What Animal Crossing Left Behind

I have played every Animal Crossing game throughout my life. I started with the original on the GameCube when I was but a small child after seeing a mysterious Tom Nook trophy in Super Smash Bros. Melee. Since that game, I was hooked. I played every new game after it came out for months on end. I was very excited, albeit slightly concerned about some of the changed New Horizons brought to the series. I’ve been elated to see how well it’s been doing and how it’s made Animal Crossing one of Nintendo’s big hitter franchises. It’s now 2021, and I believe I’ve finished playing the game by starting the new year within it.

Since finishing playing it and looking back on my time with it, I’ve realized some ideas that I wanted to put down into words. I feel that Animal Crossing has made attempts to improve itself in numerous ways, some of it good, but some of it loses what made the series so charming and interesting in the first place.

To start, let’s go over what major additions came into each game in terms of customization and quality of life changes. Wild World, the second game in the series, added a huge amount of player customization. In the original game, you could only have one hat and shirt shape, and change their pattern loosely. Men had what my family called a Viking hat, and women had what appeared to be a conical classic fairytale princess hat. In Wild World, different hats and hairstyles were added. New Leaf would continue this personal customization even further, allowing different kind of clothing (pants, skirts, dresses) to be changed regardless of starting gender and having different shoes altogether (in City Folk you could get them shined to different colors). New Horizons allows for even MORE customization, with items like backpacks. It also allowed players to choose their skin color, a feature which technically was first introduced in Happy Home Designer.

As the series progressed, it also became easier to customize the town. Originally the player started off as just a resident of a town. The only real customization a player was in control of was naming the town, but New Leaf decided to make the character (the first player to make a save, anyway) the mayor of your town. As mayor, one is allowed to do a lot more with what they labelled City Ordinances. You can beautify the town with projects adding things like benches, lamp posts, and even items like lighthouses. On top of that you can select where certain buildings, like the Post Office, go. New Horizons goes even further, allowing the first player, now called the island representative, to select where practically all buildings, including island residents, now will go. Anyone can put any furniture item wherever they want, and eventually you will get the chance to terraform the island, allowing for a landscape, within the parameters of the beach (which cannot be changed) to look however one desires.

Certainly, all these changes are convenient. I’ve heard many a story of a friend who played the original Animal Crossing and had a town where Nook’s Cranny was on the opposite side of a river from the Able Sisters, but a river was all the way on the opposite side of town. Or a story about how annoying it was to have to walk all around town to these out of the way areas simply to talk to all the villagers. With New Horizons, all those issues are a thing of the past. Buildings can be placed all close together for maximum simplicity. Perhaps they can be spread out in just the right way to create maximum prettiness–surround the museum with a river so it fits just right.

However, I would argue that the added town customization features are actually to the player’s detriment. While they add convenience, yes, they remove central themes and ideas the series was founded with. The original Animal Crossing’s uniqueness, amongst many other simulation-type games, is its rigidness. You can customize yourself and your house. The town is as it was when you got there, because it is a living breathing being as much as you are and all the other residents. One person does not a village make, and Animal Crossing was all in on this concept. You could change practically nothing about the town’s visual appearance, with weed pulling and Nook’s store expanding being the sole exceptions.

The point of the original Animal Crossing is that you’re a stranger moving to a new and unusual place. The decision to make you a human living amongst animals is the first obvious exploration of this idea. The animals had a tendency to be relatively rude, or at least short, with you when you first move. You’re suddenly saddled with debt and a job. The layout is bizarre and foreign (and randomized for every individual town). It’s as if you’ve moved to a preexisting place with a history behind it. You’re the new kid on the block.

Eventually, though, you’ll get used to it. New villagers will move in and you’re suddenly not the newbie in town. The town’s layout become recognizable and familiar, even if it does have quirks. They’re YOUR towns quirks. Your villagers open up with you more and become friendlier and more trusting. You adapt to life there.

The town and its identity is integral to the feeling Animal Crossing is attempting to get across to the player. It’s about how adaptation; it’s about how sometimes you’re not meant to be in control of everything; it’s about how it’s okay to get used to some quirks in life. Nobody’s life is perfect, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. Its philosophy is simple–child-like almost. It’s a simple coming-of-age story about maturation, as told by thrusting you into something new and unusual and waiting for you to adapt.

By focusing on giving the player more control of the town all that is thrown out the window. Animal Crossing stops being about you learning and growing based on the world around you and becomes about you being the center of attention. The town (an island in New Horizons, but I’ll still refer to it as a town for simplicity’s sake) is yours to command. Build a bridge wherever is most convenient, or even get rid of an annoying river altogether. It’s no longer a town, but a diorama to show off. Everyone has become excited to ‘show off their town’ when other people come over, to demonstrate how interesting or fun they were able to lay it out.

Now obviously, this new approach resonates with people. Each new installment seems to be doing better and better, with New Horizons specifically selling like gangbusters. But I personally feel that continuing to go down this route, allowing the player to feel more and more like a god, weakens Animal Crossings identity. The town and its inhabitants are no longer their own; they are but props for you to show yourself off.

And this is strange to me, because these new games have already done a lot to customize a player’s individuality. I love all the personal customization one can do with their avatar. Just like in real life, the things you can change are yourself and your house. These additions I welcome with open arms. The variety of character customization really allows one to feel unique and represented.

The point of your house in the original Animal Crossing, was to be your customization area. It’s where you showed your flair. In that game, the big thing to show to your friends was not your town, but your place of residence within it. You are still an individual with style and your own self, and that’s wonderful. Your house gets to become part of the town. Your own individuality is wonderful and allowed to be in the town. You don’t have to change who you are to ‘fit in.’ Animal Crossing always wanted that to be apparent. That’s why your house felt to special in the original game.

I feel like I’ve been rambling about Animal Crossing for a while now, and I’m not sure how eloquently I’ve stated my points and reasoning. Perhaps someday in the future I’ll revisit this topic and be able to state my mind much more clearly. But, to sum it up, I believe that New Horizons, and the Animal Crossing series in general, has decided to allow for customization and ease of play to trump themes and growth, which I feel were what made Animal Crossing special in the first place. There are many life sim games out there, and Animal Crossing is losing what separates it from the others.

What Animal Crossing Left Behind.