By now, you’ve probably seen the memes of “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” that depict a life of cute anthropomorphic animals, cantankerous wildlife and QR code outfits. In this life, raccoon Tom Nook invites you on the Deserted Island Getaway Package. On the island, you discover beautiful flora and fauna, soft jazzy tunes, and the stark realization that you must pay back this raccoon 98,000 bells, the island’s currency, for your house. But the loan comes with promises of undiscovered fossils, rare creatures and cute villagers. This is “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” the fifth installment of the franchise for the Nintendo Switch.
The long-awaited “New Horizons” couldn’t have arrived at a better time. With your extended stay at home in quarantine, retreat further into your home away from home on this island getaway. Free of infectious disease, deadlines, government or real environmental threats, the island is just you, a fishing pole and your animal friends.
Made for all audiences and ages, there’s a reason why it’s one of the only franchises that has gotten its own limited edition Nintendo Switch console. With an influx of Switch games that require combat skills like “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate,” “Animal Crossing” comes as a world with minimal threats such as tarantulas and the overhanging dread of loan payments, where you don’t need to memorize controller button combinations for an intense battle. Like other simulation games such as “Stardew Valley” or “The Sims,” you’re free to interact with characters, reach secret goals and exercise your creative spirit as you please.
Compared to previous “Animal Crossing” games, “New Horizons” introduces a slew of new features that make it the best installment thus far. Unlike in older games that begin with a well-furnished town with villagers complete with a Nook’s Cranny, Able Sisters clothing shop and Museum, in “New Horizons,” a longer series of tasks must be completed to unlock some veteran characters. The act of recruiting villagers and building your town from a deserted island gives the franchise some resemblance of a plot, almost like a prologue for your future town. Even after you unlock all of the main features, the game offers more long-term goals that incentivize endless gameplay such as paying off your home loans, catching new fish and bugs throughout the year, designing your island, etc.
Although major aspects of the game haven’t changed, some parts have evolved to echo modern society. You now have a cell phone with apps that let you text your real-life friends, earn points for completing tasks and design your own clothes, but how you have service on this deserted island is unclear to me. With this phone, you can also collect DIY recipes that allow you to craft tools, furniture and clothes using island resources and upcycle trash — an ecological step forward for the franchise, despite allowing you to hunt every fish and bug to extinction and chop down every tree.
Unlike previous “Animal Crossing” games, you eventually have near-complete control over your island customization with the help of other new features such as digging up trees, moving buildings and, most importantly, terraforming. That’s right — you can alter rivers, build cliffs and literally move mountains. While the Island Designer app is on, you have a permit to change the island’s landscape completely, giving you the option to build walls around a villager you hate, flood your town or replicate other islands like Hyrule.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the game is the online play feature in which, with a Nintendo Switch Online subscription, you can visit your friends’ towns and vice versa. In this time of isolation and diaspora of communities around the world, it can be comforting to have a platform that lets you interact virtually with real-life friends. All you have to do is simply ask Orville, a dodo who can somehow type on a keyboard, to book you a flight to your friend’s island at your local airport. Within minutes, you can steal all your friend’s fruit or have an intense photo session within six feet of each other. And you can text with your phone, too. These days, “Animal Crossing” can be a place where whacking someone with your bug net can mean “I love you,” because the keyboard is too hard to work.
Although the game is as highly addictive as ever, there were some annoying features in my first few weeks of gameplay. When you first arrive on the island, you can craft “flimsy” tools like fishing rods and bug nets. But they break after supposedly 30 uses, forcing you to then gather more resources and build more flimsy tools. This can be especially time-consuming in the beginning when you don’t have a “simple DIY workbench” to carry around in your pocket, so you have to either run back to Nook every time a tool breaks or stockpile tools, which takes up precious pocket inventory. Later on, you have the option to craft “pretty good” tools and eventually “golden” tools, which last longer, but take more precious, hot-commodity resources like iron and gold nuggets.
Additionally, “New Horizons” functions in real time, meaning the game follows your time zone, seasons and holidays. In April, the game introduced its “Bunny Day” event, in which a mysterious bouncing bunny named Zipper challenged you to find eggs before April 12, a nod to Easter Sunday. But the eggs, which held no real value, prevented people from catching fish or getting iron nuggets. Fortunately, Nintendo has addressed the situation with an update to decrease the amount of eggs. The next event is set to revolve around Earth Day, bringing back the gardening sloth, Leif. Hopefully, Nintendo learns from Bunny Day and keeps events from reducing island resources.
Despite these minor drawbacks, “New Horizons” still offers hours of escapism in these uncertain times through a life that lets you walk outside in the grass, hug your friends, build your dream house and exert control over your town’s future. So pick some fruit, chill in a hammock, make some money. Your island awaits.