An Animal Crossing: New Leaf Retrospective

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released for Nintendo Switch in March 2020. Wait, wrong game? Nope, hold on for one moment. New Horizons was released to incredible success. It had the strongest launch the Animal Crossing series has ever seen, bringing the franchise to perhaps its highest point yet. In my personal opinion, though, I think New Horizons is missing something. Something that Animal Crossing: New Leaf on Nintendo 3DS absolutely had. What exactly is it missing, then? If I had to explain it in a few words, I’d say soul, but it’s not really that simple.

For many players, Animal Crossing: New Leaf was their first time playing an Animal Crossing game. It was my first game in the series too, and what an entry point it was. Today, we’re going to break down what makes New Leaf so much different than New Horizons, and why… it might actually be a better overall experience!

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Introduction

As I mentioned, Animal Crossing: New Leaf was the first Animal Crossing game I ever played. My little brother got the game first, and – me being me – I thought it was kind of stupid-looking. Then I made an account on his file, got addicted, got my own copy, and then logged 3,000 hours. Yes, this is usually how it goes with me. If you’ve read my Pokémon Diamond & Pearl retrospective, you might be aware of the fact that I really like the Sinnoh region. I named my town Twinleaf, and my first five villagers were Lolly, Cesar, Mint, Ribbot, and Alfonso. I was devastated when Lolly moved out because, at the time, there wasn’t anything you could do about it!

Even so, Animal Crossing: New Leaf was a great experience, and it’s when the series really began gaining traction. The original Animal Crossing, as well as City Folk and Wild World, were certainly good, but they didn’t capture an audience as well as New Leaf (and eventually New Horizons) did. Let’s begin by breaking down an incredibly important aspect of New Leaf: its presentation.

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Presentation

Animal Crossing: New Leaf has solid graphics. Take a look at the screenshot above and you might notice things look kind of glossy. That’s because I take screenshots on an emulator (with my own legitimate save files, of course), where New Leaf’s graphics can be seen with much higher quality than on a Nintendo 3DS’ screen. This glossiness is noticeable in-game on real hardware, to a lesser degree. I’m still not entirely sure if this is a deliberate art style or a side effect of having a certain kind of texture. And I’m still not entirely sure if it’s a good or bad thing. It certainly gives New Leaf a look all its own, and that is certainly a good thing.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to complain about something that’s always bugged me about Animal Crossing. In spring, the grass and trees take on a light green color. That’s fine. In summer, the grass and trees are more of a deep forest green, which is my personal favorite season in Animal Crossing due to its bright and vibrant colors. When you start approaching autumn, though, the grass and trees turn into a gross snot green. Yucky. And winter has historically been the worst-looking season in the franchise, at least in my opinion. New Horizons allows players to paint paths around their islands, but there’s no such option in New Leaf. Instead, you have to place custom designs on the ground. Besides looking nicer, this is also done to prevent grass deterioration, which is present in New Leaf but not New Horizons. Winter looks… kind of rough, especially when paired with heavy grass deterioration. You’ve just got an odd mixture of dirt and snow which is not very pleasing to the eyes… and the trees never lose their leaves! They just get covered in snow.

But I also have good things to say about New Leaf’s weather- and nature-related graphics. Mornings are bright and feel energetic, sunset includes a nice mix of purple and orange, and nighttime is very dark and blue-looking. New Horizons feels way too bright at nighttime. But exploring town past midnight in New Leaf, and running past street lamps and houses with their lights on? That’s a cozy kind of feeling New Horizons has not fully captured. I like New Leaf’s rain and snow weather conditions, too. Each of the game’s hourly tracks has an alternate version that plays during rain or snow. That brings me to my next point…

…the soundtrack. I’m going to say this straight away: I think New Leaf has the best soundtrack in the series, and I think it far exceeds New Horizons’. New Horizons’ soundtrack feels tropical, but it mixes in too many synthesizers and electronic instruments for my liking. A lot of its tracks feel very “samey”. New Leaf does not have this problem, as much of its hourly music feels natural. New Horizons’ music sounds like a level in a video game, and New Leaf’s sounds like actual music that could accompany real life. It tends to use instruments like piano and guitar, which I’m a huge fan of. Some of my favorite hourly tracks in New Leaf include 1AM, 8AM, 1PM, 5PM, 7PM, and 8PM. Its night tracks are slow-paced and relaxing, and as I mentioned before, the town is dark enough that one could actually put themselves to sleep playing past midnight. …In a good kind of way, that is.

On the surface, yes – New Horizons has a stronger presentation – but when you really get into playing both games (I’ve logged 350 hours in New Horizons and over 3,000 in New Leaf), you start to notice little holes forming in New Horizons’ style. In my opinion, sunsets in New Horizons are an overflow of orange. It’s too much. New Leaf’s is subtle. Its soundtrack is calmer and more suited to a slow-paced game like Animal Crossing. And I feel that this helps make New Leaf a more cohesive experience.

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Gameplay

Okay, yes, New Horizons definitely wins out here — to an extent. At least, in terms of core mechanics. But in terms of content, and maybe even in terms of charm, I think New Leaf is the clear winner. Compared to the previous entries in the Animal Crossing series, New Leaf makes a ton of changes to the series formula and was the first real shake-up the franchise had had in a very long while. Instead of moving to a town and just living there, New Leaf puts you in charge of the whole place! As usual, you’re able to customize and expand your house, modify the town by planting trees and flowers, talk to villagers, and purchase tools and furniture. But now, you can do even more!

As mayor, you can control a few aspects of your town you couldn’t change in previous titles. First up is ordinances, which there were four of. Everybody used the Beautiful Town ordinance, because it prevented flowers from wilting and ensured that cockroaches would never spawn in abandoned homes. New Horizons doesn’t have ordinances, but flowers can no longer wilt, which is certainly a welcome change. Back to New Leaf, though, there are three other ordinances: Early Bird, Night Owl, and Bell Boom. Early Bird and Night Owl modify the opening hours of shops accordingly. Bell Boom raises the price of everything you buy and sell, which… is kind of useless, when you think about it. Unfortunately, though, if you are or were an avid New Leaf player, you’re essentially forced to choose the Beautiful Town ordinance. If you have a bunch of flowers in town and don’t have Beautiful Town enacted… have fun watering each one every single day!

Another feature you can take advantage of as mayor is Public Works Projects. You can choose from a variety of objects to place around town — including clocks, benches, street lamps, fountains, statues, windmills, playgrounds, and even a replica of the Eiffel Tower! You’d talk to Isabelle, your secretary, and pick a Public Works Project to build. You’d then pick a spot, and Lloid would appear to collect donations. When the amount was met, the project would be completed the next day. I never had a problem with this system, as it allowed guests to visit your town and potentially pay off any outstanding Public Works Projects. You were rather limited in how you could place them, though. You couldn’t build them close to a house, a shop, the river, or a tree, and you couldn’t place them on the beaches at all. When selecting a Public Works Project to build, Isabelle follows you, and you have to talk to her to confirm the project’s location (which is placed relative to the tile you’re standing on). You’d have to talk to her so, so many times to nail down the right location. It was awfully specific, and this is definitely something New Horizons improved on. Another issue was that you had to unlock Public Works Projects. You only started with a small list, and to unlock the rest of them… you had to wait until one of your villagers randomly came to you with an idea for a new one. I played over 3,000 hours of New Leaf and none of my villagers ever requested the Statue Fountain I wanted. Do note that you can’t place furniture outside in New Leaf at all, which meant Public Works Projects were the only non-organic decoration you could possibly place.

One feature New Leaf had that New Horizons doesn’t (at the time of writing) was the ability to remodel your Town Hall and Train Station. In addition to the default versions, you could remake these buildings with a Zen, Fairy-Tale, or Modern theme. It was a cool little perk that really helped differentiate towns from each other. You could also change your town flag and town tune, but these are features New Horizons kept. Nothing too out of the ordinary there.

In terms of gameplay, New Leaf is about what you’d expect. It controls just fine — no complaints from me at all (for once)! If you’re playing New Leaf for the first time – especially after playing New Horizons – you’ll notice how small your inventory is. It can’t be upgraded, either, you’re stuck with this size. Most players will want to carry a net, a fishing rod, a shovel, a slingshot, and maybe an axe or a megaphone. Between your tools, fish, bugs, fossils, and furniture, you’re not going to be able to hold all that much. Fortunately, storage in New Leaf is much better than in New Horizons. In the latter game, you can only store items in your house. In New Leaf, you can store items in your house, at the train station, and at other towns’ train stations, and the same items can be accessed across all of these mediums. In New Horizons, when you go to another player’s island, you cannot store or retrieve items at all, which is a huge deal because you might have to go home and then back just to put away spare items. New Leaf makes storage easy, and to say I’m disappointed with New Horizons’ handling of it would be an understatement. That being said, New Horizons does boast much more storage space than New Leaf. The former’s got thousands of storage slots, while the latter only has about 500 (several hundred of which were not introduced until the Welcome amiibo update, which we’ll talk about a bit later).

Let’s talk about another major aspect of town development in New Leaf – one that was almost entirely improvised by players – paths! In New Leaf, players weren’t able to lay down built-in paths. You had to make your own designs! Or talk to Sable for twelve days in a row to unlock the QR machine. Then you had to find custom designs online, save several of them to your character (there were only 10 slots per character, so you’d often have to make a new villager just to store more patterns), and then place each tile around town manually. It took a very, very long time. You could make some cool-looking areas, but New Horizons’ system is absolutely an improvement. It’s also important to note that grass deterioration was present in New Leaf. If players walked over the same spot too many times, the grass would fade away into dirt and look… yucky. Placing down paths and running over them did not cause the grass below to wear down, so that was definitely convenient. Problem was, in New Leaf’s base game, villagers would sometimes move right in the middle of a path, overwriting it entirely. And there’d be nothing you could do about it. On the subject of villagers…

…they were a pain in New Leaf’s base game. In New Horizons, villagers can’t move out unless you specifically give them permission. In New Leaf – and all previous titles, really – that isn’t the case at all. They’ll tell you they’re leaving if you pass by, but if you don’t catch them in time, they’ll be in boxes. If New Horizons was your first game, let me spell this out for you for a moment. Remember when, in the post’s introduction, I said I was upset when Lolly (my first villager) moved out? When a villager leaves, sixteen more villagers must leave afterward to “clear the void”. I had to move out sixteen villagers before I could get Lolly to move back into town. In other words, if you wanted a specific villager to stay, you had to make a commitment to New Leaf. Because if you didn’t, they’d move out. This is a problem many players had with New Leaf: it felt more like a commitment than a video game. Some might enjoy that aspect of it, but for players who aren’t going to log thousands of hours, it’s a definite con.

I’d like to compliment New Leaf on how well it handled its villagers, though. They do nag you with favors, but they’re entirely optional, and they feel much more alive than they do in New Horizons. At the time of writing, New Leaf’s villagers are superior in almost every way. They’ve got more varied dialogue, more activities to get involved with (hide and seek, fetch quests, time capsules, and the like), and they can actually come over to your house! Some players have called out New Leaf for toning down villagers’ occasionally angry dialogue from previous games. I agree that it would be nice to see some of Animal Crossing’s downright nasty dialogue come back. Coming back to New Leaf after playing New Horizons, though, has made me realize just how far villagers devolved in the latter title. In my opinion, at least.

Now we’ll get into what New Leaf really has over New Horizons: content. There are so many upgrades to unlock in New Leaf. The shop goes from Nookling Junction to T&T Mart to Super T&T to T.I.Y. to the massive T&T Emporium (which also sells Leif’s flowers, bushes, and fruits)! That’s more upgrades than New Horizons has stores. Then you’ve got the Able Sisters, Re-tail, Nook’s Homes, the Dream Suite, Kicks’ store, the Fortune shop, the Happy Home Showcase, and Shampoodle. This game was $40 when it came out (and is $20 now), and it has more content than New Horizons. I suppose the one downside of having so much content to unlock is that time travel is more useful. And I know that New Horizons is receiving content updates – at least at the time of writing – but it’s a shame to see so much content cut from the game.

All of New Leaf’s stores are in an area called Main Street, which groups them all together … on a street. It’s a really nice feature that makes it easy to visit multiple shops in a short span of time. In other games, the stores are scattered throughout town – which is fine, in a way – but I personally preferred visiting Main Street to do my shopping. It gave me access to a more organized routine, if that makes any sense. In New Horizons, you can organize your shops (the two of them that are still around, anyway) so that they’re built right next to each other… but it’s not the same.

Speaking of things New Leaf has that New Horizons doesn’t, let’s continue with its furniture. New Leaf has so, so many furniture items, and the Welcome amiibo update added even more. There are so many furniture sets that appear in New Leaf that didn’t make it back in New Horizons: the Gracie set, the Alpine set, the Rococo set, the Sleek set, the Sloppy set, the Gorgeous set, the Blue and Green sets, all of the Nintendo items… I can go on and on. It’s so disappointing to see some of my favorite furniture lines cut from New Horizons. Of course, some of the cut furniture was… sort of ugly, honestly, but it’s missed nonetheless.

We’re finally finishing up the gameplay section here. Let’s wrap up a few loose ends. New Leaf allows players to edit designs using touch screen controls. New Horizons does not. New Leaf includes perfect fruit, which is honestly completely useless besides selling for more money, but they did add some additional variety to trees. New Leaf also had durians, persimmons, mangos, lemons, oranges, and bananas, which were all cut from New Horizons. Again, much-missed variety.

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Welcome amiibo update

In 2015, Nintendo released Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival and a brand-new line of Animal Crossing amiibo figures. It failed miserably, and the overabundance of Animal Crossing figurines prompted stores to stop ordering as many amiibo to sell. Perhaps to encourage the sale of more amiibo, Nintendo released an unprecedented content update for Animal Crossing: New Leaf, turning the game’s name into Animal Crossing: New Leaf – Welcome amiibo. Well, that’s a mouthful. This update added a lot, but as you might expect, it favored players who owned amiibo.

This is when the Animal Crossing series began to experience power creep. Welcome amiibo added a genie lamp that could be placed in your house. When you interact with it, you summon Wisp, who then prompts you to scan an amiibo card. Long story short, you can move in any villager whose amiibo card you own. No longer do you have to get villagers randomly. No longer do you have to cycle out sixteen villagers to reclaim a lost one. And you can kick out whoever you want and replace them with the character represented on the card. You can also invite Wolf Link and Ganondorf to live in your town, which is…bizarre, but I like it.

Welcome amiibo also introduced the Campground, a new area that utilized the newly-introduced MEOW coupons. If you’ve played New Horizons, let me explain it this way: MEOW coupons are basically the early version of Nook Miles. You’d earn MEOW coupons by completing tasks around town, and you could exchange them for new furniture items. You could also scan amiibo figures or cards of special characters, and Wisp would bring them to the campground. They arrive in RVs, so you get to explore their custom vehicle and order any exclusive furniture you might see. Some characters have exclusive furniture you can’t get anywhere else, so this was a neat little feature. You can also honk their horns and surprise them!

Those are the main draws of the Welcome amiibo update, but they added other features, too. Almost fifty villagers – both new and old – were reintroduced, mostly via a new line of amiibo cards. It also adds Wii U and Nintendo 3DS furniture items which, when interacted with, load up minigames to play! The Wii U loads up Desert Island Escape from Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival, and the Nintendo 3DS loads Animal Crossing Puzzle League. I never got into these, but they were a nice bonus for sure. I’ve heard people say Desert Island Escape was the only decent bit of amiibo Festival. Perhaps I’ll play the game and confirm that myself one day.

The Welcome amiibo patch also added Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer’s half-tiles and room designer mode. These are a very, very welcome addition, as they make designing your home so much easier. This has been a series staple ever since, and it was nice to see such an improvement come to the game three years after its release. Better late than never, right?

There are a bunch of much appreciated quality of life changes too. Villagers can no longer move their houses on top of paths, players can sit on rocks, and screenshots from the game can now be posted directly to Facebook and Twitter. I was honestly really impressed with the Welcome amiibo update because it was released for a game that already felt complete. New Leaf felt like a complete package from the very beginning, so all that extra content was a real bonus. And for free! … well, you had to buy amiibo to get the full benefit, so maybe not. New Horizons does not feel complete – at least as of right now – so I only hope that missing features from New Leaf are added back very soon.

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The Verdict

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is good, but New Leaf had its own charm to it. And I think this charm is one that certainly makes it worth replaying, even now. As I mentioned before, the game is a mere $20 right now and has more content than New Horizons. If you’re a fan of Animal Crossing and haven’t played New Leaf – first of all, how is that possible, and second, you should certainly give it a try. There’s so much depth to New Leaf that I’m sure I’ve missed something here.

Phew. If you read this entire post, I salute you. This was a really, really, really long one. Probably a contender for the longest post on the site. I have a lot to say about New Leaf, and I’m going to be working hard playing more entries in the Animal Crossing series so I can write about them! Thanks for reading all of this. Allow me to end this post with a quote from the great Reggie Fils-Aimé: “Okay, that’s all the time I’ve got. I gotta get back to playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf on my Nintendo 3DS.”

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