Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the defining video game of 2020, I think it's fair to say. For the past 12 months, players have been captivated by controversial egg days, turnip prices, building the perfect island, and that most fantastical notion of all: home ownership.
Arriving on Nintendo Switch mere weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic really took hold here in the UK, we were faced with two choices: Spend lockdown staring at the ceiling and occasionally going out into the back garden at 4am to scream, as a treat, or lose ourselves in the idyllic island life sim that Nintendo had just presented us with. And maybe still have a 4am scream every now and then.
We know the choice most people made. Animal Crossing: New Horizons sold over 11 million copies in its first week alone. At last count, it had shifted nearly 32 million units worldwide, and now accounts for nearly half of the entire Animal Crossing series' lifetime sales. Those are some stonk-heavy results.
As a lifelong fan of the series, I'd been counting down the days to New Horizons' release. This was before I knew I was also counting down the days to an endless cycle of lockdowns and untold misery, you understand. Unpleasantness aside, what really fascinates me about Nintendo's latest swing at the long running Animal Crossing franchise is just how massive it got, and how effortlessly it seemed to pull in... well, everyone.
Of course a huge factor in the world coming together to worship the Bell, the Turnip, and the Holy Nook is that we were/are all stuck inside and there was/is literally nothing else to do. But come on, there was a bit more to New Horizons' success than a comparative lack of any other options, right?
This wasn't a free-to-play game like Call Of Duty: Warzone that anyone with the hardware could try out if they fancied it, remember. This was a £50 game that convinced some people to fork out for a Nintendo Switch, and then continue to play for months on end. This is a game that reached out and embraced everyone - gamers and first-timers alike - in one big welcoming cuddle. The way New Horizons manages to appeal to just about everyone has always impressed me, but the way it got people who maybe touched one or two video games a month to suddenly sink hundreds of hours of their lives into one title straight up blows me away.
"It's always having something to do, without ever feeling stressful," Jenny, a 21-year-old student from Leeds with nearly 300 hours of simulated island living under her belt tells me. "That's definitely the main reason I kept playing, compared to other games."
Like so many of the players who found something to love in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Jenny isn't someone who would describe herself as a "gamer" in the traditional sense. She has fond memories of playing Animal Crossing: Wild World on the DS way back when, but doesn't game a ton beyond the occasional platforming adventure or PlayStation title with her boyfriend.
Jenny picked up a Switch so she could play New Horizons the day it came out, taking comfort from the escape it provides and the warmth she finds in its many strange residents and menial tasks. Her town, named Weenington in honour of her love of sausage dogs, has remained a constant over the last year, even if she doesn't go back quite as often as she used to.
"I don't play it as much as last year," Jenny admits. "I've collected all the bugs and fish [in the game, to be clear], and gone back to uni [in real life, to be clear]. "I've recently picked it up again to help a friend who needed to store things on my island. This reminded me of how much I like the game, so now I play a little bit more... But definitely not as much as last year."
New Horizons provides an alternative to many of the intensely competitive AAA games that dominate the market. Most gamers will tell you that there are plenty of non-violent video games out there to play, of course, but very, very few of those have hit the mainstream in quite the same way as Nintendo's charming Switch sim. Not everyone wants to play to "win", and New Horizons excels at asking of the player only what they're willing to give.
"What kept me playing is the fact that it's not competitive," explains Megan, an assistant TV producer living in London. "I'm not into anything that you have to compete with people...sports, videos games, etc. I liked that there was a set of things to do every day, gave my day some sort of routine whilst not working."
Megan also came to the game towards the end of March, having been convinced by her boyfriend - an Animal Crossing veteran - that she'd have a great time with New Horizons, although she also admits that the massive surge in Animal Crossing TikTok videos would have inspired her to pick up the game sooner or later. In any event Megan has put an eye-watering 625 hours into New Horizons so far, but with the UK having bounced in and out of lockdowns over the past year, she reasons there wasn't much else to do but submit to the cult of Tom Nook.
"I don't think I ever would've tried this game if it weren't for the pandemic," Megan tells me. "My job is really time consuming, and my free time used to be so precious and was taken up by socialising.
"I played it a lot for the first two months last year while I was furloughed. I then dropped off over the summer when I went back to work and I was able to socialise a bit more outside. I've never stopped fully playing though. I started playing a lot more again in October when the Halloween update happened. And I say I play an hour or two every day now."
Both Jenny and Megan acknowledge that the pandemic played a huge role in New Horizons becoming such a big part of their respective lives, but the innate charm and uniqueness of the island getaway package is what kept them playing for months on end. Neither is particularly interested in ever investing quite as much time and energy into another game, but that's fine! Tom Nook did what he needed to do, and converted Jenny, Megan, and millions around the world.
It's all too easy to say this is a game that succeeded because it came at the perfect time - it did - but it's important to remember that there were an awful lot of fans out there who'd grown up with previous entries in the franchise. This, coupled with the Switch's already impressive install base, was always going to be a recipe for major success, lockdown or no. The way it managed to unify hardcore gamers and a much more casual audience was simply the icing on an already delicious cake.
One year on, and I don't think we can ever truly underestimate how important Animal Crossing: New Horizons was in offering light and escapism to all of us - regardless of our prior video game experience.
"I guess what it has meant to me most was solid time away from social media," Megan says, reflecting on her time with New Horizons in 2020. "I'm very guilty of scrolling for hours on social media and I found it wasn't good for my mental health once the pandemic started. Television is a job where you're freelance and constantly comparing yourself to others, so when I lost my work but saw others still working? I struggled with that.
"And also the constant bad news is a lot to take on. I'm also not from the UK so seeing people on social media who were at home in Ireland and able to see family was sometimes hard. AC became a good distraction for all that. It still helps with that now."
Jenny agrees, and tells me that for her New Horizons meant "comfort, happiness and enjoyment", three words that perfectly encapsulate everything the game has been about from day one.
As far as I'm concerned, looking back on the 312 hours I put into Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Jenny and Megan are bang on. To me, the game meant being able to escape from the crushing pressures of 2020 and find solace in picking fruit, selling turnips, and visiting friends to simply exist together in the warmth of an idyllic shared digital space.
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