Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a much-needed escape from everything

Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

If ever there were a time to hop on a plane and kick it on a deserted island for a few months, it’s right now.

But that’s not really an option for most of us. Maybe this is why so many people have been looking forward to the newest Animal Crossing game, seeing it as a viable vacation simulation in the face of self-imposed isolation. It’s been two weeks since I set foot in the Polygon office, and I’ve been keeping my time outside to a minimum.

And so Animal Crossing: New Horizons is my vacation now. I plan on making the most of it.

Getting away from it all

Animal Crossing: New Horizons begins the same way as the four previous games in the core series: A childlike human finds themself in the middle of the wilderness. Suddenly, a large raccoon appears from the shadows with a proposition.

“Come live here!” he says. The child agrees. It seems nice, after all. But suddenly, the child is saddled with the debt of their first house, and must sell bugs and fish to settle up.

New Horizons doesn’t deviate from the core gameplay of Animal Crossing much at all. It’s a low-pressure life sim where you’re free to fill the days however you like. If you’d prefer to plant trees and make a forested wonderland, you can do that. If you’d rather focus on gathering critters to donate to the local museum, developing an extensive arrangement of living exhibits, that’s also an option. Or maybe you just want to make your house as pretty as possible, filling it with matching furniture and wallpaper?

There’s satisfaction in finding a new, rare fish you’ve never caught before, or saying hi to a neighbor, only to receive the perfect birdbath as a housewarming present. It’s about living in a world where the biggest concern is whether your apples are going to be ready for picking today or tomorrow. It’s about finding a new home.

The shift in New Horizons is that this all takes place on a tropical island instead of in a nondescript wilderness. The setting doesn’t have a major impact on the story or gameplay, but tonally, it does add an air of chill to the whole thing.

Tom Nook, the famous raccoon/oligarch, starts off your visit to his island with a luau, complete with fruit cocktails in front of a roaring bonfire. Random animal villagers talk about how they needed a break from the world and came here for some peace and quiet. Which ... like, fair.

And his place really is peaceful. I hike out to a remote beach on the north side of this island on my second day and just look up at the open, orange sky as the sun slips below the horizon. All I can hear are the waves and the wind rushing through the trees as the game’s soundtrack takes a minimalist turn. I feel the spray of the sea on my face, and I breathe deeply.

New Horizons is the first full Animal Crossing game in HD, and the impact is dramatic. These beautiful moments were previously muddied up and obscured by the 240p Nintendo 3DS screen in the otherwise-excellent Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

But the boost in resolution isn’t just for the atmosphere; it has an impact on the entire game. One of the main activities in Animal Crossing is catching and selling bugs. A pillbug on a 240p screen is basically a dot. A centipede is reduced to a wiggly line.

New Horizons offers a much higher level of detail on even the smallest of critters. It helps the island feel alive. Each creepy centipede leg is visible the moment it pops out from beneath a rock, for better or worse.

Bits of furniture have always had some level of interactivity to them, but now you can clearly make out the hands of a clock as it ticks away, or the record player as it spins the latest K.K. Slider jam. Even though these visual details are purely aesthetic, they all combine to make the environment feel bustling and vibrant.

The king of the island

Despite the jump in visual fidelity, the heart of Animal Crossing hasn’t changed. New Horizons is still about waking up each day, making friends with local animal characters, laying out furniture in your home, and donating dinosaur fossils to the nearby museum.

While this is all presented as an experience with no clear objective and a “do-what-you-feel” vibe, there is a main goal in New Horizons: to make the best damn island possible. It’s in this implicit challenge that this installment goes above and beyond what past games have offered, letting you create a truly customized habitat for you and your animal friends.

I would make plans for my village layout in older Animal Crossing games, but the most direct control I had was deciding where my starting house was going to be. Sure, I could plant trees where I wanted, but there was nothing I could do about it if a new villager decided to move their house directly in the middle of my carefully arranged orchard.

Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

New Horizons makes enormous changes to the island construction process, putting me in complete control over every major decision. I decide the location of the housing plot for every new villager, before they even move in. I decide where the museum and the shop will be built. If I don’t like where I placed my house initially, I can move it for a modest fee.

Forcing new villagers into perfect, Manhattan-esque grids is somewhat tonally inconsistent with the happy-go-lucky nature of Animal Crossing, but how much you obsess about this stuff is really up to you. I found immense satisfaction in lining up all of the major establishments of my island on Broadway, even though it took a comical amount of planning. But that’s part of the fun for me. It may not be for you, and that’s fine as well.

New Horizons also frees me up to place furniture items wherever I’d like on the island, whereas furniture could previously only be displayed indoors. Maybe I want to make a beachside zen garden with a flamingo chilling right there in the middle of it? That’s my prerogative.

The level of control is thrilling, and that’s even before unlocking the much-vaunted “terraforming” feature, a late-game addition that lets me carve out my own rivers, roads, and cliffs to sculpt my island however I want it. It may take a few weeks, but eventually every New Horizons village will be a true representation of the player who created it.

Making my way

The island customization ties in nicely with the other new addition to New Horizons: the ability to make my own furniture and tools. These objects used to be gifted to players by friendly villagers, or purchased in a store. But now it’s possible to make a bed, or shovel, from scratch, assuming I have the recipe and the proper resources.

New furniture recipes can be purchased in recipe packs or gifted by your animal neighbors simply as a way of saying howdy. Recipes will then require resources (stone, wood, and iron, for example) to create. Thankfully, most of the resource requirements are pretty tame, requiring just a minute or two of walking around while smacking rocks and trees; gathering resources never felt like much of a chore.

The do-it-yourself furniture crafting systems in this game are lovely. They give me a feeling of ownership over the objects I create, letting me customize small details, right down to the design on the bedsheets. I recreate a pixel art design of Waluigi I find online, and suddenly I have a Waluigi bed in the middle of my house. In previous Animal Crossing games, these custom designs were limited to canvases hung on the walls or to specific outfits, but now I can see my creations all throughout the island.

Unfortunately, having to create my own tools lacks that same thrill. Tools constantly break when used, which seems like an outrageous decision in a game filled with so many other quality-of-life improvements. A couple of weeks into my island adventure, I’m still using bug nets and fishing rods that break after 30 uses.

Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

If you’re on a truly dedicated bug hunt, you’re liable to find yourself having to make a new net every 20 minutes. I’ve started carrying a crafting station and resources wherever I go, just so I don’t have to hoof it back to my house to make a new slingshot.

It should be mentioned that, yes, I’m still just a few weeks into the game, and it’s possible that more durable tools unlock in later months. But there’s no telling when, or how, to unlock these upgrades. Until then, I find myself rolling my eyes whenever my shovel pops out of existence.

A year of mystery

It’s particularly hard to review Animal Crossing: New Horizons before its public launch because there’s just so much about the game I don’t know or can’t try. Right now, I find myself yearning for more variety in my daily activities. Over the course of two weeks, there have been occasional vendors and special guests in my town, offering micro-challenges like “find three large fish” in exchange for being able to sell fish at a slightly higher price. But none of these encounters have felt exciting or dramatically different from the normal day-to-day.

I can travel to tiny, remote islands to spice things up, but there aren’t any activities to be found there. Mostly they’re just there to help me with additional resources, or to host new villagers I can invite to my town.

Nintendo has said that it has a yearlong schedule of events planned, starting in early April with cherry blossom season and “Bunny Day,” but these events will roll out as free downloadable content when they’re ready. There should be around one special event per week, if New Leaf is any indication, but we don’t know whether that cadence will continue in New Horizons. If it does, it would alleviate my concerns about variety or the long-term prospects of the game.

Online functionality is also inaccessible at the time of this writing. Given how crucial multiplayer is in Animal Crossing — whether it’s trading furniture or securing new fruit trees by visiting my friends’ towns — its arrival will certainly be a boon, though I can’t speak to those aspects just yet.

The escape we need

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a respite from the current state of the world. I find my general anxiety slowly subside as I run through my town, water my plants, and build furniture for the sassy chicken gentleman living down by the beach. It’s exactly what I need right now.

There are moments when I look up from a long session and realize that I’ve been ignoring everything around me. Then I take a look around at what actually is going on around me, and realize that maybe I’d better stay in my island paradise for a little while longer.

Update (Mar. 26): After spending over a week with online connectivity in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I can confirm that the game becomes even more enjoyable with company. Being able to visit a friend’s town to trade fruit or desired furniture enhances the feeling that I’m living in a connected world, rather than being stuck on my own desolate island.

The online play does have some unfortunate quirks, though. A comically-long connection time that pauses the action for all players in the session (both for departures and arrivals) makes it a bit of a pain to have a gang over to visit. Thankfully there are new, streamlined ways to send gifts and letters to friends without having to visit in-person.

Despite some online clunkiness, Animal Crossing: New Horizons remains a spectacular game and an easy recommendation for anyone with a Nintendo Switch.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons will be released March 20 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons guides

Getting started 7
Learn the basics 12
Buildings and structures 9
Catching critters 10
Farming for items 9
Upgrades 7
Making money (Bells) 6
Nook Miles 3
Character and island customization 9
Villager visitors and NPCs 10
Seasonal event guides 11
The game’s community 8
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Comments

There’s a solid chance this game breaks all kinds of download/digital sales records.

And Friday cant come soon enough…..

"There’s a solid chance this game breaks all kinds of download/digital sales records."

I don’t know, installbase isn’t that huge, for a Nintendo console/Crossing game sure. The game that sold the most was 12 million or something (google)

Think the point is more people are stuck inside with nothing to do right now, Steam had over 20 million active users at once yesterday. More people might well be picking this game up than would otherwise, even discounting those buying animal crossing for the first time for other reasons like me.

Add the fact that AC is getting good word of mouth, and you potentially have people with switches who have never played the games willing to try it out.

I’m one of them!!

You won’t be disappointed. AC is something else entirely.

It’s very laid-back.

….laid back my ass. Nook wants his gd money.

Welcome to the island! Enjoy yourself!

I’ve toyed around with a couple in the past but the ds screen was a barrier, I preordered about a month ago because my partner was getting increasingly hyped for it, she’s a huge fan of the series, and I figure if she’s going to be playing it for months I might as well get involved, but I sure as hell won’t get a chance to use her copy! It just looks so extremely cute and chill, and as someone who’s put 300+ hours into Stardew Valley I appreciate the new crafting mechanics etc, it looks like a great entry point for me and a lot of other people. Plus the Switch might be the best console ever released and I’ll buy anything that looks halfway good on it!

Oh it will sell like hotcakes, just not sure about a record. I think the new COD will def already beat it download wise for instance right now, purely based on it being free and has a larger install base.

Well consider in 3 years the switch install base is almost 60 million, and has already surpassed wii u, snes, n64, gamecube, and is soon to surpass NES, only console that was more successful was Wii. Lol

Best selling switch game isnt 12 million units its 21 million units (mario kart 8 deluxe) which that does NOT count the original MK8 for Wii U sales.

Pokemon S/S is at 17 million and Smash Ultimate right below it.

BOTW has sold like 15 million and naturally done very well. Even Mario Maker 2 has hit 9 million surpassing the original Mario Maker

Its been less then a WEEK and ACNH = has as of right now (as i write this) the updated stats are: and i do not lie/joke 10 million ACNH sold…in canada, and Uk ACNH has already become the fastest selling switch title and many more people are lining up online to buy…amazon reported today alone 218,000 more orders lol almost quarter million in last 24 hours.

So i think even after hype dies down…fast forward 6 months, its almost a guarantee that ACNH will be either the single best selling Switch game…fastest and best selling game of all time ? Probably not lol ..minecraft is the single best selling video game of all time at 187 million units globally last 10 years.

Only 4 video games have sold 100 million or more units globally in the entire history of video games

4. Grand Theft Auto V (which is one of the fastest selling games of all time it outsold any music or film that entire year of 2013) = 101.8 million units sold globally

3. Wii Sports (which came with every Nintendo Wii which sold 110 million units and so therefore) = 110.3 million units sold globally

2. Tetris (this game and the no.1 spot are quite literally in a category all by themselves nothing comes close…tetris is 36 years old) = 156 million units sold globally

1. Minecraft (now 10 years old, has had a bigger impact then any game of the past 20 years like it or hate it…its a trendsetter …and household name…the most successful indie game and video game of all time, it created a genre in itself) = 187.9 million units sold globally.

Lol minecraft may very well be the only video game EVER to get close to 200 million units sold.

Its creator 41 year old swedish developer Marcus "Notch" Persson created the game w his small studio Mojang w 4 friends and a limited kickstarter budget of (his stretch goal was) $50,000 USD. When he sold the rights to Microsoft for his studio Mojang, the game Minecraft, all rights and licensing….Microsoft paid Notch and his small indie team a (record setting) US $ 3.5 billion….the single largest 1 day acquistion of a video game EVER. He was already successful but…in 1 day…he acquires 3.5 billion after taxes and splitting it with his team (each of the remaining members got like $350 million, Notch himself got the lions share of 1.45 billion.

In 1 day he made over a billion dollars LOL. LOL let that sink in.

In 1 day this chubby late 30s white male made w 1 simple block oriented building sim indie game…more money then the entire rock n roll band The Rolling Stones did from 1965-2015…you could take each member of the stones (charlie watts, keith richards, mick jagger) and each of their personal net worths (something like $300-$400 million each member × 4 = 1.2….1.6 billion give or take….lol this 1 guy w this 1 blocky indie game has made more in "1" day then entire hollywood actors have made in 25 year careers or A list musicians have made in 30-40 year careers

Lol its just funny to think it maybe off topic lol but nonetheless funny.

Most games dont sell 100 million or more even 80 million copies only a handful of games are at that level

Between 30 million and 60 million…theres a dozen or so games

Skyrim = 37 million
Super mario bros 3 = 62 million
World of warcraft = 40 million
Terraria = 27 million
Halo 2 = 29 million
GTA 4 = 45 million

Most games even very very successful ones…are somewhere between 10 and 30 million
..so im sure Animal Crossing will easily hit 15, 20, 25 million…its well on its way

And this is a game people play indefinitely…upcoming contests, multiplayer, a year fr now even
..you will see special events, etc and continued support.

Even 5 million copies of a single game is a major success ….so Animal Crossing has already become more popular then previous entries in the series…so i mean i log on FB …100s of comments, more posts popping up as I speak (and on discord…i belong to a big group called Nintendo Switch Online Gamers / N.S.O.G.) and 100s of members are chattering away …and even the 20 friends on my switch friends list…currently 13 are active online 11 of them playing ACNH lol.

Youtube videos are popping up by the hour, reddit forums r being flooded w posts and even T.V. has several north american ACNH commercials which are getting heavy rotation + instagram celebrities and internet personalities yapping away post after post about ACNH, and even my personal messenger app for txt messages on phone…ive asked an ex GF, my nephew and a friend what they are doing…all 3 have replied Animal Crossing"

Lol its like i cant escape it i havent seen anything like this…not even with smash or zelda or mario or luigi mansion.

So its fair to say (and with a 91% metacritic and and "universal acclaim") its only going t get bigger before it slows down. Lol

Wouldn’t it be amazing if this happened? (Nintendo releases AC early, similar to Disney’s release of Frozen 2)

IF Nintendo was going to release it early, I hope its online only. The last thing we need, in any part of the world right now, is for there to be mass gatherings at shops and stores that should be either closed or short-staffed currently.

Agreed!

My best guess is that they would break their contract with physical stores if they release it early online, but I’m no expert.

Yeah think of the cancelled preorders

I mean, it’s like 3 days away. It’d be nifty but also it’s probably more of a pain than it’s worth for them right now.

Animal crossing till quarantine ends. Friday can’t come fast enough

No Polygon Recommends? This seems like a pretty positive review aside from tools breaking and the uncertainty about a couple post-launch features.

It has the little ‘Polygon Recommends’ blurb on the right side around the 9th paragraph

That’s new! It wasn’t there when I posted! You love to see it!

We were going to wait to double-check after some of the online stuff was available, but yeah, maybe that’s being over-cautious at this point. The writer of the review agrees that it deserves it already, and I’ve added it. I can’t wait to play!

Hey no worries, that’s good to hear!! I’m so stoked for this thing!!

My only Animal Crossing experience is the sorely disappointing mobile game but this sounds fantastic.
Thanks for the beautiful review!

the mobile game is awful and nothing like/nowhere near as good as the other games.

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