Animal Crossing: New Horizons – A Fortunate Disappointment

Nice title, right? I imagine writing “attention-grabbing”, overly definitive titles such as this one is what it feels like to be a journalist. Speaking of which…

Journalists. They’re a tough crowd, right? When it comes to game reviews, I feel like they’ve been dropping the ball. They wind up categorizing each and every game into one of three categories: amazingaverage, or terrible. But it’s not that simple, is it? Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the perfect example. Review sites raved and raved. It got consistent 10s across the board. Naturally, this made me excited to try out the game. And I liked it.

But something’s definitely wrong here. I’ve played New Horizons. It’s good. But it’s nowhere close to a 10 out of 10. Animal Crossing has its ups and downs – as all games do – but it has a lot of issues that were conveniently absent from the game’s initial wave of reviews. This presents a greater issue with journalism in general, though: with games like Animal Crossing, you really can’t form a definitive opinion in a week or two. The series is designed for the long haul, and as a result, should be reviewed as such.

Today’s post is going to be a long one. We’ll be talking about journalism, COVID-19, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ success story. More importantly, though, we’re going to talk about New Horizons’ strengths and weaknesses. And there’s a lot of each.

Introduction

A few weeks ago I wrote a rather long analysis of Animal Crossing: New Leaf. And I talked a lot about New Horizons in it, too. Before I start, I’d like to add a disclaimer: I’m nostalgic to New Leaf, but not New Horizons, which may be the reason I tend to be more critical towards the latter.

Now then. You’ve probably heard the news: at the time of writing, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has sold a ton of units (and it’s only going to sell more). About 22 million of them, in fact. It goes without saying that it’s the most popular game in the series, then. Furthermore, it’s outsold Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and all four Pokémon games (Sword, Shield, Let’s Go, Pikachu!, and Let’s Go, Eevee!). There’s only one Switch game that’s moved more copies, and that’s Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Without exaggerating, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has taken the gaming community (and perhaps even the world) by storm.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was first revealed in Nintendo’s September 2018 presentation. And it was going to be released in 2019! This didn’t happen, of course, as the game was eventually delayed to March 2020. And let me tell you — I can absolutely see why it was delayed. We’ll get into that later. I’m generally fine with delays, and I agree that a later release date was beneficial for New Horizons and its development team. But when you take COVID-19 and its effects into account, the delay actually worked out even better.

At this point, everything that can be said about COVID-19 has already been said. As mentioned before, Nintendo announced the New Horizons delay towards the end of 2019 – far before the pandemic began – and the revised release date became March 20, 2020. Smack dab in the middle of the pandemic, but they didn’t know that yet. I think part of Animal Crossing’s success is that it released at just the right time. If it were released on-schedule in 2019, sure, it would’ve sold. But we’ve been going through a pandemic since March, and the game’s delay worked to its advantage. Given how many daily obligations COVID-19 has shut down, it’s easy to see why people picked up New Horizons: it filled a newly-formed void in players’ lives — at least, to a certain extent.

The Animal Crossing: New Horizons we received on March 20 of this year was just what people needed during quarantine: another way to interact with (or even make) friends. It’s like a home away from home, in a sense, and that feeling of connectedness is something many have no doubt been yearning for as of late. Having pleasant interactions with villagers and inviting friends over to spend time with are things a lot of people are really missing right now. Animal Crossing is considered a life simulator, after all. And it’s so realistic that you can even go into debt!

I’ve certainly had a lot of good times with New Horizons, but I’d be lying if I said the experience was perfect. I’ve got a lot of issues with this game, some of which I don’t often hear about. Let’s begin with what players will notice first: the game’s presentation, aesthetic, and soundtrack.

Presentation

First, I’d like to add that – in terms of visuals – Animal Crossing: New Horizons convincingly beats New Leaf. Its art style is rather simple, focusing on light, pastel colors that are easy to look at. It’s really quite neat, because the game is colorful without being overwhelming. That’s definitely a tough balance to strike, so I’m glad they hit a home run here. Some might take issue with the lack of detail on certain objects, but that wasn’t a problem for me.

New Horizons looks great in the morning. More specifically, from 4 AM. to 6 AM. Yes, I’ve played during these times. It’s quarantine, what do you expect? The sky is a beautiful blueish-yellow-green color, and it actually looks good enough to make me a little bit excited for a new day. I like the thunderstorms, too — nice and dark, but then the entire screen flashes a warm yellow when lightning strikes. You can even see clouds in the sky fire off thunderbolts if you turn the camera up.

Anyway, though, the game has high highs and low lows, and those low lows become apparent as the day goes on. At around 6 PM the sun begins to set, and the entire island turns orange. Like, yesthe sun is bright, but I don’t think the sun (in real life) emits an intense orange-red gradient. I haven’t been on an island in real life, so I suppose I wouldn’t know. By 7 PM, the warm colors begin to fade and things start getting washed out. Oddly enough, Animal Crossing: New Horizons does not get dark at night. It gets… blue. The moon must be abnormally bright in the Animal Crossing world, because the game takes on a more-than-subtle shade of a dark purplish-blue. If I look outside in real life, it’s pitch-black save for a few street lights. I’m not saying that should be the case here, but I would have appreciated darker nights. If you’ve played Terraria before, I actually quite like how its lighting works. Completely dark, but then you can place a lantern which creates a warm, glowy area. But as I said earlier, these are minor gripes. I don’t consider them too significant. So let’s move on to something that is significant.

The soundtrack is… an acquired taste. In other words, it’s not great — for the most part. New Leaf had a calm, instrumental “soundfont”, and its night tracks could put you to sleep (in a good way) if you listened to them long enough. New Horizons’ soundtrack sounds like a vacation through and through, utilizing electronic instruments with a subtly tropical flavor. These songs get very samey though. I’ve logged almost 500 hours of New Horizons and I probably wouldn’t be able to match the tracks to their corresponding hour save for a few. And – I should add – what I take issue with is the hourly music. The shop and holiday themes are actually really good, but of course, you’re going to be hearing the hourly tracks much more often.

I’m not going to link to any tracks in particular, because if their YouTube video gets taken down, I’ll have to update this post with a new link, and… that’s a lot of work. Regardless, though, let’s go through each track, starting with 12 AM:

  • 12 AM: It’s got a vaguely similar feel to New Leaf’s 12 AM theme. It starts with a series of striking notes, kind of like a reverse alarm clock telling you to go to sleep. This one’s kind of forgettable for me. I’m up at 12 AM a few times of week and I couldn’t remember this track until I pulled it up to listen to it again.
  • 1 AM: One of the two night themes I actually like! It swings from note to note, and has a bit of a jazzy feel. New Horizons’ 1 AM theme feels like it perfectly embodies the type of person who works late. It’s a bit too busy to fall asleep to, but a solid theme nonetheless.
  • 2 AM: This is my favorite hourly theme in the game. It’s a shame it’s 2 AM, though, because I can’t listen to it in-game if I’m on a strict sleep schedule. 2 AM is a calm piano and guitar remix of New Horizons’ main theme. It sounds somewhat sad, in a way. Playing the game at 2 AM while all of the villagers are asleep and shooting stars zoom by in the night sky is a really neat experience!
  • 3 AM: Okay, so 2 AM was my favorite, and I’m not sure if I love or hate 3 AM. We go from a peaceful and relaxing theme to… a track that sounds as if it’s making fun of you for being up so late. I don’t even know what this song’s main instrument is, but it’s… strange. This one’s definitely not my favorite.
  • 4 AM:  Of all the hourly tracks in the game, I’ve heard 4 AM in real-time least often. It’s kind of forgettable, in my opinion. It’s got an interesting feel to it, though, because there’s instruments in the background that remind me of a computer turning on.
  • 5 AM: It might be my second favorite hourly track! It’s a calm piano arrangement of Tom Nook’s theme, which… I guess is appropriate. There’s a bit of the New Horizons theme mixed in as well. This track pairs very well with that blueish-yellow-green sky I was talking about earlier.
  • 6 AM: This is where the soundtrack begins to dip. It’s got electronic instruments and guitars, which a lot of the songs also have. 6 AM sounds like a simple morning wake-up theme, but it’s not very memorable to me.
  • 7 AM: It’s strangely upbeat for being a song that plays at 7 AM. This theme gives me feelings of “business as usual”, but in an energetic and optimistic way. I quite like this one, but I’m rarely awake to hear it in time.
  • 8 AM: This one’s upbeat, too, but it’s got more electronic instruments and guitars. I categorize it with 6 AM as “mostly forgettable”.
  • 9 AM: The electronic instruments really start to take over in this one. As with most of the hourly themes, 9 AM is a fancy tropical remix of New Horizons’ main theme.
  • 10 AM: A triumphant-sounding like track that pairs well with early-morning town work. I like the trumpets early on, but then the electronic instruments kick in and it sounds a lot like other hours of the day.
  • 11 AM: A somewhat dreary-sounding remix of the game’s main theme. There’s a lot of guitars in this one, and then the electronics kick in again. Starting to notice a recurring theme here?
  • 12 PM: I’ve always subconsciously associated New Horizons’ 12 PM theme with either creativity or mischief, and I can’t tell which one. It’s a rendition of Tom Nook’s theme. The electronic instruments aren’t as prevalent here, which is a welcome change after hearing them for hours in a row.
  • 1 PM: I play at 1 PM all the time, and I still have trouble remembering this track. You may be surprised to hear that we’re back to guitars and electronic instruments. At least the soundtrack is trying to have an identity, but still. It’s a lot.
  • 2 PM: I was personally offended when I first heard this track! I’ve never heard a sassier song in all the games I’ve played. Its main instrument is … whiny, if that makes any sense. I can’t get it out of my head, and I’ve yet to determine if that’s good or bad.
  • 3 PM: Less of the inorganic instruments and more of the guitar and trumpets. This one’s fine, but the loop feels a little short. Animal Crossing hourly themes aren’t known for being long, but this one gets old just a bit faster than the others.
  • 4 PM: Aaand we’re back to guitars and electronic sounds! I like the melody in this one, but it’s a bit difficult to listen to at higher volumes. It’s certainly an improvement over New Leaf’s 4 PM theme, though.
  • 5 PM: Animal Crossing games have a history of strong 5 PM themes, and New Horizons continues this tradition. The track keeps a beat with repeated piano notes, there’s a background tune that’s really catchy… this one is pretty good.
  • 6 PM: Guitars and… a heavy emphasis on accordions. This theme lets you know that the day is winding down. I actually really like the accordion here. It sounds like it’s longing for something, if that makes any sense?
  • 7 PM: Now the soundtrack is starting to get a little subdued. And New Horizons’ 7 PM does not at all compare to New Leaf’s. This theme goes back to a heavy focus on electronic instruments, which are really starting to get old now.
  • 8 PM: Guitars and electronic instruments. I get that the soundtrack is trying to be cohesive, but really, this sounds very similar to all the other tracks I described with “guitars and electronic instruments”. Jeez.
  • 9 PM: Not as forgettable as 8 PM, but a bit more repetitive. I’m not particularly a fan of this one either.
  • 10 PM: Take a guess at which two instruments are featured in this one.
  • 11 PM: …….

New Leaf absolutely wins in the sound department, and it’s no contest for me. Each of its hourly themes were memorable in unique ways, whereas New Horizons seems to be trying to make all of its tracks sound more similar. New Leaf certainly had its weaker tracks, but New Horizons has many more of them. I think music is really important to Animal Crossing games, and while some of the themes playing here are good, a lot of them are either forgettable or repetitive.

As I mentioned earlier, though, the rest of New Horizons’ music is good. Shops, holidays, and the island tours don’t place any focus on electronic instruments… which is kind of baffling, isn’t it? I thought they were going for uniformity with those loud electronic bleeps and blaps, but that’s thrown out the window when you step into a building. The Bunny Day theme (Easter) is one of my favorite tracks in the entire game, but it makes me wish the hourly music sounded more like it.

So, to sum up that gigantic wall of text: New Horizons has solid visuals, but a lackluster soundtrack that left me wanting more variety. And much, much less of those inorganic-sounding instruments. I don’t even really know what to call them, so if you’ve listened to New Horizons’ soundtrack and know the name of the instrument, feel free to leave a comment and tell me its name.

Gameplay

So, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It’s Animal Crossing. And it plays exactly like you’d expect. You can move around, talk to villagers, catch bugs and fish… you get the point. If you’re reading this post, I’m assuming you’ve played the game before. I really want to address all the flaws here, but let’s take the optimistic route and talk about what the game does well first.

Crafting is a thing now, and you can gather materials like wood and stone from trees and rocks. It’s pretty neat at first! At night, when the stores close, you can still craft and customize items, which means there’s more to do. You can also fetch iron from stone, which is used to create more advanced items (and to build the shop). It’s a cool feature, but when you’re “late-game” it’s a pain to smack trees and rocks to get what you need. You can craft tools too now, but they break after enough uses. I … don’t know why this is a thing. Gold tools from previous Animal Crossing games are back, and can be crafted after obtaining the recipes. But they still break. I understand that the point of crafting tools is to be resourceful and explore your island, but after a while, gathering materials and crafting new tools gets a bit annoying. It’s not a huge problem, I just… don’t really know why the developers placed such a focus on it. If you’re following the Animal Crossing community, you probably know that you can’t bulk craft fish bait… and I agree that that’s kind of ridiculous.

You can now place furniture outside. This is absolutely game-changing. No more Public Works Projects (most of the ones from New Leaf are now furniture items that can be purchased or crafted), and no more Isabelle following you to tell you there’s not enough space to start construction. Islands can be customized like never before, and this opens up a whole new world of opportunities. You can even use the new Island Designer to build cliffs and waterfalls, place paths, and clean up dropped objects. And you can control where your villagers live, change the location of any island building (museum, shop, tailors’, etc.), and build bridges and inclines. To say that this game gives players a lot of control is an understatement. Oh, and flowers don’t die anymore! But there’s no town ordinances, so that’s probably why. No more having to water flowers every single day.

On the whole, yes, New Horizons is a step forward for the series. And that’s what a lot of early reviewers focused on. But let’s talk about the game’s biggest issue: its lack of content. If you don’t time travel, you’ll have new tasks to do for about two weeks. Here’s the game’s general timeline: move into an island, build your house, build your villagers’ houses, build the shop, build the museum, build the tailors’, get a three-star island rating, and invite K.K. Slider over. Compared to New Leaf, New Horizons includes almost no shop upgrades. It’s only got one. Lame.

And don’t think you can just make multiple islands, because you can’t. One island per Switch console. Consecutive accounts that load the game are instead prompted to add a house to the existing island. There is same-screen multiplayer, but you have to have multiple player houses on the island for that, and there a lot of restrictions. This was clearly a ploy to encourage players to buy their own Switch (and copy of the game)… and it clearly worked, given New Horizons’ more-than-impressive sales.

I’ve played a lot of local and online multiplayer in New Horizons. I’ve had fun, but honestly, it’s not great. It takes players a few minutes to fly from their island to yours (loading screen). And for some reason, they have to be shown an aerial preview of the town. And the pilot is sure to tell you he’s piloting a seaplane every single time you visit a friend. It’d be nice to skip that sequence for the sake of time. So, here’s a complete list of things you can’t do when a friend is visiting: you can’t place furniture, create custom designs, change your house, use the Island Designer app, assess fossils, donate to the museum, shoot balloons in the sky, use the new Rescue Service app, send letters, use the Dream Suite (though I understand this), or order from Nook Shopping. Oh, and players who visit your island can’t access their bank account at all. Or their storage. So if they’ve got items or money to give you, they need to take it all with them. Or worse still, they’ll have to return to their island and then come back to yours. New Leaf had portable storage and ABDs, and the fact that New Horizons doesn’t is just ridiculous. When a friend comes over, you can show them around your island and house. You can dig up fossils, dive, and catch bugs and fish. They can shop, too. And that’s pretty much it. You can’t place furniture at all when a guest is over, so you can’t even share ideas with each other. I think you can figure out how weak New Horizons’ multiplayer is if you have to resort to hide and seek after fifteen minutes. Good grief. Gone are the days of taking your friend to Tortimer’s island to play tours together. You can’t even take a friend to the rather empty islands that Nook Tours bring you to.

Moving back to single player. Villagers (the animals) got nerfed. Their dialogue is fine, and the smug-personality villagers made me laugh more than a few times… but the variety in dialogue is almost nonexistent. If you play New Horizons for a few days in a row, you’ll notice the villagers saying the exact same things to you. Over, and over, and over again. There’s even less dialogue variety than in New Leaf because villagers in New Horizons almost never ask for favors. Every once in a blue moon, they’ll need a fish caught or a present delivered, but it’s very, very rare. Now add repeat dialogue to the game’s near-universal use of electronic instruments, and you’ve got a pretty repetitive experience.

A lot of items have been removed since New Leaf, too. Tons of furniture items – most notably, every single Nintendo-themed item, is gone. No gyroids, either, and a lot of furniture series have been completely removed from New Horizons. They could be added in updates, sure, but the fact that so many series staples are just gone is incredibly disappointing.

Then there’s the cloud saves debacle. Switch players worldwide have been paying a yearly subscription for the Nintendo Switch Online service. One of those perks is to back up your saves via the cloud. Animal Crossing is probably one of the most important games to back up, right? Well, apparently not. At present, the island backup service just launched, so anybody who’s lost their data over the past few months is out of luck. And if you want to restore the data backed up to the cloud, you have to call Nintendo’s customer service line. Last I knew, Animal Crossing isn’t a competitive game. I get that you can cheese things with cloud saves, but I don’t see why Nintendo would rather you lose your save data than exploit cloud saves. At least, that was the case up until recently. Pokémon and Splatoon continue to suffer from this problem, so at least the Animal Crossing developers added some kind of backup service.

One more thing here: you can’t use the touch screen to create custom designs on handheld mode. You can only use the control stick and buttons, despite the presence of a fully functioning touch screen. Again, it’s not a big deal on its own; New Horizons just has a ridiculous amount of puzzling flaws that add up over time.

Updates

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is one of the worst examples of “update culture”. Released incomplete (at least, in my opinion), the game is still receiving regular updates. At the time of writing, we’ve had just a few major feature inclusions. Diving was re-added to the game in July 2020, alongside a bunch of returning sea creatures to catch and donate to the museum. The Dream Suite was sort of re-added in August, along with the Fireworks show on Sundays. These are welcome additions, but it feels like I can see all of the new content in just a few minutes.

Kirby Star Allies and Pokémon Sword and Shield are additional examples of games influenced by “update culture”. Released with noticeably less content (or in the case of Star Allies, worse level design) than their predecessors, but “fixed” later on. And by “fixed” I mean “it got new content, but its core issues remained”. I don’t want that to happen with Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Updates are nice, and I know we’re going to get at least a few more, but I’d like some of the issues I brought up to be fixed in a quality-of-life patch.

Lessen the time it takes for players to fly to your island. Allow players in multiplayer sessions to place furniture (or, restrict that functionality to Best Friends only). Enable bulk crafting, bulk customization, portable storage and money management, and continue adding new features to continue improving the game. Unfortunately, some of the problems I’ve got with New Horizons can’t be fixed. I don’t think they’re going to adjust the lighting or compose new tunes for certain times of day. But please, at the very least, remove just a few (if not all) of the numerous and frustrating multiplayer restrictions.

I’d like to add that Animal Crossing: New Leaf was released in 2013 with a ton of content, both new and old. There was months of upgrades, tools, and buildings to unlock. There’s just about two weeks of that in New Horizons, and the asking price is $20 more. Oh, and then New Leaf enjoyed a massive update, all at once, for free. Years after the game’s release. It’s just a shame to see developers prioritizing a release date over creating a complete game. I understand that development is hard work. I understand that creating high-definition visuals from scratch isn’t easy. …And I also understand that releasing the game in March is part of what made it so successful. New Horizons’ foundation is solid, but I want to see that foundation both improved and built on.

The Verdict

Despite my non-stop complaining, I’ve had a lot of good times with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, though I owe most of those good times to friends I’ve played with. More and more lately, though, I have noticed people are either taking a break from or completely ceasing to play New Horizons. And I can see why. It still needs content. And it still needs quality-of-life changes.

Overall, I currently am of the mindset that New Leaf is a more cohesive experience. It is hard to go back to New Leaf, but for its time, it was a more ambitious entry that lived up to its hopes and dreams. I look forward to seeing where New Horizons goes from here. If I heard right, the developers plan on supporting it for “years”. If that’s true, it could be a completely different game in due time. Maybe.

And it’s true that I’ve been a bit harsh on New Horizons, too. The truth is, it’s still an enjoyable game.  But I’d like to see it move forward, and I feel that there’s no harm in criticizing a series I love. Flawed as it is, I’m still going to play it. It’s a game that’s been important to me over the past few months, and I’m sure some of you feel the same, even if you’re a bit burnt out at the moment. It’s entirely possible that any and all of the flaws I mentioned here could be fixed in the future, and if that does turn out to be the case, I’ll be sure to write an update post. In the meantime, thank you for reading! Even by my standards, this post was rather long, and I’ll be covering other games in the series. I really enjoy writing these long-form essays that readers can digest at their own pace.

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