Animal Crossing: New Horizons is great, but it leaves me wanting more. [From the Vault: December 2020]

And New Leaf is calling my name.

I want to preface this by saying that this article is not a review of either Animal Crossing: New Leaf or Animal Crossing: New Horizons. While I will be touching on some of my opinions regarding the games, I will not be reviewing either of them here today. These games are meant to be played over the course of anywhere between a few months to a few years. That makes them hard to review. I will state that I may consider reviewing them in the future, but that’s beyond the scope of today’s piece.

Originally published December 30, 2020, and released once more (transferred from Medium) from my ever-expanding archives in November 2023.

I’ve been playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons nearly every day since it released this past March, and I’ve been playing the series at large for even longer. Just by that alone, I’d consider myself a series veteran. My original town, created in 2006, still exists and thrives today. The GameCube release was one of the first video games I ever played.

Like many, I really wanted a new entry to the series on Nintendo Switch. More than anything, really. In September 2018, a Nintendo Direct was announced and from what I can recall, it came after a pretty long “Direct drought.” I knew deep down that I wanted an announcement but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. As I always do for general Directs of this kind of rarity that get announced, I rushed to catch the presentation that day. I went into it fully expecting there to be no announcements or anything regarding Animal Crossing. And you know what? I was so glad to be wrong that day.

Even if it was just a small teaser with Tom Nook at the tail end of an even bigger presentation, it was something. I had many questions and not many answers that I knew wouldn’t be provided that day.

I couldn’t wait for the day where I could learn more about it. I was absolutely excited! That day didn’t come until E3 in June 2019, where they (finally) showed off gameplay of one of my most anticipated games of 2019. Except… the game was delayed until March 20, 2020. It was another long wait away, sure, but I was excited and I didn’t mind it at all. I spent a good chunk of time analyzing the E3 gameplay, the trailers, everything in between until they released more in February 2020. I analyzed that stuff, too, of course. I started contributing to a wiki dedicated to the game and eventually became one of the admins there. I was hooked.

In my research, I discovered that holidays and other events would be date-locked by Nintendo. As soon as I read that, I was slightly bummed out. I wasn’t deterred from the game, by any means, it just meant New Horizons was going to require a change in my play style. My primary way of playing Animal Crossing games prior to this was through time travel. School takes up a significant chunk of my day and I usually miss all of the events early on in the day. Animal Crossing follows real time, and sometimes, real time doesn’t work for everyone. Myself included. We’ll come back to that.

The preorder for New Horizons was my gift for Valentine’s Day, and let me tell you: that icon on my Switch home screen basically tortured me to death. I counted down the actual minutes until I could finally play this game that I had been waiting for since that Direct. I had actual dreams about playing this game. I planned out what I was going to name my island and of course, every little detail. I researched all that I could about the game. To me, not only were the graphics absolutely beautiful, but this game was exactly what I needed. It was perfect.

Things became more stressful between that Direct and release day. My school shifted online suddenly, the world shut down, and the global situation changed. I don’t want to dwell on that too much because that’s not what this article is about. But the release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game I had wanted for years, allowed me to head to a deserted island I could make my own. It was an escape from the real world for a bit. It helped me cope with the suddenness of everything, and my stress and anxiety started to subside. New Horizons quickly became a game I didn’t know I needed, and my first evenings on my island of Wayside are ones I’m never going to forget.

A week passes. I’ve put about 30 hours into this game and I was addicted. I worked towards all the Nook Miles initiatives, I did my daily routine every day, I crafted a ladder and a vaulting pole to explore my island. I built the museum, and I started catching and discovering creatures and fossils, respectively. I started caring more about how my island looked. I started exploring Mystery Islands in search of new Residents for my island and found a couple. I made a bold exception to my number one rule from New Leaf, and used the amiibo card for my favorite villager, Kitt, a few times so that I could invite her to my island. I worked towards a three star rating and eventually unlocked terraforming. I tore my island down and built it back up again multiple times.

I did pretty much everything available to me at the time. Except Bunny Day, which would have preparations for it starting soon, and the event the following week. I’ll admit that I didn’t think it was going to be bad, and I certainly don’t remember it being this bad in City Folk or New Leaf. Yet as soon as the update hit, I knew something was wrong. The egg spawn rates were off the charts, which didn’t make much sense given the premise of the event, and it was date-locked. At the time, I wasn’t a fan of the D.I.Y. crafting system so I continued holding a vendetta against it. I couldn’t time travel forward to get rid of the eggs that way. At the time, my friend was sharing my copy of the game with me. Meaning I couldn’t just travel to his island to give them to him, even though he needed them.

At that point, it didn’t matter how fun the main event was. It didn’t matter that they had patched in a limit to the spawn rates. It didn’t matter that the event was date-locked. What mattered is that I had already decided that I hated it. I became sick of the seemingly endless amount of eggs that were on my island, even after the limit that was added. I played the event for as long as I could and got it over with. I was relieved the next day when the eggs disappeared. That, for me, was the first sign that something was wrong.

The next event that released was Nature Day. While certainly not the biggest event ever, it was definitely better than Bunny Day. It ran for a similar amount of time but to me, wasn’t very intrusive. The goals were spaced out over a long period of time and there weren’t any spawn rates to worry about. Most of, if not, everything was done through the Nook Miles+ app. It was fun and definitely well thought out. I had no complaints about that of note. I just wished there was more significant reward at the end.

The Wedding Season event was next. Despite the exclusive items being worth it, it honestly wasn’t a good event. It got repetitive, redundant, and boring after the first few days, and I think that alone soured it for me. Which was sad because Cyrus and Reese were two of my favorite NPCs in New Leaf and I was excited to have them back, even if it was just for a month and on an island I basically never travel to. It was sad to have that ruined for me and it was the second sign that something was wrong.

In previous entries, and more specifically New Leaf, events were built right into the game. Bugs were fixed in regards to the “side effects” of time travel. It seemed Nintendo were embracing that some Animal Crossing players were time travelers. Some time travelers are Let’s Players who set their in-game clocks ahead by a couple days, and relied on that to give themselves a buffer to complete videos and upload them on the day that they were intended for. Some time travelers are regular people who have jobs or school, which may prevent them from playing certain events when they occur in real life. This changed with New Horizons, events became locked on Nintendo’s side, meaning players would have to sync up with the Internet in order to enjoy the events.

The other problem is that some players may not have a reliable Internet connection. They may not be able to download an update from the server and get the latest patches. When they buy the stock version of New Horizons, be it from a retailer or independent game store, they’ll be getting the base game. No events, no patches, nothing. It’ll be barren other than what’s already there. While I’m sure this isn’t the case for everyone, it’s something I wanted to highlight because the decision to date-lock made sense for a majority of people. It prevented spoilers since hackers have limited access to the game’s data. It isn’t all there, so there’s little for them to go through. Obviously some things still get out there early, obviously it isn’t a perfect system, but it indeed works. Just not in everyone’s favor.

Turkey Day and Toy Day were big improvements and I felt like Nintendo have been listening to feedback from players since the game’s release. The date-lock that many people hate still exists, yes. But the events have been improving from the feedback they received. They’ve been less focused on weeks-long disruptive preparations that events like Bunny Day had and more focused on 1–2 day events that have you collecting ingredients or delivering presents. They’ve gone back to their roots and I had an absolute blast with these events.

I’ve reiterated again and again throughout this article that I’m a series veteran. I’ve been playing since 2006, which was 14 years ago now. I’ve by no means seen everything that each individual game in this series has to offer. But I’ve seen enough in New Horizons to say it isn’t my all-time favorite game in the series. It’s a close second for sure, tied only with City Folk, and my all-time favorite being New Leaf.

It seems that New Horizons is more focused on new experiences that are meant for new players to enjoy. Nintendo’s priority isn’t on bringing more familiar experiences — like April Fool’s Day or Harriet/Shampoodle — back for series veterans. I miss both of those examples myself, but I’m sure others will be able to come up with even more. It feels like there are a lot of things that were missing or removed from this entry that I loved.

Another thing — and character, too — is the Reset Surveillance Center and, in turn, Resetti. Love him or hate him, he is a give-in when it comes to an Animal Crossing game. Up until New Horizons, he had been visibly present in every entry, main or spin-off (with the exception of Pocket Camp). In New Horizons, he is downgraded to a phone call and you can only encounter him speaking his name if you happen to call the Rescue Service the right time. Otherwise he’s just known as the “Operator” with no face to his name. Ouch.

The Reset Surveillance Center, which was known as the Resetti Surveillance Center in City Folk, was also a mysterious place you could only access if the cards were played just right. While it was rare, it actually yielded some pretty great rewards, like the Silver Shovel in City Folk or either his or his brother’s pictures in New Leaf. Sure, you could argue that these are very minor details, and I’d agree with you. But not only does my list go on and on, but I think it’s the little things that I miss about New Leaf that are contributing to something much bigger.

That “something” is that I’m starting to feel burned out with New Horizons, which is the second time this has happened to me in my history with the series. Not only do I feel like there’s not much for me to do 130 hours in now, but I’m always running up against a wall now. I’m waiting on an update to add some event to the game that I’m only going to be able to play for a week or so. Time travel isn’t in the game, so I can’t officially go back and forth like I could in New Leaf. That part of the game that used to be fun for me isn’t there anymore.

That’s not to say that New Horizons isn’t fun. That wouldn’t be true. But it has made me tired of it more quickly than I expected. I felt this way about New Leaf, too, about three years into having my town. I got tired of my basically complete town. I didn’t have many friends or a decent internet connection back when it originally released, either, so I wasn’t able to play the features. By the time I did have friends to play with, the latter situation put a damper on things since I wasn’t able to reliably visit my friends’ towns.

My solution at the time was to wipe the slate clean and recreate my town. I built something up again, some on my own, some with the help of my friends. As it was meant to be done. While I can technically do a similar thing with New Horizons and recreate my island, I don’t have the heart to. I don’t want to leave Wayside behind forever because I know I’ll go back to it. What I need is a partial break from island life for a while.

Which ultimately brings me to this: I’ve been considering maintaining a New Leaf town on the side. I wouldn’t be dropping New Horizons entirely, but I would be splitting my time between it and New Horizons as equally as possible for a bit. I’ve really missed New Leaf. The music, the atmosphere, how easy it was to make Bells, everything I’ve stated above, the list really does go on.

And you know what? I’m actually going to do it.