Animal Crossing: New Horizons

The intro, all the build-up on the first day, it all puts you totally at ease and sets up the anticipation for what's to come.

Whilst playing through the first 60 or so hours of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, these are some of the thoughts that went through my twisted mind:

OMG THIS GAME IS SO CUTE AND THERE’S SO MANY COOL BUGS AND FISH AND BUTTERFLIES TO CATCH. I EVEN CAUGHT A SQUID!!

Yes, Blathers, I want to sell you a fucking fossil. You’ve told me about the thing fifty million times now, just TAKE THE FOSSIL AND PAY ME MY GODDAM MONEY!!?!

OK, I was bored for a bit but visiting friends’ islands is cool and now that I can pole vault and climb a ladder and shops are getting bigger and more people are coming to live on my island … well, there’s a lot more to do, so …

Blathers, SHUT THE FUCK UP about everything ALREADY!

Why do ‘I’ seem so surprised whenever ‘I’ learn a new recipe? After the fiftieth time, you’d’ve thought I would’ve got the hang of this.

Hit rock … hit rock … hit rock … NO DON’T FUCKING DIG A HOLE NEXT TO THE ROCK! … hit rock …

I want turnips, give me all the turnips, turnip price goes up, turnip price goes down, BUY! SELL!! Get up early on Sunday to buy turnips. Get up early every day to sell turnips. Wait — this capitalism simulator is REALLY bloodthirsty… MOAR TURNIPS!

Ooh, look it’s raining! I wonder if that means … no that doesn’t have any effect at all. Still, don’t I look cute holding my umbrella which … also has no effect at all?

OK, boot up Animal Crossing … … what the HELL am I doing?! … boot down Animal Crossing

I can’t change my clothes in the changing room of the clothes shop because … reasons?

I can put stuff from my pockets into my house storage, unless it’s a tool I’m holding because … reasons?

I can’t put money or turnips into my house storage because … (OK, you get the idea here)

Please Animal Crossing, please. I’ve been fishing for four straight hours now and I can’t even remember why. TELL ME WHAT TO DO!

<checks playtime… game has been played for over an hour every day since launch for two months…>

On my island named in honour of all things cephalopod, the very first thing I caught fishing was a squid and I promptly lost my mind. It was probably the most excited I got playing Animal Crossing.

In case that nonsense didn’t make it obvious, I quite like Animal Crossing. And I quite hate it at the same time. It’s not a bad game — it’s barely even a game. It’s wonderful for the odd bit of escapism, but there really isn’t any challenge or anything to do and the map is tiny. Like, I really can’t believe how small it is.

When I play Animal Crossing, I can’t help but think of Don’t Starve; this is mainly because I can’t think of Stardew Valley — the only sensible game to really compare it to — because I haven’t played Stardew Valley. Don’t Starve is the island castaway counterpart to Animal Crossing’s island getaway. I know Animal Crossing isn’t supposed to be a survival game. I know it’s supposed to sort of be ‘a game about nothing’, much like Seinfeld was ‘a show about nothing’. But Seinfeld really was still about something, it was still a comedy show, stuff happened. It was funny. Animal Crossing isn’t a game. It just isn’t.

Don’t Starve is stressful and exciting and things actually mean stuff. Like, when it rains, you get wet and cold and, eventually, lose health points. But you can warm up or shelter or craft an umbrella WHICH ACTUALLY MEANS SOMETHING.

That squid looks at home in the beautiful aquarium, one of the absolute stand-out parts of the game.

Don’t Starve has an edge, some sense of jeopardy that, for me, a game MUST have. Even a terribly easy game (like Milo’s Quest, for example) is at least challenging for someone, but when a game purposefully sets out to not have a challenge for anyone, it’s not really a game anymore. It’s … I dunno, some other kind of ‘entertainment software’.

And it’s not about ‘not dying’, either. Yoku’s Island Express is one of my favourite games on the Switch, and you can’t die in that. But you still have to accomplish things, you still need to attain a level of skill in order to … you know, complete the game. But it’s not necessarily about completing the game, either. Don’t Starve’s main mode is essentially a sandbox, but it’s one in which you are challenged in an on-going basis. Even when you’re doing the same sort of things again and again, there’s variety.

The graphics — such as the lighting here — are gorgeous and everything ties into the IRL time of day very pleasingly.

Animal Crossing is an ‘experience’ and it’s cute and harmless and you can have lots of fun dressing up and decorating your house if you’re into that kind of thing. In fact, it’s kinda the modern equivalent of a doll’s house. Or a lego set without the flexibility. If you’re patient enough, you can create some very pretty islands — and people have. In fact you can — drum roll — terraform your island, which is apparently a spectacular breakthrough in this series.

But, god, the dialogue. When I finally flip and see Nintendo in court for crimes against usability, Animal Crossing will be prime evidence number one (with elements of Mario Maker in reserve). See, Nintendo does games brilliantly. Has done for decades now. Almost every single Mario and Zelda game has been spectacularly good. But ask Nintendo to do software — and Animal Crossing is most definitely more software than game — and problems emerge.

And further example of how much effort has gone into the veneer of Animal Crossing: look at all the detail in the various parts of this airport.

Nintendo just doesn’t really get interfaces. Usability. Human/Computer Interaction. Not in the way that real software companies like Google and Apple and <gasp> Microsoft, even, do. None of those companies would ever produce something like Animal Crossing because they know what software is and what games are. It’s not fun to see the same dialogue repeated ad infinitum. It’s not fun to accidentally dig up the wrong piece of ground hundreds of times over. It’s not fun to have bizarre, arbitrary behaviour that is there purely to balance some other aspect of the game or to correct problems that should just damn well be fixed themselves.

I’ve seen justifications for all of those things along the lines of “that’s to force you to play the game less”. Excuse me?! That’s an Emperor’s New Clothes argument if ever I’ve heard one.

The ‘Critterpedia’ which catalogues all those bugs and fish you catch is another beautifully rendered element.

Verdict

😶

Animal Crossing is fine if you like that sort of thing. But as a game it’s … mediocre. And that’s possibly the worst crime of all: I can’t really call it bad, and I certainly can’t call it particularly good because I just can’t find that much to hook those kinds of value judgement onto.

I’m glad I don’t score games here. If I did, I would probably have initially given Animal Crossing a seven out of ten. But, really, that’s not the score it deserves. I can’t score it; it’s really a ‘N/A-out-of-ten’ kind of ‘game’.

Me and Bertha, we got a thing going on

I’ve played Animal Crossing: New Horizons for 65 hours, some of that handheld — it’s possibly the quintessential handheld game. I'm glad I bought the digital version because it’s the kind of game I’ll keep dipping in and out of, but if I’d bought a physical version, I might've returned it already.