Animal Crossing: New Horizons released in March 2020 and has since sold over 32 million copies, becoming the second best-selling game on the Nintendo Switch. As a long-time fan of the series, I was one of the masses frothing at the mouth as midnight hit on Mar. 20, 2020. The game was exactly what the world needed at the time.
However, over a year later, it's sitting in many of our Switches way down the queue. Sure, new games have largely taken its place, but Animal Crossing has always been a go-to game for some wind-down time. Instead, many of us have picked up other games, like Stardew Valley.
Granted, sim games can run their course after some time, but the whole purpose of these games is to keep you engaged, or at the very least, have you hop in for a few minutes a day. One game we returned to frequently for years, way longer than I've ever played New Horizons, was its predecessor, Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Even now, we're considering digging up my 3DS and starting another journey as mayor.
All of this game jumping has me wondering what New Horizons could do to bring players back and remain one of the best games on the Nintendo Switch. So, what exactly are the issues here, and where can New Horizons go? In our opinion, it should look to other sim titles for inspiration.
Issue 1: The illusion of content
One of the original draws to Animal Crossings: New Horizons was the promise of plenty of updates. While we did experience one or two larger updates that brought us a new museum wing and dream islands, most of the other updates were small or seasonal. Sometimes we got a new emote, and other times we got holidays with... very similar objectives. Regardless of the holiday, players had to gather a MacGuffin, whether it was eggs, feathers, or other ingredients, hand it off to an NPC, and that's pretty much it.
Even the way the game works is an illusion of having more to do. You start with a tent, work your way up to a huge house, and unlock terraforming. Really, what you're working towards is the ability to form your island any way you want, but what do you do after you customize it just the way you want? You could start over and do something new, and there are plenty of players who love rearranging and redecorating.
Updates add new items, so there are always new ways to set up your island — but that's it. It can get pretty boring if you've hit five stars and have a full museum. As someone who likes their island the way it is aside from the occasional rearrange, I wish there was just more to do. Plus, it all just feels like an anti-climatic endgame goal.
How others do it
What New Leaf did right was it took the whole control thing a step further than New Horizons. Sure, you're the star resident on your island, but that's nothing like being mayor! You actually play a part in running the town, which is more interesting than just being the one to pour money directly into Nook's pocket. You're responsible for setting the shop times, which is great if you are a night owl or an early bird. Plus, cleaning up this little town led to new shows and residents in the shopping district.
As you develop your island in New Horizons, there's no real way to develop the island into something more, like a swanky resort or a little developed town. Sure, you can make it look different, but it feels empty when comparing it to something like New Leaf. You can't build a coffee shop and invite Brewster to run it. You can't build a little beach scene and have Kapp'n show up on his boat. It's like there's a separation between the buildings and the people.
How it can be fixed
Rather than just inserting more of the same, New Horizons should actually provide some new content. A big update could allow for a shopping district, for example. Inviting NPCs to come to the island and set up shop permanently would be a big deal. We'd argue that Re-Tail is way better than the yearly wedding event, and we miss having a flea market shop. Plus, Nook needs some competition.
While you can control the look of your island, you can't really control much else, like the time for the shops. That's a pretty simple update. And finally, with all of these holiday celebrations, mix it up a bit! Maybe have some different objectives.
Issue 2: Variety is the spice of life
The second point here sort of ties into the first. After you've hit a point, there's nothing much to do but find busy work in New Horizons. Sure, you can fish, catch bugs, and rearrange your island, but that's it. You can also talk to your residents, but instead of doing odd jobs for them, like in the past, it's very rare that you get anything more than a conversation or an easy fetch quest.
These fleeting interactions were once a staple part of the Animal Crossing games. In New Horizon, however, they usually feature a ton of recycled dialogue. Also, though the villagers supposedly have "different" personality types, they all seem pretty similar. Other than their look and the tone of their voice, you really can't tell the difference between them, except for maybe the grumpy NPCs. Speaking of NPCs, the random vendors that visit need a shake-up. We rarely see Redd, and almost always get Kicks or Leif. Or Gulliver.
Finally, those Nook Mystery Tours are a big disappointment. Sure, there's an off-chance that you can land on a rare island, but most of them are exactly the same as your island. We usually feel as if we've wasted my Nook Miles points on those tickets.
How others do it
Stardew Valley takes the cake here in the variety category. Each playthrough can be different, and the days pass quickly (though not in real-time) so it's easy to get sucked in with tasks like daily maintenace on the farm. Stardew and Animal Crossing share plenty of likenesses, but Stardew takes everything a step further.
For how big it is, New Horizons is very one-note. Yep, you can forage, fix your house, and fish, but in Stardew, you can also mine, grow and take care of various crops, cook, have a family, and uncover mysteries. Cozy Grove is another sim that keeps things fresh with different daily tasks for the "ghosts" on the island. Despite the game having a set amount of tasks per day, it's still easy to lose time playing it.
If we're sticking with Animal Crossing, New Leaf also offers more variety. As mayor, it was your job to make the townspeople happy, and that meant doing everything possible to make your town the very best, including doing odd jobs, putting up requested items, and responding to town demands. Yes, you can work to get your New Horizons island to five stars, but you're just a resident. It's a bit of a hollow victory since most of the residents are trapped there until you let them go. There's no real threat that they'll leave. In New Leaf, they will up and go if you don't keep up the town. Plus, you can do so many things in the shopping district, and even the island getaway is different from your everyday home.
How it can be fixed
Structure is a huge part of these games. In Stardew Valley, there's a limit on what you can do in a day based on weather, energy, and funds. Even if you find a way to game the system and get rich quickly, you still can't stay up past a certain time. Plus, there are various story beats to experience in the game, so while the game definitely isn't on rails, there's some structure to help you figure out what to do each day.
Similarly, with Cozy Grove and New Leaf, you have to answer to residents. You may not have all the resources you need to solve tasks upfront, so it can take a while to complete them. New Horizons had a little bit of this in the beginning, but it was very short-lived. After about maybe a month, you could reach your goal. With the other games, it's a little bit more difficult. Just giving your village more tasks for your neighbors would go a long way.
It would also be nice if the developers added some things to do! The island tours are a huge missed opportunity. Why not make an island with some commerce and different district? It's an easy island to add if your character is missing city life. Additionally, island variety could make it more fun to find certain/rare fish and insects, experience different weather at all times of the year, and explore new areas. It would be cool, for example, to take a plane ride to a snowy island in the middle of summer.
Issue 3: It's missing some sort of story
The one unanimous point that the iMore staff agreed upon regarding issues in New Horizons was that it lacked a story. It's one of the main reasons plenty of us just stopped playing. There just isn't one! You arrive on an island, you fix it, you terraform it, and then you pay Tom Nook back. That's the end! Sure, it's fun finding all of the possible villagers, but it's impossible to build a story around them. Plus, what happens once you have them? Do you keep them prisoner or let them leave?
If there is any extra information about NPCs, it doesn't have much of an impact. Even the picture quest seems to fall flat since it's pretty much based on how many times you talk to them and give them gifts. Everything about this trip to a deserted island just seems hollow.
How others do it
Both Stardew Valley and Cozy Grove have a similar structure to Animal Crossing: New Horizons, but the big difference is that it's not just about building a tropical island. The other games actually have a story, and having a narrative is a great way to keep players engaged. Even if the gameplay is the same, the story is what will bring players back. In Stardew Valley, it's even possible to marry townspeople and have a family, and that's just one possibility.
Previous Animal Crossing games had a touch of a story or at least some non-villager NPC history to discover, like the history of the Able Sisters in Wild World/New Leaf, Tom Nook, and Mable's relationship, or even the history behind Brewster and Blathers. Even establishing that you were on the move and got stuck as the mayor works as a story. It doesn't have to be complex, but it's something to build from.
How it can be fixed
While New Horizons is already what it is in this regard, there's no reason why an update can't provide us with a little story. We can learn more about K.K. Slider, receive seasonal stories, or maybe get a few story-driven objectives. It's possible to make something work with the current mechanics. Players can always choose not to heed the call and continue remaking their islands, but having some options would be nice.
Maybe have players explore islands for new ideas or set off to convince vendors to come to the island and set up shop. The goal is to get K.K. Slider to visit your island, but why would he want to show up there? I feel like there could be a story here. If anything else, maybe there could be a bit more to getting that "best friend" status with your villagers. Maybe if they had unique likes and dislikes you had to discover through conversations with other villagers? There should be more to earn in New Horizons, which can then lead to new goals.
Please give us an update
While New Horizons is still a pretty great game, it does need a bit of a shake-up if it wants to keep an audience. Perhaps by looking at past games or even other popular sims, they can make a few tweaks and bring players back in before they abandon their tropical islands for good.
Credits — The team that worked on this editorial
Sara Gitkos is an editor and writer on iMore and is slightly obsessed with sim games. She is always excited to lose hours of her life in Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing when trying to avoid real-life chores.
Nadine Dornieden is a Nintendo freelance writer who has been a gaming fan ever since she got to pet her very first Nintendog. She loves Animal Crossing, platformers, and rhythm games but is willing to try anything that comes her way. Writing about video games and critiquing the industry is her passion, which doubles as a great way to pay off her debt to the infamous tanuki, Tom Nook.
Casian Holly has been playing video games since they were old enough to hold a Game Boy, but they've been hooked on life sims since the first Animal Crossing. Having clocked over 500 hours in Animal Crossing New Horizons, they've got more than a few thoughts on ways to improve life on their deserted island.