Videogames as a medium have evolved into something so much more than what they were in the early years. From the heydays of the arcade, where you would put up a quarter to try for the high score in games like Galaga and Pacman, to the revelation that was the MMORPG. The possibilities of genres are limitless. One thing is certain, though. The medium has always provided a sense of escapism unlike any other. To be able to interact with a new world unique from the mundane one you live in. When Nintendo released Animal Crossing in 2001 for the Gamecube, it took the concept of escapism and turned it on its head.
Instead of living in a mystical fantasy world where magical beasts roam the land and you play as an unstoppable badass, you play as the villager, living day by day, paying bills and making ends meet. In the nearly two decades since, the series has evolved into a pop-culture phenomenon. Its cute and friendly aesthetic has endeared fans to the point where criticizing it is almost taboo. With the newest entry, New Horizons, driving the fanbase rabid with the sheer amount of customization available. It allows you to live your most picturesque life, while still having one foot solidly planted in reality. You don’t fight monsters, you catch tarantulas and run from bees. Who knew that paying off a mortgage would be so entertaining?
Animal Crossing’s greatest strength has always been its greatest weakness, though. This isn’t a game you can grind for hours with gratifying gameplay that provides a sense of accomplishment when mastered. It’s a living, evolving world that is meant to be checked in on regularly. You complete your daily tasks of chopping down trees, collecting various items, and earn currency called “bells” to pay off your debt. In most Action RPGs, the core gameplay of Animal Crossing would be mundane sidequests. And those who need addicting gameplay that demands precision and skill, will find New Horizons exactly that; mundane.
The closest thing it has to an antagonist is the lovable tanooki, Tom Nook. Nook is the most laid back loan shark to ever exist, and is every bill-paying human being’s dream landlord. You pay off your debts at whatever pace you feel like, and as a reward get access to a bigger home and more ways to customize it, eventually unlocking the ability to completely terraform your little island to be exactly what you want. Want to live like Ric Flair in the biggest house on the biggest hill? No problem. Want beachfront property surrounded by a forest? You can have it. The idea that you make your virtual life in New Horizons exactly what you want it to be is the ultimate fantasy for some. There is no middle ground. Either you “get” Animal Crossing, or you don’t.
One of the things that hooks people the most, is the friendly neighbors you build relationships with as you play. No company is as good as Nintendo at turning the charm up to eleven and injecting as much personality into humanoid animals as possible. At this point, the cardigan-donning puppy, Isabelle is one of the most beloved characters in all of videogames. They’re what makes the virtual town feel alive and worth living in.
At the end of the day though, whether or not you will enjoy your time in Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes down to what you want out of a game. If you want deep, rewarding mechanics and metagaming that requires time to understand and master, it won’t be the game for you. What New Horizons offers is the chance to live your best life, in a world where your biggest worry is where to place your new mansion. And now you can do it with your friends. Inviting people to come check out your island and visiting theirs creates a sense of virtual community unlike any Animal Crossing game before it.
It almost feels like a social experiment by Nintendo. What do people really want when they can have anything? Some people want to slaughter legions of demons from hell, and others want tea with their friends.
What a wonderful world to live in: New Horizons does Animal Crossing better than any other game in the series. It creates the perfect town that feels alive, and lets you make it exactly what you want. And now you can do it with friends.
Don’t expect a competitive scene: The actual gameplay itself is not what draws in fans, and never will be. For some, that will be a major buzzkill.
Final Thoughts: To sum New Horizons up in one word, it would be “charming.” No game is as light-hearted and easily approachable. But for some, that charm just won’t be enough.