What kind of oracle did the Nintendo team consult months ago, in some Grecian cave, to herald the news that was to come: That we’d all be inside, sad, scared, and in need of some kind of escape? Whoever – or whatever — it was, Nintendo needs to pay them double. At a time when everything in the world is uncertain and we’re all sitting around, waiting and worried for ourselves and our loved ones, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the perfect balm: A game about escaping to somewhere better when that’s pretty much all any of us wants to do.
New Horizons is the latest entry in the Animal Crossing series, a group of games spanning across systems that all center around the same general experience: taking up residence in a quaint village and making it your home, furnishing your house, fishing, catching bugs, and making friends with your new neighbors. Since the franchise’s debut in 2001, the games have collectively sold more than 30 million copies, each release nearing the top of the all-time charts for its respective system. A proven hit and a consistent performer for Nintendo, this newest edition does exactly what it needs to do: gives you everything you love about Animal Crossing, but dialed up to a brand-new level.
The core premise of the game remains the same. After a brief preload when you design and name your character, you’re flown to a deserted island owned and overseen by autocratic feudal lord Tom Nook. After being placed deep in debt, you enter a life of capitalist toil, taking any and all opportunities to put money in your debtor’s coffers and earn your respite from the broken system. …
Sorry, lost myself a little bit there. Let me try that again.
After you’ve arrived at the island and have a little welcome party with your two new fellow islanders — who are randomly selected from a delightful group of stylish animals, all complete with distinct personalities and catchphrases — the game joins up with real time, and that’s kind of it. This is not a Breath of the Wild situation, when the everyday aspects of life are side quests distracting you from the main adventure. New Horizons is all about those everyday aspects. During your day, you can pass the time by doing any number of activities — fishing, collecting fruit, planting flowers, catching bugs, decorating your house — and then, when the sun goes down, it goes down on your island as well. At the end of the day, when you tuck yourself in, you slip your villager into bed as well. And at 6 a.m., it all starts again.
This is, of course, the quiet brilliance of Animal Crossing: The ability to plumb endless enjoyment from the depths of quirky mundanity. We’re so trained to think of video games as a never-ending exercise in growth. How can we make the stories grander? The guns bigger? The files larger? Animal Crossing works in the opposite direction — to great results. There is still plenty to do — a robust design system for crafting original clothing and tapestries, a travel system that lets you meet new travelers and gather rare items, and a museum where you display the flora and fauna you find in your daily goings about — but it is the lack of pressure that makes this game so enjoyable. In what other game would I happily spend two hours rearranging the orange trees to make a little grove around my house? Or take a worrisome amount of pride in making sure that my villager gets to bed at a reasonable hour? Animal Crossing finds great joy in everyday tasks, and players find that joy along with it.
All of this would be enough for a good experience at any more “normal” time, but this game takes on additional importance under the lens of COVID-19. The multiplayer option has been an additional godsend: There’s something deeply reassuring about visiting my friends’ islands and walking around with them, showing off our lawns and playing our ocarinas together.
The world will, presumably, go on at some point. I’m not sure what I’ll make of New Horizons once I can go outside again, but we’re not there yet. Until then, Nintendo has placed the perfect little present in our laps: a chance to escape from our apartment, pick an orange or two, and take a nice nap on a hammock. What more could we want?
Like all of the greatest things in history, it’s about being in the right place at the right time. New Horizons is in the perfect place at the worst time. That’s exactly where it needs to be.
Photos: the Pop Insider