlier than I would like.
The Sony vs X-Box fanboy war may get heated and ugly, but at least they’re not as delusional as the Nintendo fanboys. During the next Nintendo Direct I dare you to watch the comment section on the video. Nintendo can give us a 45 minute Nintendo Direct detailing Super Mario Brothers 3 with the only addition being updated graphics for the Switch and there will be people calling for it to be game of the year not realizing — it’s just the same exact game with a coat of paint. It’ll still make obscene amounts of money because Nintendo knows they have these people wrapped around their fingers and they don’t have to innovate at all — because we’ll still buy whatever they release without question. How many times can Mario defeat Bowser to save Peach? Why hasn’t he faced off against Wario again? Will Splatoon 3 be essentially a Splatoon 1 reboot like Splatoon 2 was? Why has the Pokemon formula been relatively unchanged since 1996? Nintendo has some of the most creative, interesting and lucrative intellectual properties in the world but they have no reason to give us something fresh and new because we just keep throwing our money at the same old stuff they keep releasing and giving their games great reviews without being critical of what they’ve actually released.
Now maybe I’m not the target audience for this game. Maybe New Horizons is meant for: children, people who’ve never played an Animal Crossing game before, and people who got their first taste of Animal Crossing in the Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp app. However, target audience or not — I bought the game expecting a fresh, new experience and was simply handed a re-release of Animal Crossing: New Leaf with a few minor new bells and whistles.