It’s been just over a year since the launch of Animal Crossing: New Horizons for Nintendo Switch, the latest entry in a series that has been running since the GameCube era. And New Horizons has been incredibly popular, rising rapidly to become the Switch’s second best-selling game, behind only Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Considering Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a glorified Wii U port (as are many Switch games, but that’s a battle for another day), I’d say that makes New Horizons the best-selling game that was made from the ground up for the new console! Am I splitting hairs? Well, maybe.
I spent a lot of time with New Horizons in the weeks after its launch. With over 120 hours played it became one of my most-played games of 2020, and I gave it the “best casual game” award as the year drew to a close. But shortly after publishing my review of the game – which you can find by clicking or tapping here, by the way – I put it down for almost six months. When I picked it up again, although there were a handful of updates which added different features, I was surprised to see that New Horizons is still missing something incredibly basic, a feature that would make the game infinitely more fun and increase its longevity substantially. I’m talking about mini-games.
New Horizons has a shit multiplayer mode. In fact, its multiplayer mode is so utterly threadbare that it isn’t a stretch to say that there’s literally nothing to do when playing with friends. You can exchange gifts if you have an in-game item your friend desperately wants, and you can check out the designs and scenery on their island, but that’s it. There isn’t anything to do together at all – and especially for players who paid extra for Nintendo’s Switch Online service only to be able to play New Horizons, that’s incredibly disappointing.
I wouldn’t have picked up Switch Online but for New Horizons. I certainly wasn’t going to pay to play Mario Kart 8 Deluxe online after Nintendo gated off what had previously been a free online mode behind their new paywall, and I was content to skip Switch Online altogether. But New Horizons – and a couple of friends of mine who play – convinced me to sign up, and were it not for the fact that I’ve played a couple of other titles online (and will hopefully pick up Fall Guys when it arrives later in the year) I’d feel I 100% wasted my money.
To understand why, and why I’m so sour about this, we need to step back one iteration in the Animal Crossing series, back to 2013’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf. New Leaf introduced a number of new features when it debuted on the Nintendo 3DS, and unlike New Horizons, felt like a game that was actually complete when it launched. One of the most fun features, and the main reason I was still playing New Leaf seven years after its release, was an area outside of the main map called the “tropical island.” This area is absent from New Horizons – as are a number of other Animal Crossing staples, despite the game having a full year’s worth of updates under its belt.
The tropical island in New Leaf was more than just a different area to visit with different fruit trees and bugs to catch. It offered mini-games to play, and these could be played with friends – for free, by the way – via either of the Nintendo 3DS’ two multiplayer options (local or online). These mini-games were so much fun, especially when playing with a friend, and gave New Leaf a whole extra lease of life that, frankly, the main game did not have. New Horizons does not have this, and thus a key component of the Animal Crossing experience is lacking.
The mini-games New Leaf offered were incredibly varied. Some would put a timer on everyday Animal Crossing activities – like fishing or popping balloons. Others were entirely new for the tropical island, such as using a soft mallet to hit an out-of-control robot. For me – and practically everyone else I knew who played New Leaf – these mini-games were an incredibly important part of the fun, and a mainstay of multiplayer sessions.
The mini-games aren’t the only feature New Horizons is missing. There are many others we could point to, like the coffee shop, the ability to set town ordinances, additional expansions of the shop, the fortune-tellers, the shoe-shop, the gardening shop, and so on. Holidays were also missing at launch, including Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. These were patched in later… but that’s no good for players who don’t have their Switch connected to the internet, or for whom data caps apply. Many kids play New Horizons, and I’m sure not all of them are allowed to connect their consoles to the internet.
As I said once before, it’s hard to escape the feeling that New Horizons was released in an incomplete state. Although no major bugs or glitches are present, the game itself is missing key features, and can feel rather threadbare. New features, like terraforming, don’t make up for the lack of things like mini-games, not least because terraforming is a single-player-only activity!
I plan to do a full update of my review at some point soon, so I won’t dive too deeply into all of the missing or removed features here. But I would certainly make the case that these “free updates” are a lot less generous than they appear to be on the surface. All Nintendo is really doing is adding into the game features that should have already been present – features that were part of previous Animal Crossing titles that were removed, or not ready, when New Horizons launched.
If I were in charge of the project, getting mini-games back into New Horizons in some form would be a priority. Nintendo spent much of 2020 adding holiday-themed events, including the aforementioned Halloween and Christmas, so perhaps now is the time to switch focus and make a big push to get mini-games back. Even if the tropical island itself doesn’t return as its own entire area of the map, the ability to play mini-games with villagers in single-player and with friends in multiplayer would quite literally transform the game and make it so much more enjoyable.
Right now, New Horizons doesn’t feel worthwhile to play with friends. After collecting all of the five different fruits (previous games even had more types of fruit!) and seeing their island, there’s really nothing to do. You can “make your own fun,” is what some super-fans and defenders of the game will say. But what fun can you make, exactly? Hide-and-seek works fine, I guess, with other players. But there’s no timed events, no special events like popping the most balloons or matching the right fossils; these things used to be part of Animal Crossing, and Nintendo opted to remove them. By doing so, New Horizons’ multiplayer is incredibly weak, and far, far worse than New Leaf offered eight years ago on much less impressive hardware. That shouldn’t have happened, and we shouldn’t let Nintendo get away with it.
I’ve already called out New Horizons for the incredibly poor way it handles save files; only allowing one island per console is a cheap trick to force players – and especially parents – to buy more Switch consoles. But the lack of in-game content, especially for multiplayer, deserves criticism too. Considering the game invites players to pay extra for Switch Online, the very least Nintendo could do is ensure that there was something for us to do.
I held off writing this piece for a long time, hoping that the next update or the next one after that would add in mini-games, the tropical island, or both. But after more than a year, New Horizons’ multiplayer remains in a useless state. There’s very little fun to be had playing with friends, and that situation shouldn’t go unnoticed. I’ll happily recommend New Horizons to players looking for a fun single-player experience – albeit with the caveat that it will probably be better and have more to offer in another year or two’s time. But as a multiplayer game, and especially as a reason to buy a Switch Online subscription? 0/10. Impossible to recommend New Horizons in its current state.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is out now for Nintendo Switch, and is the copyright of Nintendo. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.