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Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Six Months Later

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a villager dreaming in animal crossing: new horizons
Screenshot: Nintendo

Six months ago, life as we knew it changed. The covid-19 pandemic rippled through every corner of society. Millions were infected. Thousands died. Municipalities across the globe issued shelter-in-place orders. Overnight, social distancing turned from a polite suggestion into a mandatory directive.

On March 20, Nintendo released Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It wasn’t a panacea, but it was the perfect game for the moment, offering a pastel-colored digital respite from the real world’s tribulations. Let’s take a look back at how Nintendo’s cozy life sim got there, how it soothed millions during a trying spring, and how it’s evolved since.

  • At E3 2019, Nintendo revealed that the much-anticipated Animal Crossing entry on Switch would be called New Horizons. It would be set on a vacation island. You’d play as a human villager, and build up a small island community of talking animals dressed in J. Crew’s latest. Though originally scheduled for a 2019 release, the game was pushed back to March 20, 2020.
  • Shortly after that announcement, Nintendo confirmed that New Horizons would have an autosave feature, a first for the series. Sorry, Resetti!
  • By January of this year, anticipation built to a fever pitch. Fans even took it upon themselves to analyze obscure stickers for even the barest bit of information.
  • At the end of January, Nintendo pulled back the curtain on a special edition, New Horizons-themed Switch. The internet summarily lost its mind. To be fair, it was a glorious piece of hardware, definitely the type of thing you’d be right to lose your mind over:
the animal crossing new horizons special edition nintendo switch
Oh, how I wish this didn’t sell out in seconds flat.
Photo: Nintendo
  • In February, Nintendo shed light on just how restrictive save files would be in New Horizons. Each console could only have one island, and you wouldn’t be able to move your save data to another Switch. Any additional villagers on the Switch would be secondary villagers on the first villager’s island. The game hadn’t launched, and already some players were confused and frustrated.
  • A late-February Nintendo Direct revealed that you’d be able to terraform your vacation islands. You could even carve waterfalls, should you please. (Some brilliant fans would eventually go on to make some genius creations after launch, including the version of Hyrule in A Link to the Past.) Shortly after the Direct, a fan-made browser game popped up that allowed you to plan your island’s layout.
  • Kotaku’s Ian Walker officially reviewed Animal Crossing: New Horizons on March 16. One extremely cool thing about the game? All clothing options were gender-neutral, and you could purchase them without hearing a snarky remark from Mabel.
  • One stubborn Kotaku writer repeatedly restarted his game for two hours because he wanted peaches as his island’s native fruit. He eventually lost that save file anyway.
  • On the first day of release, players caught veritable armies of bugs and fish. In New Horizons, you can donate critters to Blathers, the curator of the game’s magnificent museum. But like previous series entries, time in New Horizons passes in real time, and it takes a few IRL days to open up the museum. Players worked around this by building cages all over their islands to store their bounties.
  • Two days after launch, players discovered that you can poop in the game.
  • For a brief and wondrous period, New Horizons had a glitch that you could exploit to duplicate some items. It was quickly patched out. Hey, we’ll always have the turnip market!
  • Over its first three days, Animal Crossing: New Horizons sold nearly 2 million copies in Japan. By May, nearly 12 million people would buy it around the globe. By August, the worldwide sales topped 22 million. A lot of people played this game.
  • As players experimented with the multiplayer, they designed innovative, unofficial mini-games. Exhibit A: Musical chairs.
  • It’s the number-one rule of human history: Give people the tools to draw, and they will draw dicks. Animal Crossing: New Horizons players quickly started using the game’s creative tools to draw all manner of NSFW material. (Heads up: That link isn’t appropriate for work.)
  • New Horizons has a built-in autosave, which conceivably prevents players from time-traveling—or artificially altering the game’s real-time clock so as to speed up the game’s unlockable process. To the chagrin of Einstein and Nintendo, enterprising players soon figured out how to time travel in the game.
  • K.K. Slider sold out, man.
  • For Easter, Nintendo temporarily added Zipper T. Bunny—a human person clearly in a fake bunny suit—to the game as part of the Bunny Day event. Everyone was weirded out. Bunny Day, in general, sucked. At least the Bunny Day patch fixed a bug that prevented gift-giving balloons from spawning.
  • Kotaku reacted to Animal Crossing: New Horizons. We liked it. Well, most of us did.
  • Among other things, the Bunny Day event added eggs as an in-game resource. But they showed up with such irritating frequency that, on April 6, less than a week into the event, Nintendo released a patch to reduce their spawn rate.
  • In Hong Kong, activists used Animal Crossing: New Horizons to stage digital protests. New Horizons was quickly pulled from some Chinese stores.
  • Less than a month after launch, speedrunners figured out how to reach the credits in hours flat—a feat that usually takes more than 40. Here’s a thrilling run from April 9.
  • Who can possibly forget the wild world of Animal Crossing conspiracy theories?
Animal Crossing Conspiracy Theories
  • In April, Nintendo announced a series of upcoming additions to New Horizons. Lief, a sloth, would start showing up to sell plants. Jolly Redd, a fox, would start showing up to sell art and scam you. Both would be added to the random villager rotation. A May Day maze island would appear around May Day. Plus, June would see the introduction of wedding season, an in-game event that added marital-themed photographs to Harv’s obviously cultish island.
  • To fill a gap in the market, a small ecosystem of fan-run marketplaces popped up across the web. By visiting those, you could get access to an island with enviable turnip prices, or even try to finagle deals to recruit a desired villager. (What’s up, Raymond?)
  • Art imitates life imitates… New Horizons? Fans, en masse, recreated famous album covers with K.K. Slider’s puppy face drawn on.
  • Roughly a month after launch, Nintendo slashed the in-game interest rates to functionally useless lows. Another example of art imitating life!
  • On April 23, the Earth Day update rolled out. Sure enough, the art dealer Jolly Redd scammed players left and right by selling knockoff paintings.
  • The same day, Elijah Wood—yes, that Elijah Wood—visited a random player’s island. He was a consummate gentleman.
  • Perhaps to make up for Jolly Redd’s wily ways, real-life museums—including the prestigious Los Angeles County Museum of Artstarted recreating designs from their collections in New Horizons, which players could download and display in their homes. Not as good as visiting LACMA in the real world, but, seeing as most museums were shuttered back then, it was a neat way to give these art collections some love.
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons features plenty of characters, but fans seemed to have a penchant to draft character art for just one: Wilbur, the brusk Dodo Airlines pilot. According to the humanoid reimaginations, Wilbur is kind of a catch.
  • On May 1, the May Day maze opened for business. It was extremely easy.
  • In New Horizons, among the many other mundane activities, you can pluck weeds. It’s a core part of the game, but, in May, Facebook’s strict algorithms flagged posts that mentioned “weed” or “weeds,” thinking the terms for a reference to the recreational substance.
  • The Detroit Lions used Animal Crossing: New Horizons to poke fun at other professional football teams.
  • The Met Gala never happened this year, but that didn’t slow down the world’s fashion elite. Couture designers and high-end houses—including Maison Valentino and Marc freakin’ Jacobs—started using Animal Crossing: New Horizons as a bona fide fashion flipbook.
  • Every Animal Crossing: New Horizons player knows, and hates, the sea bass joke. “I caught a sea bass. No, wait—it’s at least a C+!” In May, the dude who wrote that joke publicly admitted that he, too, hated it.
  • In mid-May, six hundred years after shelter-in-place restrictions were first implemented, Nintendo released a soothing video of studio musicians playing New Horizons’ theme.
  • On May 18, the Animal Crossing: New Horizons International Museum Day event kicked off. Compared to other in-game events, it was relatively thin. It wrapped up on May 31.
  • Creative fans used New Horizons to recreate the introductory sequences of popular shows. We loved the Brooklyn 99 rendition.
  • A Kotaku writer lost $30 because of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. He does not bear a grudge.
  • In May, one player recreated scenes from Spirited Away, the 2001 animated film, in New Horizons.
  • June 1 introduced wedding season to New Horizons. At a time many many nuptials were postponed in the real-world
  • The screenwriter Gary Whitta started an in-game talk show called Animal Talking. In June, Danny Trejo (an actor famed for his role in the 2010 action film Machete) showed up. It was delightful.
  • One good thing about 2020 is the fact that Avatar: The Last Airbender—and its sequel, The Legend of Korra—became available for streaming on Netflix. Some Animal Crossing: New Horizons players recreated the show’s intro in the game.
  • In June, KFC opened up a virtual restaurant in New Horizons.
  • On July 1, cicadas swarmed New Horizons, signifying the real start of summer. A few days later, a more robust update allowed players to finally swim in the azure tides of their islands.
  • Three words: Animal Crossing buttplug.
  • A second July summer update added a ton of new features to the game, including fireworks, dreams, and, clearing a cloud that hung over the game since before it launched, cloud saves. Best of all, though, the update made it so you can trip.
  • In early August, Halo Infinite, the much-anticipated follow-up to 2015’s Halo 5: Guardians, was officially delayed to an unspecified date in 2021. Xbox boss Phil Spencer appeared on Animal Talking, of all places, to discuss the delay.
  • On September 1, signage for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the 2020 U.S. Democratic presidential ticket, was made available as a downloadable design in New Horizons. In other political news, a Japanese politician started and quickly suspended in-game promotional activities for his campaign.

And that’s where Animal Crossing: New Horizons is at. For months, the game captured the zeitgeist—even my mom asked me about it—but things have noticeably cooled off a bit since. An autumnal update is on the way, and is sure to introduce some photogenic foliage. A winter one will surely follow. At this point, it seems like New Horizons will become like the cycle of the seasons. It’s recurrent and reliable. You might think about it fondly, or not, but you sure don’t think about it every day. Why would you? It’s always there, and it’s not going anywhere, anyway.