Some days I wish I could bottle the feeling I had when Animal Crossing: New Horizons first launched.
As a long-time fan of the franchise, I was excited for a new Animal Crossing. But more importantly, I needed an escape. Australia is now moving towards a ‘COVID Normal’ state, but in March the pandemic had just begun. It was a time when answers were scarce and the future was a terrifying possibility. But as shops shut down and lockdowns began, Animal Crossing quickly became one of 2020’s most important games.
When it released, everything looked rocky. We didn’t know what shops would have to close. We didn’t know when we’d be able to see our families again. Masks were in and gyms were out. But in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, everything was perfect.
You arrived on your deserted island. You made some new friends. Over time, you built up your town, found new villagers, explored oceans and islands, farmed pumpkins, celebrated Halloween and even breached the realm of dreams. There were fishes to catch, bugs to stalk and semi-incorporeal ghosts to barter with.
It was paradise.
When the world outside was a total horror show, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was there to make everything feel better. I loved the game for the same reason people love dollhouses: maintaining a tiny island provided the sense of control everyone was searching for in March. If I wasn’t happy with my island I could simply move it all around. If I wanted to decorate my house all in pinks and blacks, I could. When I got tired, I could just start over.
It also provided the only avenue for me to see my friends for a good few months — and there was no greater joy than seeing their tiny avatars run across my island.
It’s fair to argue my attachment to the game was a product of circumstance, but it’s hard to imagine a world where I didn’t get caught up with the game. Beyond the timing of its release, New Horizons is, at its core, a wholesome sandbox simulator that takes everything great from past Animal Crossing games and stuffs it into a shiny new package.
As each lonely month went by in iso, New Horizons also evolved. When days became repetitious, new updates unlocked ever more tasks to complete.
‘Bunny Day’ was one of the first events added into the game post-launch, and it gave players the chance to experience a cutesy version of Easter. For many of us, it was the only version of Easter we got. Iso replaced the usual Easter egg hunt this year and even homemade Koulourakia couldn’t take the edge off.
But in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the egg hunt was back on and bunnies were in. Sure, eggs were everywhere and it made catching any critters a total nightmare (before a late-season patch fixed the issue) but it was Easter and it was grand.
Then came more events. We had the May Day maze, Wedding Season and Halloween. New Horizons even added the ability to visit other towns in your dreams. It’s been a very weird year all things considered, but Animal Crossing made it a lot more bearable.
Even when my town was completed and I’d run out of things to do, it had a way of sucking me back in. There was always new events, new items, new hairstyles or activities. While it didn’t position itself as a GaaS game, in a lot of ways it was. Updates kept the game fresh and exciting for months on end, and I found myself returning often.
Sure, there were plenty of other games I played and loved in 2020. Final Fantasy VII Remake was an early favourite, Super Mario 3D All-Stars was an excellent little package and Ghost of Tsushima blew me away — but none of these games stuck with me. Once I’d finished playing them, I mostly stopped thinking about them. But Animal Crossing was a constant in my mind.
When I was stressed or overwhelmed, it was instantly calming. It added a sense of ritual to my days and constantly kept me engaged.
At this stage, I’ve spent over 250 hours in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It’s the most time I’ve ever invested in a game (overtaking The Witcher III by a fair margin) and even though my progress has slowed considerably over the last few months, I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon. Even if it’s just a quick visit, popping into my island is a total delight.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons was a little slice of heaven in a hellish year. For a brief moment, it nearly took over the world. While it arrived at a very auspicious time, its popularity and endurance remains.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the game we all needed in 2020. But for me, it was also the best game of the year.