Shortly after Animal Crossing: New Horizons launched in March last year, here’s what I had to say about the game in my review: “When I compare New Horizons to New Leaf, a game that I played way more and for way longer, I feel at least a little disappointed. New Leaf seemed to offer more to do when the shine of playing a new game wore off, and it certainly offered significantly more in terms of playing with friends…”
Many of the criticisms I made of the game – most notably the lack of a significant multiplayer offering and mini-games to play with friends – still hadn’t been addressed, and as 2021 wore on the “updates” that were released for the game were incredibly threadbare. Nintendo, in their infinite wisdom, chose to make last year’s holiday-themed updates only valid for one year, meaning much of 2021 was actually spent re-adding holiday events like Easter, Halloween, and Christmas that had already been added in 2020.
The Animal Crossing: New Horizons Nintendo Direct, which premiered yesterday, had the difficult task of making amends with a fanbase that has become disenchanted with the game over the past year or so. Many of New Horizons’ biggest fans hadn’t held back from criticising the game and Nintendo for the lack of proper updates and the lack of communication in 2021, and while the game remains one of the Switch’s best-selling titles, there has been a sense for some time that a lot of folks were simply burnt out and no longer enjoying the experience.
Games have a natural lifespan, so under normal circumstances I’d say that’s just to be expected! But the Animal Crossing series has always been an outlier in that regard; the games challenge players to play long-term, even just for a few minutes a day, but the repetitiveness of the activities and dialogue, combined with no significant updates or new additions, meant New Horizons’ welcome wore out far more quickly than any previous entry in the series.
Right off the bat, yesterday’s Nintendo Direct offered a lot of new content, and it’s coming soon – in just under three weeks’ time. The addition of a coffee shop, new islands to visit by boat, a parade of shops (on a separate island), the return of classic characters, more customisation options, more DIY options (including cooking), and an expansion of other aspects of island life, with new items, more storage space, and the like are all incredibly welcome additions. The new update will give players a lot to sink their teeth into – and will probably convince me to either pick up the island I haven’t touched in months or restart the game for a new experience.
However, I do have a few points of criticism. The first is that these updates feel, for the most part, like features that could and should have been part of the game when it arrived in 2020. New Horizons wasn’t exactly threadbare when it launched, but it was missing a number of important features that were part of older games in the series that hampered its longevity. As I’ve said on more than one occasion, New Horizons is basically a “release now, fix later” title.
The second concern I have, and perhaps the most significant one, is that I don’t see these updates improving the game’s long-term prospects in any meaningful way. They’re going to be a ton of fun… at first. Players who’ve stuck with New Horizons since launch will be thrilled at finally having new things to do, and new players will discover a game that feels much more feature-rich. But when it comes to long-term playing, things like new island tours by boat or a first-person camera are going to lose their shine pretty quickly – just like terraforming and other features did when the original version of the game launched last year.
These new features paper over the cracks and don’t do anything to address New Horizons’ longstanding issues. There was no mention in the Nintendo Direct broadcast of new villager dialogue, for example, which is something the game desperately needs. Anyone who’s sunk a significant amount of time into New Horizons can tell you that villagers simply don’t have much to say after a while, and what they do say is incredibly repetitive. This also extends to Isabelle’s utterly useless “announcements” at the beginning of each day – she usually has nothing of consequence to say, has only a handful of different lines of dialogue, and ignores many goings-on around the island.
New Horizons wants to offer players a home-away-from-home on a fantastical island, and the neighbours players will have and befriend are a vital part of that experience. But because the villagers have so little to say, with some common in-game occurrences literally having only one line of dialogue, it makes playing the game feel incredibly repetitive to the point of becoming off-putting. Add into the mix that there are only eight villager “personality types” yet ten villager slots, and you’re always going to have at least two villagers who have identical dialogue even under the best possible conditions.
This was a prime candidate for an overhaul. Unlike adding new gameplay features, new dialogue requires far less development time and far fewer resources. The game’s modest file size could easily handle double the current amount of dialogue – if not more. While the addition of new features like the coffee shop will give villagers a few new things to say, at the end of the day they’re still going to largely be saying the same things that they always have. Once the novelty of some of these new features has worn off, players will be back where they started.
Also missing from the update were multiplayer mini-games. This is a feature I’ve argued needs to be part of New Horizons on several occasions now, and while it’s possible it will come in future as paid DLC, I don’t think that’s good enough. New Horizons currently offers incredibly bad value for players who want to play with friends – Switch Online isn’t free, after all – as there really isn’t anything substantial to do in multiplayer. Nothing in this update will change that, because players will be stuck with the same things to do as before: tour their friend’s island, talk to villagers, and that’s it.
Even some of the features that this update has added feel less than they could’ve been. The coffee shop and parade of shops are in fixed locations – in the museum or on a different island. Yet with a small amount of extra effort, surely Nintendo could’ve given players the option to place new shops and new buildings around their islands? As things sit at the moment, players have one shop, one tailor’s shop, and the museum as buildings that can be placed. Islands are decently-sized, so there was scope to add at least two or three new buildings. Giving players the option to create their own parade of shops would have been fun, and it feels like a missed opportunity that the update has added no new buildings at all.
I’ve heard some fans argue that they’ve finished designing their island now, so they wouldn’t know where to place a new building. But that’s why something like the coffee shop could have been an option: either included as part of the museum or as a separate building like it was in New Leaf.
The main shop itself has also been ignored by the new update. New Leaf offered players five levels of shop expansion, but New Horizons only has one – and it seems like that’s all there will ever be. The shop doesn’t carry a huge amount of stock: six items at the most (if seasonal items are available). There was scope to expand the shop in the same way as the museum has been expanded, growing it to make it more useful – and to give players something to aim for and work towards.
The aforementioned parade of shops, which will be present on a separate island, could have been part of a shop expansion as well. Gardening items, different wallpapers and rugs, and other such things could have been given their own section within the shop if adding more new buildings to the island was off the table – or as an alternative option.
Kapp’n doesn’t feel like he has a lot to offer based on what we saw in the broadcast. Players have already been able to visit random islands via the airport, and adding a second way to visit a second set of random islands feels like something that will have limited use and, at least based on the way I play the game, is likely not to be used very often. Even if there are multiple new plants, shrubs, and trees, once these have been found and collected I don’t really see what else Kapp’n is going to be useful for – and this really comes back to what I was saying about the update’s longevity.
Gyroids were never my thing in past Animal Crossing games, but they were always a part of the series so it’s nice to see them return. Brewster, the character who runs the coffee shop, was a big fan of Gyroids, so it makes sense that they’d be part of the update that brought him back. The addition of new items, new furniture, wallpapers, and the like is good, and the ability to hang items from the ceiling is likewise an extra dimension to customisation. None of that will be earth-shattering, but I love a game with customisation options, so adding more ways to customise and to make the island and player’s home feel unique is certainly a good thing.
The addition of town ordinances, which were present in New Leaf, will change things up a little and improve the quality-of-life for some players. Being able to shift the island’s activity to earlier or later in the day should allow some players with tight schedules the ability to play more at a more convenient time, and that’s a positive thing. Again, though, I feel like this should really have been part of the game from the beginning – it was part of New Leaf in 2013, so it can hardly be called a “new” feature.
Perhaps the one addition that interested me the most was the DIY expansion, particularly cooking. The addition of new vegetables and new crops seems to have opened up a range of new DIY recipes for food – and this looks like something that has the potential to be a lot of fun. New Horizons does have a number of food items already, but adding new ones and different ones that can be created is certainly something I find interesting.
DIY has been a double-edged sword in New Horizons sometimes, though. Item durability – a feature copied from the likes of Minecraft – is almost never handled well in any game, and it doesn’t work well in New Horizons. Having to constantly replace broken tools rapidly stops being fun – if it was ever fun – and the fact that DIY doesn’t work particularly well or especially intuitively has hampered the experience. For example, being able to craft more than one item at a time – particularly for one-time use items like fish bait – would massively improve the experience, as would the ability to craft tools in one step instead of two. Neither of these quality-of-life improvements has been added to New Horizons.
The addition of a first-person photo mode looks like fun, but the kind of gimmicky fun that I might use a few times at the most. New hairstyles might be fun for some people – and being able to represent different types of hair in a game is no bad thing. More K.K. Slider songs might be your thing… but it’s definitely not mine!
Being able to set up ladders at particular cliffs is something I can see being useful, even as the number of available inclines is slightly expanded. Also allowing players to navigate smaller gaps in between furniture is likewise something that will be useful in certain circumstances. I wouldn’t say that either are groundbreaking, but smaller quality-of-life improvements like these were definitely needed.
So let’s talk about money. Everything we’ve discussed so far will be added for free, and that’s no bad thing. New Horizons did promise free updates when it launched. But this update will be the last free one for New Horizons, and the first paid DLC has already been announced.
Considering that there are still missing features, and that some quality-of-life additions, like new dialogue and improvements to crafting, haven’t been made, I can’t be the only one who feels it’s rather bold of Nintendo to begin demanding $25 for an expansion to the game – especially considering the expansion is based on 3DS title Happy Home Designer, and thus is hardly something we can call “new.”
It also means that multiplayer mini-games – if they ever come to New Horizons, and it would be such a shame if they didn’t – will now almost certainly be paid DLC as well. The Happy Home Paradise DLC seems like it could be the first of many, and next year could see at least one or two more paid DLC packs as well – which would greatly increase the cost of playing New Horizons in full.
Happy Home Paradise looks like an updated riff on the Happy Home Designer concept. It does add new things, like partition walls, countertops, and so on, some of which can be brought to a player’s main island home as well. I’m not going to argue that Happy Home Paradise should’ve been free – though it absolutely could have been if Nintendo was a more customer-friendly company – but I’m not sure the timing is right considering that the base game will still be missing key features even after this latest – and final – update.
Version 2.0, which will be the final free update for New Horizons, still doesn’t get it over the line. The game is still going to be missing important features that previous entries in the series had. Some of these features – like multiplayer mini-games – gave the Animal Crossing series much of its long-term value, and without them it’s hard to see New Horizons being a game that will live up to the legacy of its predecessors. Don’t get me wrong, practically all of the additions and updates look like fun… but they look like short-term fun at best.
In addition, the game’s final update will do nothing to address player criticisms and complaints about a number of quality-of-life issues, some of which are pretty major. The lack of expanded dialogue for villagers, the lack of fixes for basic DIY issues, and a number of other points have all been ignored by Nintendo in their rush to blitz through New Horizons’ free updates so they could begin selling paid DLC. As a result, New Horizons in its base form is still not good enough for the kind of game it wants to be – and even the addition of this first paid expansion pack won’t address these concerns.
There are things to look forward to on the fifth of November, and I’m debating whether to jump back into the game or even start a new file in the run-up to the update going live. However, I’m already predicting that many of the new features added into the game will have a relatively short shelf-life, and while they may very well carry New Horizons into the beginning of 2022, the game’s longer-term prospects are still pretty poor.
I judge New Horizons based on how much I enjoyed its predecessor, New Leaf. I played that game on and off for more than seven years because it just had so much to offer and so much going on to convince me to keep coming back. I got bored of New Horizons within a couple of months, and while two months and 100+ hours is definitely a lot of time when compared to many other games, by Animal Crossing standards that’s nothing. Unfortunately everything I’ve seen from this update, and its paid DLC companion, tells me that New Horizons is going to get a short-term fix that will tide fans over for a little while but ultimately does nothing to address the game’s real longevity.
Maybe I’m the one who’s wrong – maybe New Horizons was never meant to be the kind of long-term project that its predecessors were. Perhaps gaming has just changed too much in the past decade or so such that a long-term experience was never something that most players were interested in. If that’s the case then I’m judging New Horizons unfairly. Maybe it was just never meant to be the long-term experience that I expected.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is out now for Nintendo Switch. Version 2.0 will launch on the 5th of November 2021 as a free update, and Happy Home Paradise will launch also on the 5th of November 2021 as paid DLC. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the copyright of Nintendo. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.