Animal Crossing New Horizons is another Switch triumph that joins the console's Mario and Zelda entries as an arguable series best - and it does so with deceptively simple tweaks and upgrades.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was a bold reimagining of the Zelda series' conventions, in many ways taking Link back to 1986 and building from there. Super Mario Odyssey took a similar approach, but instead built upon the core concepts of Mario's first 3D outing from 1996. Animal Crossing New Horizons does just as good a job of providing an all-time classic as those games, but it does so more simply.
The truth is Animal Crossing wasn't broken to begin with, so it doesn't need fixing. Unlike 3D Mario and Zelda it also hasn't had nearly as much time or as many entries in which the formula could wear thin. It's been eight years since the last 'proper' Animal Crossing, and many fans probably would've been happy with a game that simply provided more of that, but in high definition. New Horizons is actually more than that, however, making clever changes and taking cues from other games to deliver the best Animal Crossing to date.
The result is a game that offers a little more structure for those who want it while remaining entirely open. It's a game that borrows from the likes of Minecraft and Stardew Valley, too. Crucially, however, like the critically acclaimed Mario and Zelda titles on Switch, it doesn't lose sight of what made Animal Crossing magical to begin with.
The core conceit that sets this game apart is that rather than moving into a new town you're heading out on a 'Deserted Island Vacation'. The game begins with you flying to an untouched island courtesy of capitalist icon Tom Nook, and instead of setting you up with a home and a crippling loan, Nook instead provides the bare basics: a tent. Fair enough. You'll be joined by a couple of animals. Even Nook himself is operating out of a tent, though being rich he did also pack his golf putt practice kit. Obviously.
This is how New Horizons offers a more constrained and directed structure for newcomers to the series. Early on you have less to worry about, and even less mobility - sections of your island are over rivers and up great big ledges, out of reach. Series veterans will know what to do inherently, but NPCs like Nook and your fellow islanders will offer guidance. Over time you'll unlock full island exploration by creating items to hop over the rivers and clamber the ledges. You'll also pretty quickly pay off your tent and take out a loan for a house to be built. Soon enough the island begins to bustle, and with that comes the classic Animal Crossing feeling right down to the introduction of fan favorite Isabelle and music that gradually gets busier and more intricate with the more infrastructure your island has.
There's a real sense of growth and ownership here, not just over your little plot of land and the rooms inside it, but over the entire island. Because there is nothing there when you arrive - no train station, no shops, not even any other residents - you have absolute control over more or less everything. When staple buildings like the shops and museum arrive, you choose where to place them. You do the same for all houses, bridges and other key infrastructure.
Enhanced tools eventually extend to things like designing patterns that can be used to customize furniture, clothes or even your character, and eventually you'll even have the tools to terraform the island in simple ways from laying different materials to change the terrain to creating or removing rivers or cliffs. All of this contributes to the overwhelming sense of ownership you'll have over the island. Inviting people over for a multiplayer session isn't just about showcasing a massive house now - it's about showing off everything. The road to having a fully customized island is a long one, however, and one best traversed by playing little and often rather than in gargantuan eight-hour sessions.
Driving this gradual progression is a crafting and resource gathering element to the game that feels like it probably owes a little to Minecraft and Stardew Valley. Your key tools like axes, shovels, fishing rods and bug nets all have multiple tiers of quality, for instance, each requiring different materials to craft and each having a different durability - because, yes, these key items break now.
Some might find this annoying, I know, but it it does fit with the leisurely pace and feel of Animal Crossing. Nothing is ever a rush, and when you're working back and forth on trips to and from the shop to sell things you've gathered to pay off your house loan, taking a moment to do some crafting fits right into the flow of things. Indeed, it even helps: it's generally more valuable to sell crafted items like hand-made beds, wardrobes and plant pots rather than the raw materials making those items requires.
Many of the ideas expressed in New Horizons are ones that have been growing in the series for a while. New Leaf introduced Ore, which could be smashed out of rock and used to customize furniture. Now the items that drop from mining rock are key crafting materials such as stone, iron and clay. Customization, once unlocked, likewise takes place at a crafting bench. In this sense, crafting is a very natural extension of what the series was doing before.
Much of this goes for the rest of New Horizons too. Instead of a boat you take a plane out to another deserted island for resource-gathering trips, and when you do so there's also the chance you might find a new character to tempt to your island paradise. You can still donate wildlife and fossils to the museum, which is now far larger and more opulent than before. All of this is part of that clever Animal Crossing formula that slowly sinks its claws into you until you're obsessively playing daily. Everything else about the game is ingeniously designed to assist this process of assimilation, from cheery menus to the snappily-written and well-characterized neighbours.
Speaking of playing daily, one new feature I haven't addressed yet is Nook Miles, which is at once an in-game achievements system and a new currency. Miles are earned by completing significant tasks like doing things for the first time or doing certain things daily, and the miles you earn are then used to pay off your initial holiday package with Tom Nook. Once that's done you can continue to earn and spend miles at a special terminal. Miles can be used to buy unique gear, crafting recipes and character customization options like hair styles. The miles system is useful as it decouples certain progression from your cash but also gives you things to aim for every day - again offering structure to those who might find Animal Crossing's complete openness overwhelming.
The nature of Animal Crossing hasn't changed. That means that those who find the relaxed nature of the series a deterrent in the past will still find it so here. Animal Crossing is not an exciting game - where most video games are the digital equivalent of a rollercoaster, this series is a half-speed whirl on the teacups; and that's okay. Animal Crossing is relaxed, but it is not lackadaisical - in fact it's quite the opposite, utterly brimming with enthusiasm and glee at every little thing in its charming world.
Animal Crossing is a difficult sort of game to review as the game's dedication to the real-world clock means that there's much of it I haven't seen. I have no idea what happens on your birthday, or at Christmas, for instance. But in two weeks with the final game I have seen my island grow from a tiny little hamlet to a bustling village of sorts - and I feel a deep connection to every aspect of the town that I planned, from the optimized-for-efficiency layout of the shops to the river I reshaped and the forest of trees up to the north that I imported by planting fruit from other islands.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is everything I hoped it would be, and it's yet another stellar release that showcases a confident Nintendo at its best. It is excellent, and is easily another must-own Switch title - at least, if you can understand and embrace Animal Crossing's uniquely lazy pace.