For many, playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons is indicative of a specific time: March 2020. Lockdown hit, but solace was found in finding connection with cute animal villagers - and each other - on a virtual, idyllic island.
Gradually over the following year, players dropped off due to Animal Crossing fatigue, a lack of content updates, and finally being able to go outside.
Now, though, the game is experiencing something of a renaissance thanks to its recent - and much requested - free update that adds plenty of new content, from Brewster's coffee shop to gyroids, cooking, and quality of life improvements. Then there's Happy Home Paradise, the game's one and only piece of paid DLC.
That renaissance is most obvious on Twitch. Looking at Twitch stats over the past year, the game has seen a huge spike in interest throughout November. And that's coming from both the number of channels streaming content and viewers watching.
November saw a 198 percent increase in both the number of hours watched and average number of viewers. Friday 5th November, the release date of the DLC, saw a peak number of viewers of 70,860 - that's the highest number of viewers since the game launched (which peaked at 244,171 viewers on 20th March 2020).
This increase in popularity runs in parallel with the new "cozy" tag introduced by Twitch on 29th July this year, alongside other 'mood' tags like "chilled", "hyped" and "chatty".
These streams tend to focus on low action, slow-paced games and attract communities seeking relaxed, cosy vibes. Games like The Sims, Stardew Valley and Pokémon proliferate; Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a key title. And both the introduction of the tag and the popularity of these games have led to a 10 percent increase in hours spent watching cozy game streams from September 2020 to September 2021.
Reaction to the new content has been positive from both long-time and lapsed players.
"The new update is incredible! As a huge Happy Home Designer (3DS) fan, I had only dreamed that we'd get a sequel one day," says Toph, a regular Animal Crossing streamer.
"I'm so happy a lot of new players can now experience Happy Home Paradise because it presents so many opportunities to grow creatively. My favourite thing about the DLC is that all players get the same design prompts but the way we all approach them is so different. Isn't that just so fun?"
Toph is satisfied with the amount of content that's been added. "I personally think Nintendo has done a lot with New Horizons," he says. "We had to wait a bit, yes, but the amount of content and freedom we have in the game is incredible. Especially now with Happy Home Paradise."
Streamer Ebonix, meanwhile, returned to the game after a hiatus.
"The update definitely did breathe life back into the game as after many hours of binging it, it became quite hollow and pointless at times," she says.
"I actually started afresh again with a brand new island. I was able to relive the experience of it being a new game again, which brought really nostalgic feelings that I had last year. And then with the excitement of the update, as well as the DLC, it truly felt like a new game."
In particular, the DLC allows players to be creative, beyond the usual daily activities. And that's certainly added to the game's long term appeal.
"It's a forever game isn't it? You can play for hours and get lost in it," says Ebonix. She also highlights Nintendo's timing and the game's mental health benefits.
"Now, with the update, which falls around the time when a lot of people experience SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), I've personally found it as respite and it actually supports me through low moments.
"The game has really been a support mechanism for a lot of us, with and without mental health needs, and was absolutely a game that kept on giving over the last 20 months with their seasonal updates that allowed us to enjoy the change of seasons with events and more."
Toph hasn't stopped playing the game since its release, though he admits "it's definitely a game that relies heavily on the player as far as making content goes which is why I think some people struggle with streaming it for long periods of time or as their main game."
Toph has two islands, three characters, and regularly engages the community with island visits and "dreamie hunts" to keep viewers entertained. The update and DLC has only added to that.
"I guess I've always felt like my Animal Crossing streams are fun and fresh each day simply because I genuinely love playing it," he says.
Streamer Biggus Bennus, meanwhile, is prolonging the longevity of the game even further with his own creation: hardcore mode.
"It was a bit tongue in cheek to start with," he says, "but I've given myself some stipulations to follow to make it a little more challenging and to make it last longer as well." He was inspired by Pokémon and The Sims players who frequently push the boundaries with nuzlockes and challenges.
The core tenants of his hardcore mode are: no time travelling, no outside help, and no terraforming "so you have to deal with everything that you've got." But that's just the beginning. A longer set of rules includes specific daily activities, allowing villagers to leave whenever they ask, and always trading with villagers when requested.
Completing the challenge means collecting all Nook Mile stamps - not only a long undertaking without outside help, but requiring at least two years considering there's a stamp for 100 KK Slider visits which only happen once a week.
Returning to Animal Crossing has also allowed Biggus Bennus to reconnect with his Twitch community.
"I fell off it a little bit even though it was the game that brought a lot of the community together," he says. "I was a variety streamer just playing whatever and as soon as Animal Crossing came out I got really hooked on to it. The community grew really quickly so being able to go back to that and reconnect with a lot of people who had drifted apart or had gone on to other communities or moved on, it was great to see them pop back in after they saw I was playing it."
It's admittedly a bit disappointing that Nintendo has now ceased support for the game. "Happy Home Paradise is great, but it's free money if they wanted to make any more!" quips Biggus Bennus. And both Ebonix and Toph have further requests and improvements they'd love to see, like more items, fruit, custom design slots, and villager interactions.
For now, though, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is as expansive as it's ever been, attracting a second wave of players. It proves that, despite the apparent luck of releasing during a pandemic, Nintendo's franchise is still full of magic.
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