Animal Crossing: New Horizons took the world by storm when it came out in March, and with its godlike release timing, served as the perfect game to get millions of people through lockdown. Its massive popularity sent the game rocketing up the charts, even becoming the best selling Switch game of all time in Japan.
However, it didn’t take too long for the hype to die down and for most players to stop visiting their virtual island, with many claiming that the newest instalment was a letdown compared to previous entries in the series. So what went wrong, and why did these complaints only arise in the weeks and months after the game’s release?
A lot of the issue boils down to what could have been a fantastic addition to the series – free content updates. When Nintendo originally announced that the game would be consistently supplemented with additional free content after its release, most fans responded positively; it’s an undeniable fact that previous entries in the series, such as New Leaf on the 3DS, became boring after several months of play. In contrast, the promise of more content being injected into New Horizons, which would help to keep the game fresh (and continue to give fans something to look forward to), seemed like an incredible idea.
Unfortunately, what was a game changer (literally) on paper was implemented at the cost of the quality of the base game, with many features that had been present and popular in the older games being completely missing from New Horizons. Things such as the art section of the museum, diving for sea creatures, and the dream suite, which were all available from the get go in New Leaf, were sorely absent from New Horizons, only to be added via updates in later months. While some completely new things, such as Gullivarrr the pirate, have been added too, most of the updates have simply consisted of reintroducing things that, honestly, should have just been there from the start.
So, if they’re in the game now, then what’s the problem? Simply put, a major case of burnout. The loyal fans who had been counting down the days to New Horizons’ release were desperate to enjoy as much of the game as they could, as soon as they could. With so many features missing though, they were stuck bingeing the same options over and over: fishing, bug catching, designing, and decorating for months on end. After growing tired of repeating those things, fans flocked to newly added (or returning) features and exhausted those too, and the cycle repeats still. Rather than having an abundance of things to do from the start, and being able to spread out how much time they spent on each activity, players simply exhausted the limited activities faster than the updates could compensate for a lack of things to do.
Updates aside, there is also a noticeable lack of unlockable content in New Horizons in comparison to the previous games in the series. For example, the Nooklings’ shop only has one upgrade available in New Horizons, in comparison to a whopping four in New Leaf, which took literal months to unlock without changing the date on your console. Even your house has far fewer expansion projects available; in New Horizons, your extra rooms (excluding the second floor and basement) are stuck at being half the size of your main room, and for no apparent reason. Why these couldn’t have been expanded to be bigger like in New Leaf, which had a staggering 17 expansions available in comparison to New Horizons’ five, I have no idea. Paying off your home loan in full is no longer something that could take potentially years, and as a result there’s less incentive for players to keep coming back each day to sell their fruit and fossils.
So, is New Horizons actually a bad game? Absolutely not. However, is it the most barebones mainline Animal Crossing game so far? In its base form, very arguably yes. I have no doubt in my mind that a year from now, the game will have more than enough content to make up for the lack of it at release, but sadly, the damage is already done to the players who began their island getaway early on in the game’s life. The updates are, in the long run, a lot more beneficial to those who pick up New Horizons at a later date, so they can have a fuller, more complete Animal Crossing experience, more reminiscent of the titles gone by.
Personally, I think free content updates are a fantastic idea for the series going forward, but they should not have been included at the expense of the base content. Life simulation games inevitably get repetitive after a while, and so even adding things as basic as new furniture sets, or dialogue for the villagers would have been an excellent way to make additions to an already complete game; something which New Horizons simply isn’t. Updates should not serve as a means to gradually finish what is essentially an unfinished game, and I sincerely hope that by the time the next instalment of the series is upon us, that Nintendo learns from the complaints of their fans. I still adore the game, but after watching numerous friends stop playing due to boredom, I can’t help but feel a bit sad that its potential was essentially thwarted from the start. Now, here’s hoping that Tortimer’s Island will make a return soon; I miss those minigames…