An impressive suite of improvements combine with a more clearly defined structure for Animal Crossing's finest outing to date.
It's 5am, I can't get back to sleep, so out of habit I reach for the Switch on the bedside table to check in on my island. For the past three weeks this has been how every day's started. Animal Crossing: New Horizons has become a part of my life. Last night, just before bed, I wrote a letter to Billy, a jock and a goat, designed to make him want to leave. He'd become a nuisance as I was going about my daily chores, chasing me down and making me apologise and make amends to the other animals he'd just hot-headedly disagreed with. This morning, I'm wondering if I've been too rash.
Do the animals really have feelings? Could Billy understand the hastily written postcard I'd sent him? I don't know for sure, but such is the strange spell Animal Crossing casts, offering up a fantastical vivarium patrolled by anthropomorphic creatures that soon feels utterly, utterly real. It's a magical sleight of hand, an illusion conjured up by countless little tricks - how the hours pass in-game as they do in the real world, and as the seasons do too. I've seen winter's snow thaw and spring slowly bloom over the course of several long days, and seen the sun rise and set above the beach on the island's northern edge.
It's how the animals respond to your actions, and go about their own island life in your absence. On Sunday morning I walked over to the town square to find Carrie, a warm-hearted kangaroo, and Tabby, a hyperactive kitten, doing yoga exercises together. Later that night, while out on another stroll, I spot Plucky the Chicken solemnly pacing the cliffs at the top of the island and wondering whether it was time for her to move on. I do all I can to talk her out of it.
How can you fail to be sucked into a world that's at once so mundane yet so magical? Such has been the way since Katsuya Eguchi's playful life-sim first came to be with the N64's Animal Forest in 2001 and its subsequent localisation on GameCube a year later. The series has only grown in popularity ever since, which makes it all the more exciting that this is the first mainline outing in eight years, with New Leaf co-lead Aya Kyogoku now acting as sole director.
That's not to say nothing has happened in the time since, and you'll find traces of Animal Crossing's more recent ventures here, as well as the creep of the modern. New Horizons neatly lifts concepts from spin-offs Happy Home Designer and Pocket Camp, with more comprehensive tools when placing furniture around your house and with the radical introduction of crafting (it might well lift some ideas from Animal Crossing Amiibo Party too, but I wouldn't know as that was one deviation too far from the formula for me and, I'm sure, many others). DIY designs are passed on by other animals, or maybe you'll find one washed up in a bottle on the beach or floating by in a present in the sky, the recipes tucked away in your own compendium and the materials you need gathered by hacking away at trees or hitting stones with your shovel.
You have your own mobile phone, a sort of stand-in for your slowly expanding menu, and it's there you'll even find daily challenges that reward you Nook Miles, a new in-game currency that allows you to attain goods via an in-game ATM. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is every bit a contemporary game.
Yet for all that, New Horizons reminds me most of the very first Animal Crossing. Maybe it's how it goes back to basics, and goes back to the wild. When you first set foot on your island you're a lone pioneer, knee deep in weeds. You're even landlocked for those first few days, the further reaches of the island on the other side of a river you won't yet have the means to cross. It's up to you to clear the way for new islanders, to pick out their plots and furnish them and then to reach out to other animals - whether they be passing through the campsite or frittering away a day on a nearby mystery island - to give them the sales pitch. Progress in New Horizons is slow, as it always has been in Animal Crossing, but here it's got real purpose.
Is this a gritty reboot for Animal Crossing? As unpalatable as that might sound, it kind of is - and it definitely works. There's a more grounded logic at play here, to those first few weeks at least. Your first pieces of furniture will likely be made from naked wood chopped from the very trees around you (though rest assured you'll soon enough get the option to lend them a lick of paint or apply a fresh design with a customisation kit - another new feature for New Horizons). Elsewhere there's a stronger throughline thoughtfully imposed on a game whose aimlessness has always been one of its biggest strengths, and once you've flipped your first few houses and invited a couple of animals to stay the sense of ownership over your surroundings is unparalleled in the series.
A regular rhythm soon establishes itself, though everyone's routine will be entirely their own. My own starts with a trip to the wardrobe to pick a new outfit for the day ahead, followed by an early-morning tour of the island, collecting shells and digging up fossils for Blathers to assess over at the museum, all of which keeps me busy until the shops open at 8am. Then it's deciding whether to give over the rest of the day to fishing, or maybe to furnishing the island's exterior with whatever new trinkets the Nook twins have in stock.
The augmentations to Animal Crossing's well-established rhythm are plentiful. A proper storage system is now in place in your home, meaning you no longer have to dedicate a room to hoarding any items you don't yet have a purpose for. Menus have been de-fussed and items stack more readily, meaning it's easier to pick out a fresh outfit or redecorate a room. Tools are easily accessible via a new wheel - though it's worth noting not all the changes in New Horizon are welcome.
Tool durability, while not new to the series, is more pronounced here in an attempt to push the crafting side a bit harder, though it's pushed a bit too hard with items breaking after around 30 uses. If you didn't like the constant fuss of changing up weapons in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild I doubt you'll find it much more palatable here. Some long-established features can also take a little too long to unlock - my first 30 hours of play were conducted to a single piece of music rather than the evolving soundtrack of older games, a measure that goes too far in stripping back the experience before it's folded in again, while the show-stopping new ability to terraform your island won't be available until you're a good few weeks into your new island life.
They're a handful of small, annoying details in a game that's full of plenty more delightful ones, though. The way trees rustle in the wind, and how the world is gently littered with fallen branches the morning after a storm; the muted patter of raindrops on your umbrella when you go for a walk in a downpour, or how you'll see those raindrops cascade down your windows if you opt to stay indoors; how each animal is brought to life with writing that boasts phenomenal character and economy.
And it's how, even some 90 hours in, Animal Crossing: New Horizons maintains its ability to surprise. It's how each day presents a new mystery to unravel, or a new visitor to hang out with - though often it's satisfying enough just to check in to see how your flowers are doing. I just went for another morning stroll, and spotted Billy the trouble-making goat running arms out through a copse of trees, a look of glee fixed on his face. I can't bring myself to make him leave; indeed, I think I properly like him now, for all his faults.
He's a keeper, and so too is Animal Crossing: New Horizons, probably the best this series has ever had to offer and therefore one of Nintendo's very best games to date. It presents a world absurd in its mundanity yet shot through with magic, offering an escapism that's reassuringly dependable. I just hope you weren't planning on playing anything else this year.