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Animal Crossing: New Horizons review: one year later

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Twelve months in, the game is a quieter, but still comforting, experience

The snow has finally melted, and I’m able to step outside to dig for fossils without bundling up in a jacket and winter hat. It’s T-shirt weather, and spring means my Animal Crossing: New Horizons island feels more alive. There are bugs chirping and more fish in the lakes and sea. Even my cute little animal neighbors seem more lively. But the change in weather also signals that I’ve been playing this game for an entire year. I’ve seen seasons, holidays, wildlife, and even other players and villagers come and go. In some ways, New Horizons isn’t the same game as the one I started playing in 2020. But for the most part, it’s almost identical. So why am I still playing?

When I wrote my original review of New Horizons last March, I’d spent around two weeks with the game. I called it a slow burn, even by the plodding standards of the Animal Crossing series. I also said its pacing was “an acquired taste.” Turns out, I was very wrong, at least for a certain portion of the audience who were able to bend the game to their will. With everyone stuck indoors, New Horizons turned into a bingeable experience, with seemingly everyone racing to pay off their mortgage and “complete” the game as fast as possible. The stalk market exploded. Time travel became acceptable. There were talk shows and celebrity appearances that came and went. The result was that a lot of players, or at least most of the people I know, burned out after a few weeks or months.

And there I was, plodding along. Since the original on the GameCube, I’ve always treated Animal Crossing more like a small distraction rather than a game to be conquered. I rarely play for more than an hour at a time, but I check in regularly. Early on, friends, colleagues, and family members kept me company; sometimes, we’d fight over resources, with arguments spilling out into the real world. Now, it’s mostly just me and my animal friends.

But while a large portion of the audience seemed to have slowed down, Nintendo kept updating the game. Since launch, New Horizons has added swimming (and deep-sea fishing), an art seller (along with a new wing for the museum), the ability to dream (and backup your save to the cloud), and holiday celebrations covering everything from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve to a carnival. There have also been quality-of-life updates, like the recent expansion for customization.

Some of these updates have changed how I play the game, at least in small ways. As the kind of person who wants to collect every type of animal and complete my museum, I’ve spent a lot of time diving for clams and squids. Similarly, I check in to the game pretty much every day to see if Redd, that slippery art dealer, has shown up to sell me some fraudulent paintings. The events, meanwhile, at least give me something to look forward to; generally, they all follow the same formula, but it’s still fun to collect new items, especially around the holidays. Aesthetics can make a real difference. I can’t go to the real Super Nintendo World in Osaka, but I can give my island’s outdoor market a Super Mario-themed makeover.

Surprisingly, though, the way I play on a day-to-day basis has remained largely unchanged. I start up a game, change my clothes, hit the shops to see if there’s anything new to buy, and then do a quick run around the island to collect fossils, clean up the flowers and weeds, and maybe do a bit of fishing if I have time. If I run into a neighbor, I’ll say hi. This changes on days when there’s an event, like a fishing tournament, but otherwise, New Horizons is an exercise in routine. The weather might change, there might be different butterflies floating about, or maybe I’m dressed like Mario, but I always do pretty much the same thing.

That’s not necessarily a complaint. Part of what makes Animal Crossing so appealing, at least to me, is that it’s comfortable and inviting. I’m not looking for big surprises. After a long day, it’s nice to just spend a little while in a cozy space, running a few errands with no pressure of time or failure. If I don’t finish all of the day’s gardening, no big deal. I haven’t even paid off my entire mortgage yet; once my house was fully upgraded, I didn’t see much reason to spend more cash on it, especially since there’s no punishment for not paying.

But it’s also not how I expected things to go with New Horizons. In my original review, I lauded features like terraforming, crafting, and the Nook Miles rewards system because they felt like genuinely new additions that could shake up the formula. One year later, that’s no longer the case for me. Nook Miles are an afterthought; I collect enough of them without trying that there’s little incentive to spend much time worrying about completing goals. Crafting is helpful for getting some rare items, but usually, it’s easier to buy things. And while terraforming helped me create a nice waterfall, I’ve found it far too tedious for bigger projects. Many of the changes feel significant when you first start playing New Horizons, but eventually, the game settles into largely the same rhythm as past Animal Crossing titles.

I think what’s kept me playing, aside from a deep-rooted desire to fill up my island’s museum, is that I crave that familiarity. A 30-minute respite each day is something I need; that was true last March, it’s true today, and will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future. A year ago, I praised the game for giving me more control, and I was excited that so many people were playing early on. But it turns out what I mostly wanted was comfort.