People have suggested that Animal Crossing: New Horizon is the perfect video game for our current shut-in coronavirus crisis. I mean, has there ever been a better time to wing off to a secluded virtual island for several weeks? Has there ever been a greater opportunity to ignore the daily news channel for a day of quiet fishing, bug collecting and fruit gathering—even if it is all just digital?
Maybe that’s why this latest edition to a series that stretches back to 2001has been selling like crazy and spiking Nintendo Switch online orders. Of course, if you haven’t yet booked your Switch trip to your own little island, let’s look at the kinds of things you’ll be doing there if you choose to buy the ticket.
As with previous entries in this series, you’re given a chance to start fresh and build your new world, just the way you like it. With nothing but the virtual clothes on your back, you’ll hop on a little sea plane and zip off to one of several small islands. A pair of other adventurers lands on this island with you, along with an entrepreneurial racoon named Tom Nook and his two racoon nephews, Timmy and Tommy.
Those always-smiling racoon fellows run the company store, if you will. Tom sets you up with a tent and a camping cot and tells you to have at it. (He also lets you know that you have a nice little debt to repay, too, don’t you know.) After picking a sweet spot—near the beach perhaps, or maybe in a grouping of fruit trees with a nearby stream—you set up your tent.
You might then venture over to meet your soon-to-be neighbors and help them pitch their tents, too. And enjoy a little celebratory luau soon after, followed by good night’s rest. Then, voilà, it’s time to start the new routine of your Animal Crossing life.
In fact, the word routine is a very accurate one. New Horizons is essentially a low-pressure simulation game. Your initial and ongoing activity involves gathering up whatever fruit, bugs, fish, wood (even weeds) you can, then trading all of that in at the store for golden bells, the local currency.
Along with earning bells you’ll also use some of those gathered resources to craft necessary tools. Just a fistful of sticks can help you make your first flimsy fishing pole or bug net. Meanwhile, sticks and some stones can construct a flimsy axe. A light fishing rod and some iron ore will make a pole you can brag to your neighbor’s about. Etc.
Soon after that, players begin creating a growing ecosystem of resources, finances, building and crafting. The crafting side of things is only limited by the supply of crafting recipes that you’ll find, be given or sometimes dream up on your own. After paying Tom for your tent, the wily racoon will nudge you toward building your first small house. (With a sizable mortgage in tow.) And you start working on furniture to fill your rooms, and decorations to make the indoors and outdoors pretty. Players can donate unique gathered specimens and discovered fossils to a new island museum endeavor. Then maybe you’ll want to plant a fruit tree grove to turn gathering into a manageable business. And on and on the system grows.
There’s also an island “Mileage” mechanism in the daily mix. So while you’re gathering stuff and earning bells, you’re also moving toward specific and ever-changing milestones—grab five bugs, gather 10 pieces of fruit, etc. These earned miles can be used to purchase bonus recipes, clothes, housing items and even a ticket for a plane ride to a neighboring island for a daytrip gathering stuff you might not locate at home.
Whether or not you enjoy this game, then, really comes down to your level of patience. Especially in the early stages of the game, you’re simply grinding to gather up the same small number of resources. And since the game’s internal clock is linked with the Switch’s real-time clock, that can make for looong stretches of doing … nothing much.
Oh, and you should know that there’s only one island allowed per Switch console. After a user sets up his or her island, every subsequent user can only sign on to essentially help that person out with some grinding gathering. So, if you’ve got a couple kids who want to have their own islands, you’re gonna need multiple Nintendo Switches.
Other than that, though, there’s really nothing much in this E-rated game for parents to worry over. If you stay up and play at night, you can encounter a friendly, ghostlike character who’ll send you out gathering special items and give you a unique reward. There are swarms of wasps that sting your character (potentially to the point of knocking you out) if a nest is accidentally thumped out of a tree. You can also get to the point where you’re purchasing or crafting workable toilets for your characters to perch on and flush, along with bits of dialogue about passing gas. And then there’s that ever-growing debt that good old Tom keeps nudging players to sign on for. But, hey, that can also be an encouragement to learn how to budget and save.
Everything considered then, Animal Crossing: New Horizon tallies up positively. There are a lot of good messages here about forming community, helping others and figuring out how to shape your world and make it work.
And while that might not equate to the actual pleasures of winging off to a secluded island all your own, it’s not a bad diversion while you’re dreaming about it at home.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.