When Animal Crossing: New Horizons was announced in 2018, I had a moment of tears-down-my-cheeks euphoria. Beyond being a favorite franchise of mine, no Nintendo platform had ever been more perfectly suited for it than Switch. However, in the interim between its announcement and release, I realized that I may not have the time to sink into it that I desired.
Then 2020 happened.
The floodgates of free time opened due to COVID-19, and New Horizons’ launch at the outset of the quarantine could not have been a better happenstance. Not only did my newfound bevy of free time allow me to digitally bask in my DIY island longer but it was also the perfect getaway from an unpleasant world. Perhaps a bit too perfect as in the first month I’d spend all day playing and then some of the night, quickly going through the motions of establishing my town with complete disregard for reality.
Since then, the game has largely become a daily routine where I give my villagers their daily gift, do the rounds of rock-hitting and fossil-digging (I’ve now completed this section of my museum), peruse the day’s shopping selections, and check in with whichever visiting character is in town. I also rarely miss a night so as to not miss Celeste or Wisp. The start of each month of my life has become a fiesta of new bugs and fish to collect, and I’ve milked every event to its fullest extent. Not one day has passed me by, and I’ve clocked over 400 hours in the game. Whoops!
Over time, I’ve watched most of my Switch friends list and Twitter follows fall off due to a “void” of new content. While I’ve found that the constant discovery of new furniture/clothes and just living in the world has kept me engaged, their dilemma has always been endemic to the series. So with a major content update on the horizon that’ll re-introduce diving, here are further changes and additions that would both appease hardcore Crossers and bring back those who left their islands to the weeds.
(And if this comes across as negative… remember, I wouldn’t play this game for 400 hours if I didn’t love it! There are few games I’ve played for one quarter of that time.)
Quality of Life Improvements
There are a lot of frustratingly unoptimized systems in New Horizons. Tiring of fiddling with these has been a complaint levied against many who put the game down which is a strong tell that changes need to be made.
While I don’t play online much anymore (most people I know have shelved the game!), the way in which the game pauses every time somebody enters and exits your town is untenable. It’s bad even with just a friend or two, but having larger groups of players trickle in one-by-one can lead to tens of minutes of unplayability. Online has always been a blind spot for Nintendo but this is a particularly egregious case that needs to be overhauled and preferably made seamless drop-in, drop-out.
Another point of contention is crafting. Creating batches of items one-by-one (most infamously fish bait) is a painstaking button mashing bonanza (emphasis on “pain”). The developers are clearly aware of the issue as they already added the ability to fast-forward through the crafting animation between the press build and final release; now they just need to finish the job. I don’t think the game’s “just take it slow, dude/tte” ethos is hurt by allowing players to batch-craft. Button-mashing for minutes is not a value-add.
(Along those same lines, add the option to batch-purchase items from the Nooks and Ables, as well as marking items you already have catalogued.)
There are a few areas that I don’t agree need to be optimized, however. For example, a skip button for NPC text does circumvent the aforementioned “just take it slow, dude/tte” ethos. Nothing involving the characters should be directly circumventable as it turns them from “living entities” to “just a game NPC used for mechanical purposes.” As-is, it takes little time to mash through canned dialogue anyway. What would best fix this issue is more flavor dialogue so as to break the monotony of hearing the same text boxes repeated ad nauseam. There’s a fine line to be walked between not wasting the player’s time and retaining that vital lived-in experience, and jeopardizing the island’s residents crosses it.
For similar reasons, I’m opposed to the idea of having Nook’s Cranny and Able Sisters open 24/7. A slight expansion of operating hours would be helpful for people who can only find time to play at night so that’d be a fair compromise, but their cycle of opening and closing is a key ingredient in the real-time gameplay that Animal Crossing made a name for itself on.
Increase Storage Capacity
While filling up the 1,600 capacity of your in-home storage may sound insane, it racks up pretty quickly once you start fleshing out your wardrobe and furniture collection. Having hit this capacity a few months into playing the game, every day since has involved wrestling with my capped inventory to make room for shiny new obtained things. It’s a completely arbitrary stresser. There’s less fun in obtaining new items because of the Inventory Tetris I’ll need to play. Increasing the storage limit would take away that asterisk in the thrill of virtual materialism, reinstating the full extent of joy to one of Animal Crossing’s central hooks.
I may as well throw in here that tools shouldn’t take up bag space. I mean c’mon, we’ve had this gripe since the franchise began! Now with the advent of the tool wheel it makes more sense than ever.
Reworking The Visiting Characters System
The announcement of Redd returning to Animal Crossing was a big deal, particularly because it meant the art exhibit that’s always been a staple of the museum was back. During the update’s opening days, Redd appeared on the island multiple times to establish his presence, concluding with the sly fox opening his sketchy boat shop for business. Then, in my experience, he disappeared for three weeks. Beyond taking the wind out of my art collecting ambitions, it exposed a major problem with how visiting characters are handled.
In the same update as Redd also came the shrubbery-and-flower merchant Leif. His horticulture goods are a great way of diversely beautifying the island, making his first visit a major event as you buy up everything you need. That’s where the unfortunate catch comes into play: Leif is hard-coded to show up every week even though his use-case doesn’t call for it. In fact, Saharah and Kicks are also guaranteed to show up weekly. This leaves a total of two days (sometimes less if a day is overriden by an event) for a pool of 5 and counting visitors to potentially spawn. There is a bad-luck failsafe where the visitors you got the previous week won’t show up the next, but it still means you may not see a critical visitor like Redd for weeks. This issue will only continue to compound as more are added, such as Pascal in the upcoming diving update. The system is obviously unsustainable.
I won’t claim to know the best way to approach such an overhaul, but here are a few options. The easiest band-aid would be unlocking Lief, Saharah and Kicks from their guaranteed weekly slot. But I think things need to be taken a step further, such as allowing visitors on Sunday (in addition to Daisy Mae’s morning rounds) and even implementing the chance of multiple non-overlapping visitors to spawn on the same day. Alternatively, and perhaps even most favorably, Kicks/Label could be integrated into the Ables’ shop, and Leif could take up residence behind the empty counter in Nook’s Cranny.
As-is, waiting for the villager you want to show up is fraught with daily disappointment, and once they finally stop by, there’s further disappointment in knowing you won’t see them again for at least two weeks. If there’s one thing I would advocate is critical for the game to change if it’s going to keep layering on content, it’s this.
Tom Nook and Isabelle Take Back Their Relevance
Animal Crossing’s foremost figureheads also become its most irrelevant characters after you’re through the game’s opening stages. There’s rarely if ever a reason to talk to Isabelle or Tom Nook once your town is developed to your likings. And at that, even Isabelle’s morning announcements — as adorable as they are — feel canned as she starts repeating herself. Small touches like occasionally having them go for a walk around the town would go a long way towards making these icons feel like a part of the island culture. After the two played such active roles in previous outings, New Horizons doesn’t do them the justice they deserve.
Expanding the Scope of Mystery Island Tours
Mystery Island Tours play a large role in the early-goings of New Horizons: they’re useful for recruiting villagers when you have empty lots, collecting resources, and occasionally making money when you stumble across a rare island like those filled with money rocks or tarantulas/scorpions. But as you become flushed with cash over time, you’ll likely only ever go off-island for the occasional resource gathering quest (if you aren’t already flushed with those too).
There’s the potential for so much more here, and in fact we’ve already seen this during the one-off May Day event. For those unfamiliar, the event entailed a pre-made island where you’re stripped of your inventory and must navigate through a puzzle-maze utilizing the game’s crafting mechanics. (Think along the lines of Eventide Island in Breath of the Wild if that’s a more familiar point of reference.) It was a short burst of fun with a nice reward (Rover!), but the true puzzle was why it was a singular experience. Challenges like this are the perfect excursion from the normal hangout-ing, offering variety that helps stave off player burnout. Minigames that make the player feel like the time they’ve spent playing the game has led to a mastery of its mechanics offers a more tangible sense of progression than most of the standard late-game.
Even if we’re to separate that content from Mystery Island Tours so as to not interfere with resource gathering, more incentives to go off-island would help make the game feel as varied as it did in the first few months of play.
More Places to Put Furniture and… Stuff!
I’m putting this one at the end as it’s quite vague, but my house and island are decorated to the point where it’s tough to find space for all the cool new stuff I’m obtaining on the regular. A solution that comes to mind is a smaller private island with a second house and plot of land. Really, any type of way to flex my creative muscles with the new goodies Animal Crossing constantly peppers in would be welcome. (And hey, that’d also help solve the storage problem to a degree!)
While I think some quality of life and system re-adjustment changes are necessary, Nintendo has been good at injecting meaningful new content into the game on a near-monthly basis. I have no doubt that New Horizons will continue to grow in ways I haven’t even thought of… but it also needs to address other lingering issues or it risk crumbling under the weight of its additions.
All of that said, New Horizons remains the joy of my every day, day in and out. My goal is to play it every day for a year — or as close to that as possible — and report back on the full experience, so stay tuned for more!