It’s remarkable how little “Animal Crossing” has changed since the first installment dropped in the U.S. in 2002. In the 18 years since, its relaxing, wholesome, open-ended, short-daily-play-sessions formula has stood the test of time — everything from paying off your debt to Tom Nook to the ability to decorate your own home to the fishing and bug-catching into which any longtime “Animal Crossing” player has probably sunk a borderline-worrying number of hours. The somehow both addicting and soothing gameplay of maintaining and improving your town — a welcome return to a sense of normalcy given the current circumstances — clearly has worked and will continue to work for “Animal Crossing.”
Each entry in the series, then, becomes about what new approaches and refinements Nintendo can take to shake things up while still keeping the solid core of the games familiar. In “Wild World” (2005), the defining upgrade was online play and the ability to visit friends’ towns; for “City Folk” (2008) it was, as one might guess, the introduction of the City; for “New Leaf” (2013), it was becoming mayor of your town and being able to start public works projects. Beyond these “big changes,” Nintendo has continued to refine and upgrade elements of the series with each title, adding and subtracting what works and what doesn’t — for example, players weren’t able to customize their pants until “New Leaf,” a shockingly simple addition met with joy by fans who had waited eleven years just to be able to throw on a pair of in-game jeans.
With “New Horizons” (2020), the most obvious and defining change is the introduction of crafting. Essentially, every previous “Animal Crossing” game dropped you off in what was already a pre-existing town; sure, there was work to be done enhancing the town as well as making your own money, but buildings already existed, a few neighbors already lived there and your job was to make the most of it. This time around, though, you’re starting from a totally blank slate. The game starts by flying you to a completely desolate island (save for some weeds — if you were scared that an “Animal Crossing” game would let you go without the ever-arduous task of weed-pulling, fear not), asking you to roll up your sleeves and create a vibrant island community from scratch.
This task introduces crafting — the ability to gather enough raw materials to build tools, furniture, even buildings, in some cases — capitalizing on the kind of gameplay with which any “Minecraft” player is familiar. Crafting is a welcome addition to the series; the continual doling-out of achievable goals is and always has been crucial to the “Animal Crossing” formula, and crafting is simply another avenue to those small, satisfying victories. However, this approach does slow down the beginning of the game as you work your way through your first tasks. Unfortunately, the first few days of “New Horizons” are, for lack of a better word, kind of a slog.
Luckily, once things get running, “New Horizons” returns to the sort of “Animal Crossing” game with which longtime players are more familiar — neighbors wander around town, a Nook’s Cranny opens on the island, offering new furniture daily and Blathers still runs the museum (although Blathers is definitely funnier this time around). Old favorites like K.K. Slider, the Able Sisters, Gulliver, Celeste and Saharah all return, while a few new characters (of whom Wilbur and Orville, the dodos who run the airport, are my personal favorites) enter the scene.
Nintendo has refined some of the elements from previous games; hubs like the City from “City Folk” and Main Street from “New Leaf” are nowhere to be found, allowing “New Horizons” to return to a town layout similar to that of “Wild World.” Also absent is the rather arbitrary Re-Tail recycling store from “New Leaf.” For those of us who spent what felt like hours listening to Mr. Resetti’s lectures in “Wild World,” this game finally has auto-save; for those of us who ended up with an avatar who looked perpetually half-asleep in previous games, “New Horizons” finally lets you customize hair and facial features. Islands now have multiple levels as opposed to the totally-flat layouts of previous games, and since “New Leaf” introduced placing bridges and other landmarks, “New Horizons” gives you the opportunity to choose the placement of just about every building as well as terraform your island to your desired layout.
All of these details aside, the central reinvention of “New Horizons” — the crafting system and “starting-from-scratch” of the deserted island — gives players an unprecedented amount of control over their island’s development, creating more investment in continuing to build it out. Yes, a few of the new additions might not have landed: the first few hours are slow, the addition of a cell phone feels a little awkward in a game that embraces nature, and sometimes the steps required to unlock something aren’t particularly intuitive or well-explained — I’ve found myself having to Google how to unlock certain tools and upgrades more than in previous games. But despite some of those shortcomings, “New Horizons,” in a way, takes “Animal Crossing” back to basics, continuing to showcase the tried-and-true formula that has made the series so compelling for almost 20 years.