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Animal Crossing: New Horizons: hands-on with Nintendo’s adorable Switch life sim

The first 45 minutes of Tom Nook’s latest scam venture

From the beginning, Animal Crossing: New Horizons feels different. Historically, Nintendo’s life-sim series almost always starts the same: plunking your human character down into a quaint town populated by animals. New Horizons, instead, begins with an information desk. Your character is peppered with questions by adorable raccoons Timmy and Tommy Nook, asking you all kinds of questions about something called a “Nook Getaway Package.” You’ll be asked where you live, whether you want to visit the northern or southern hemisphere, and to present your passport photo (a cleverly disguised character creator). You even get to pick from a series of four randomly generated island layouts. Just two minutes in, the game already feels much more involved than its predecessors.

New Horizons isn’t just the series’s long-awaited debut on the Switch; it’s also what looks like the biggest departure for Animal Crossing to date. By shifting the setting to a near-deserted island, the developers at Nintendo have found a premise that lets them play with a well-worn formula while still keeping what works. I had a chance to check this out for myself earlier this week when I played the first 45 minutes or so of New Horizons. And while that’s not nearly enough time to judge a game of this scope, the latest Animal Crossing is at least off to a promising start.

Following your conversation with the Nook kids, you’re flown to an island that will be your new home. The first thing you’ll probably notice — especially if you’ve spent lots of time with the portable iterations of the franchise — is just how good New Horizons looks. It’s still unmistakably Animal Crossing, with cute, squat characters and a grid-based layout. But everything is much more detailed. My island was covered with a fine layer of sparkly white snow, but you could still see the colorful wildflowers poking through and the bright pop of ripe peaches on the trees. I especially loved the more vibrant water, which adds to the game’s natural charm.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

The core of the game remains mostly the same. Instead of a house, you’re given a tent, and you can set it up wherever you want. Initially, the island is pretty sparse; there are only two other residents alongside the Nook family that runs the joint. Nintendo says that new features — including facilities like a museum and tailor as well as additional characters — will slowly unlock as you play. But early on, your island home is quaint and quiet. At first, there aren’t even any bridges or stairs to cross rivers or climb cliffs.

A few gameplay changes are noticeable right away. Chief among them is the new crafting feature, which, while simple, seems like a natural fit for the new island setting. Essentially, you can collect and buy crafting recipes, which you can then take to a workbench to create new things — provided you have the necessary materials. I spent about five minutes gathering branches strewn across the island and immediately managed to make myself a cheap fishing rod and bug-catching net, essentials for any would-be Animal Crossing explorer. Nintendo says that there will be different tiers for each of the tools — mine were labeled “flimsy,” meaning they’ll break relatively easily — and you’ll also be able to buy them as well as craft them.

The other big change is a structural one. After your first night’s sleep on the island, Tom Nook will come to you with the dreaded bill — that extremely large sum of money he forgot to tell you about before you agreed to set up on the island. Only this time, you don’t have to pay the loan with cash. Instead, there’s a new feature called “Nook Miles,” which takes the form of an app on your smartphone. (In fact, most of the game’s menu features are cleverly disguised as apps, including the map and crafting recipes.)

Essentially, it’s a goal-based system that lets you earn miles by doing everyday Animal Crossing stuff. Things like catching fish, chatting with neighbors, and pretty much anything else will earn miles that will go toward paying off your initial loan, as well as unlock new clothes and items. It’s a way of adding some goals to the otherwise open-ended New Horizons gameplay, but without forcing them on you since they’re optional. However, it appears that the miles may only apply to the initial loan, and you’ll need actual money to eventually upgrade your house.

A few other smaller details I noticed:

  • You can use your bug net for catching snowflakes as well as critters
  • The game’s terrible puns, which were absent from the mobile game Pocket Camp and pop-up whenever you catch a bug or fish, are back in full force
  • You have much more control over the layout of the island. Not only can you pick the map at the outset, but you can also tell the other residents where to set up camp if you want to.
  • Wasp stings still hurt
Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Of course, it’s impossible to get a full sense of the game in such a short span. Animal Crossing is an experience that only really reveals itself after weeks and months of playing; it runs in real time, making it best-enjoyed by playing a little bit each day. That seems particularly true for New Horizons. Many of the game’s features — including facilities like the museum or tailor, the option to build a real house, and the ability to change the island through construction — aren’t available initially and will likely take some time to unlock.

That said, while New Horizons doesn’t give you all of the new stuff right away, it’s not afraid to show how different it is. Yes, this is still a game about a quiet afternoon chasing butterflies, gathering fruit, or decorating a house. But it’s also one that looks to be more involved than any iteration of the franchise to date — and that will likely continue the deeper you dig in.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons will launch on March 20th on the Nintendo Switch.