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Isabelle from Animal Crossing: New Horizons Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

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Animal Crossing: New Horizons: The final review

New Horizons may still be the same game, but it feels totally different

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Despite Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ many, many updates — both large and small — Nintendo’s island-life simulation remains largely the same. What has changed, though, is the circumstances we’re playing through.

When New Horizons launched in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had just shut down large swathes of the globe. Many of us spent more time at home, while others — deemed essential — risked their health by trekking into an uncertain world. We avoided other people, at least physically, and re-centered much of our focus on this digital canvas. It was, in no small part, a safer alternative. New Horizons arrived at exactly the right time to become the getaway we all needed.

No one can say whether we would have played New Horizons differently if it didn’t come around when it did. But it did, and, maybe as a result of that intense escapist focus, a lot of people played New Horizons furiously. They embraced time travel as a way to binge the otherwise chill game, playing as if New Horizons was a race to be won. I played this way, too. Because I wanted to collect everything and expand as quickly as possible, I played it almost competitively, comparing my island to those of my peers, wondering which fleeting moment of time I had misspent to miss out on that forest-green sofa. I played as if my time with the game was limited, when in fact, it was very, very not limited.

Maybe as a result of this intensity, or maybe just as a result of “moving on,” I suddenly lost interest. I hit a spot where I didn’t want to be a part of the arms race anymore — I didn’t want to deal with the FOMO or the guilt. Everything was Animal Crossing until it wasn’t.

And so, a year passed without me touching the game, save for an occasional check-in — often for work. We’re months away from the two-year anniversary, and, though the shape of it has shifted, we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. Businesses have begun to open up again, and vaccines are now available. The virus is still spreading, but we’ve moved past that initial shock and have found ways to live with it. New Horizons is no longer the only option for birthday parties or holidays or rejuvenating get-togethers with friends.

toasting with lottie, niko, and wardell Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

Nintendo’s major 2.0 update on Nov. 3, along with the Happy Home Paradise DLC, did what other content updates couldn’t: They convinced me to start playing the game again. In a smart move, Nintendo saved an abundance of content for one big expansion, rather than doling it out in smaller updates. The changes — quality-of-life improvements, new characters, and a new resort, to name a few — were enticing enough that I wanted to pick back up the game I had long abandoned. Although these additions brought me back, I’ve stuck around for another reason entirely. Upon returning to New Horizons in 2021, I haven’t really found a new game, but rather, a new feeling while playing it; the need to rush through the content, to seek out everything immediately, is no longer there. With an intimate knowledge of New Horizons, and more than 100 hours logged, it finally feels OK to slow down.

On Sears, my island, it’s fall now, the same season in which I last left it. Pumpkin decorations still line my walkways, the patches themselves certainly overripe. But, because this is Animal Crossing, they still look pristine in their orange rows. They’ve been waiting for more than a year to get picked. The new crops — tomatoes, potatoes, wheat, sugarcane, and carrots — work in exactly the same way. Plop them onto the ground, water them, and in a few days time, they’ll be ready to pick. But now they can be used for more than just decorations, thanks to the addition of cooking. Cooking doesn’t necessarily have a purpose in New Horizons, but it doesn’t need to. (You can eat the food, just like fruit, or put it on display.) The joy in it, for me, is in collecting recipes and seeing what I can make. The same goes for the other new parts of New Horizons: The joy in Kapp’n’s tours is the mystery of what I’ll find.

None of it is surprising, and if I were to binge the new 2.0 content, I’d probably run through the free stuff in a few quick hours. (The Happy Home Paradise DLC adds a lot more time on top of that.) But this works in New Horizons’ favor, because I feel encouraged to actually take it slow, knowing that there’s nothing I’ll miss out on — that I’ll get to it all eventually.

Katrina the fortune teller shouts “YEEeeeeee!” in a screenshot from Animal Crossing: New Horizons Image: Nintendo

Nintendo didn’t add some of players’ most requested quality-of-life additions in New Horizons’ 2.0 update — particularly, the ability to make multiple items at one time — but the developer did make a lot of small changes that add up to a more intuitive whole. DIY recipes can finally be put into storage; there are more design slots; more inclines and bridges. Ordinances, too, are removing some of those tiny barriers that made New Horizons frustrating to play, alongside more customization options through Cyrus and Reese at Harv’s island marketplace. These are essential in me actually enjoying my time back on Sears. New Horizons isn’t a game where I want to feel friction anymore than I already had. But that friction is still there. I have to repeat interactions if I want to do multiple actions, and that extends to some of the new features, like customizing multiple items with Cyrus and Reese. It still takes a comically long time for friends to make their way onto my island, and terraforming is still absolutely grating.

A human sitting on the beach wearing a red shirt in Animal Crossing: New Horizons Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

It’s clear, of course, that Nintendo wants this new update to keep players interested in New Horizons for as long as possible; the days-long time gating is a clear indicator of that. Players who want new content to keep them busy for more hours on end will likely be frustrated, but it works for my new preferred way to play. New Horizons doesn’t feel like a chore anymore, but I think that’s a change in me, rather than in the game itself.

What makes Animal Crossing an appealing franchise is that I’m able to meet it on my own terms — even if those terms are the polar opposite of the ones I brought to the game in 2020. New Horizons is no longer my “global living room,” as Bijan Stephen described Fortnite in 2018. It’s more like my secret clubhouse, a space that’s mostly just for me, and maybe the kind of friends that feel comfortable sitting in silence. Coming back to the game this time — alongside all of its new content — means doing things differently, but it’s still just as satisfying.

Animal Crossing is no longer everything. But it’s just enough for me.

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