The video game series “Animal Crossing” has been a staple of game developer Nintendo’s image and legacy. This franchise places you, a human villager, in a forest town full of animals. That is, at least, until the most recent game, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” which instead puts you on a deserted island with the animal villagers. The game’s clock is synced to real time, so you are free to spend your days however you want: run errands for your neighbors, catch bugs and fish, dig up fossils and so on. This life simulator game with no real plot or end has become an escape mechanism for many, and even more so now. You are always welcomed by cutesy animal villagers who want nothing more than to be your friend.
“Animal Crossing” (2002)
“Animal Crossing” was America’s first introduction to the series and one that has stood the test of time. Released in 2002 for the Nintendo GameCube, “Animal Crossing,” sometimes unofficially referred to as “Animal Crossing: Population Growing,” established many lifelong fans with its simplistic premise and laid-back approach to life. The game was localized for American audiences, but included lots of unique features that either never returned or did not for many installments. You could participate in morning aerobics with your villagers in the summer, try your luck in Tom Nook’s monthly lotteries and encounter the ghost Wisp and help him catch his missing spirits. Nook, who has a polarizing reputation, is the creature who sells you a house in every game. He is a tanuki, a Japanese raccoon dog, but is often just referred to as a raccoon in the American versions. In many installments, he requires you to work for him to learn the game mechanics.
The development of the character’s traits and designs have come a long way since “Animal Crossing,” with the cranky and snooty personalities being notorious in this game. Nintendo has since watered these personalities down, but it was not unusual for an irascible villager to call you a “fat, bloated idiot” or a snobby villager to say your face looks gross and dumb. Personally, I find these character types amusing and sadly realistic, and it’s definitely a feature that makes this version unforgettable.
Thankfully, there were a lot of annoying mechanics that were removed in later versions, such as forced trades with villagers, villagers just taking one of your items against your will or forcing you to buy an item from them. “Animal Crossing” is inarguably the most savage of the games; your villager can easily lose a good item or pay an astronomical price for an item they don’t even want. Longtime players still hold grudges against villagers who wronged them in “Animal Crossing.”
The game has its charms, though, and is a more memorable version than some of its successors. Nintendo tried to wipe any semblance of Japanese culture from its next two installments, which is unfortunate. While the American version isn’t exactly the same as the Japanese, there are events like the cherry blossom festival that have yet to return. Tortimer, the elderly tortoise mayor for the first three games, also interacts more frequently with the player. This is partially because of the many town events, but he would also ask the player randomly to do tasks, like tending the lighthouse while he was out of town. The outlandish personalities and sweet events solidify this first game as one of the best versions in the “Animal Crossing” series, and because of its many events, it’s a version I can always come back to and enjoy.
“Animal Crossing: Wild World” (2005)
You should be slightly terrified sitting in the backseat of a taxi with a Japanese mythological turtle creature driving you through the rain. You are not, though, as Kapp’n takes you to your new life and asks you questions about yourself that ultimately determine what your face looks like. After the rain clears up, you pop out of the taxi and find yourself at the city hall of your new hometown. “Animal Crossing: Wild World” is the second game in the life sim franchise, and while the game is enjoyable, it feels duller than its predecessor.
This version for the Nintendo DS allows players the ability to play the game on the go, but at the cost of graphics. Even though your villager can now have a variety of haircuts, the grainy, pixelated picture on the small DS screen makes them feel more archaic than the previous villagers.
“Wild World” does feature new improvements, though, like the previously mentioned haircuts and the beloved villager photos. Once you become best friends with one of your animal villagers, they give you a photo of themselves that you can display, even after they move away. In this aspect, your relationships with the village beasties feel more intimate and meaningful. The villager interactions are further improved by introducing features like the animals challenging the player to catch bugs and fish or coming over to the player’s house to hang out.
There are also improvements such as a continuous scrolling map and the introduction of the cafe. However, the game fails to introduce anything that revolutionizes the gameplay. Yes, we now have Brewster the pigeon barista and Celeste the owl who lets you draw constellations, but most of the game is the same. They even removed holidays such as Toy Day (Christmas) and Halloween. A few unremarkable holidays were added, but overall, the game gets stale quick. You know a game isn’t great when you’d rather play the previous version.
“Animal Crossing: City Folk” (2008)
Considering the game still takes place in nondescript woods, the subtitle “City Folk” for the Wii edition of “Animal Crossing” seems like a bit of a stretch. Like the two previous versions, you’re thrown into a world of animals and get to hang out however you want. The biggest change, though, is the feature that gives the game its name; you can take the bus into the city.
The city is a much needed addition to the series, as it gives players a new street of shops to explore and something different to add to their daily routine. You can get your hair cut anytime, get your fortune read or even buy sketchy art from Redd the con artist fox. While none of these are new features, they are condensed and easily accessible with the town setup. You don’t have to wait for these vendors to visit your town like in previous games. Gracie, the fashion designer giraffe, gets her own store in this game, full of ridiculously high-priced furniture and clothes. The only good part of her store is the introduction of Labelle (also known as Label), the runaway sister of the hedgehog tailors who have been in every game.
“Animal Crossing: City Folk” also reintroduced Toy Day, Harvest Day (Thanksgiving) and Halloween. The disappearance of these holidays made “Wild World” bland, so it’s a relief to have them back. The game also features new holidays like Festivale (Mardi Gras) and corresponding special characters like Pavé, a flamboyant, dancing peacock. Online play features like the auction house and sending letters to friends also add life to the game, but are now unfortunately defunct since Nintendo pulled the plug on Wi-Fi play for the DS and Wii. While relatively similar to its predecessor, “City Folk” still offers fun escapism that fans look for in these games with its new city feature and stores, new special characters and more year-round events.
“Animal Crossing: New Leaf” (2013)
“Animal Crossing: New Leaf” breathes life into a series that lacked innovation since its release. “New Leaf” is the fourth full-length “Animal Crossing” game released in America for the Nintendo 3DS. The game takes the usual premise of you being the newbie in town and spins it; instead, you are now the mayor of this animal town. This adds a new play function: the ability to build town amenities, public work projects and pass ordinances. There is also an uptown area full of shops you can unlock, which is more convenient than taking the bus in “City Folk.”
It also introduces the ability for your villager to wear pants, as well as wear different sleeve length shirts and dresses. This is a considerable upgrade from the previous long tunic-style dresses the villagers were limited to in previous versions. Also, the days of having to get a shoe shine to change your shoes are over—Kicks the skunk’s store allows you to buy new shoes and socks. This may seem trivial to people unfamiliar or new to the series, but lifelong fans know this is monumental. Your villager is no longer a dwarfish, pixelated idea of a human being, but a closer reflection of an actual person.
The game also marks the first appearance of the beloved secretary and yellow Shih Tzu, Isabelle. With her cheery attitude that rivals that of the peppy villagers, she has become more synonymous with the series than other, more senior characters. Isabelle is the perfect companion for your mayor villager, always upbeat and excited about the projects you pitch. Had your secretary instead been someone like Nook, a notorious capitalist with questionable motives, the game would have lost some of its charm.
“New Leaf” is so delightful because it offers these new tweaks while incorporating everything that made the previous versions of the life sim series successful. An added swimming feature allows you to discover a whole new catalog of creatures—from king crabs, to sea slugs, to eels—and gives you even more hours of playtime. The game has also revived the tropical island from the first game and made it much easier to access. The island is different than in “New Horizons,” because it is just a location where you can visit, not where you live. If you need a break from life in your forest town, you can hop on a boat and Kapp’n will take you to the island. This is a huge plus as it allows players to catch new bugs and fish exclusive to the island, unlock the wetsuit to swim and get new fruit.
Being a mayor, visiting a tropical island and new seasonal events all make “New Leaf” one of the best games in the “Animal Crossing” series. Like the very first game, it has that ability to suck you in for hours and hours. Whether you’re redesigning your house, dancing at the club with your villagers or building new town amenities, “New Leaf” is enthralling year round.
“Animal Crossing: New Horizons” (2020)
“Animal Crossing: New Horizons” is the newest installment in the delightful, relaxed video game series. This rendition for the Nintendo Switch draws upon the easygoing, simple structure of previous versions, but adds new flair with its deserted island premise and building/design mechanics. Like the earlier versions, you’re submerged in a world where you’re the only human in a village of animals. However, instead of pulling up at a town, you take a plane to a tropical island along with two other villagers.
In “New Horizons,” Nintendo delivers the most beautiful graphics we’ve seen yet for “Animal Crossing.” Orange, red and white flowers sway when the wind blows, the clear blue river ripples when you jump through it and fruit is uncannily realistic compared to its previous cutesy design. The animal villagers are more animated than they’ve ever been: They sing spontaneously in the town square, talk to each other about where to picnic on the island and switch into tracksuits when they’re doing stretches or lifting weights.
The eight personality types—normal, peppy, snooty, uchi, smug, lazy, jock and cranky—feel more three-dimensional in this game. In “New Horizons,” you always start with an uchi and jock villager. Uchi villagers, Japanese for sisterly, are tomboyish and standoffish at first. When you befriend them, they become protective, offering fighting advice and also revealing a softer side of themselves. However, they’re a bit frustrating to have as one of the only two animal villagers on your island at the beginning because of this initially cold nature. They become irritated after you talk to them only a handful of times, and when you first start, there’s not a whole lot more that you can do.
Otherwise, the personalities are more fleshed out than they’ve been for the past few games. The lazy villagers offer silly dialogue about “bugs whispering to them at night” and the peppy ones love to talk about fanfiction, fantasize about stardom and refer to the player as their best friend pretty quickly. The cranky live up to their names, but still aren’t quite as brutal as they were in the very first version of “Animal Crossing.”
What sets this game apart from the others, though, is the previously mentioned mechanics and that it is more story-like than the other versions. If you play at regular speed, it takes a couple weeks to open shops, invite in new villagers, build a campsite and so on. Once your island reaches a high enough rating (determined by how pretty, developed and populated it is), you unlock the ability to terraform. You can redirect rivers, build cliffs, lay roads and more. This is the first of the series that allows you to completely transform the shape of your world.
There are several big let downs, including the fact that you can’t swim. It’s odd that the ability to swim would be missing in an island version of the game, but there is hope it may return in a future update. Also, beloved characters are gone completely. It felt wrong to start up the game for the first time and not be welcomed to my new life by Rover the cat, who is the guide in all the previous games. He has since made an appearance in a recent update for “New Horizons,” but other adored characters have yet to be confirmed for future versions. These gripes aside, “New Horizons” is a radiant, lively edition to the franchise. It is a game changer with its new mechanics, vivid characters and exciting new events.