Animal Crossing; Nintendo’s Unlikely Pandemic Star

 by Emma Pope

To the majority of Western players, the name Dõbutsu no Mori is entirely meaningless, yet is spawned a franchise that includes one of the bestselling video games of all time. Over 3 years after Dõbutsu no Mori’s initial Japanese release, the Nintendo GameCube title Animal Crossing released to immediate critical acclaim. On paper, a game where the main objective is to simply live life and pay off your debts seems more like a chore simulator than a game; what is it then that appeals to so many people? How did a life simulator about completing fetch quests and catching bugs spark the imagination of millions of people across the world?

In total, the Animal Crossing franchise spans nine games, four spinoffs and five mainline entries. Each game has built on the features of its predecessors, beginning with the first game which was initially released as a Japan exclusive Nintendo 64 title. Notably, it was the only N64 cartridge that featured a built-in clock, which the game required to run in real time, with in-game changes taking place based on the time and seasons. In many ways this effectively locked how much you can do each day. The original game was then ported to the GameCube as Dõbutsu no Mori+, the version which served as the base for Western localisations. At the time, it was Nintendo’s largest translation project, as a number of cultural references and holidays had to be completely altered for the Western market. Some of these international featured were re-added to Japan’s version of the game, and it rereleased as Dõbutsu no Mori e+. This first game sported some exclusive features, such as Gameboy connectivity and in game items that allowed you to play certain classic NES games if acquired. In this first version, things were still very simple and the main goal was simply upgrading your house, decorating it and paying off your debts to local tanuki (a Japanese racoon dog) Tom Nook, who sold you the house. You could have up to 15 anthropomorphic villagers in your town at a time, the initial version of which have much meaner dialogue than later games - a feature some players miss. The next instalment was released on Nintendo’s bestselling console, the DS – titled Animal Crossing: Wild World. For the first time, players could visit each other's towns over the internet.  Animal Crossing returned to the home consoles with Animal Crossing: City Folk (known as Let’s Go to the City in some territories) on the Wii. It featured motion controls, increased clothing pattern customisation and a new city area. At Animal Crossing: New Leaf’s 3DS release, it was the most revolutionary entry in the series. For the first time, the player was put in the position of mayor, giving them additional customisation powers. Every version of the game, particularly New Leaf, have had countless other notable changes that I don’t have time to discuss here. Following a delay, and approaching 8 years since New Leaf’s release, Animal Crossing: New Horizons launched worldwide (becoming the first game in the franchise with a universal release date) on the Switch on the 20th of March 2020 – unbeknownst to Nintendo, almost the perfect time.

New Horizons follows in many of the footsteps of its predecessors. The players character(s) remains the only human in a town of anthropomorphic animals (‘villagers’). Time is spent collecting various resources for bells (the games currency), which in turn can be used to pay off loans or buy things to customise their appearance and home. There are insects, fish and fossils to collect and donate to the local museum (run by an owl), item sets to complete and various festivals and seasonal events to take part in – these usually coincide with real life celebrations such as Christmas (or ‘toy day’ in game). However, three major additions set New Horizons apart from the games it followed. A new crafting mechanic was implemented, allowing players to use their gathered materials to make some of their own tools and items. Rather than setting the game in a pre-established town, New Horizons has the player purchase an island getaway package (provided by Tom Nook) - jetting them away to start a new life on a deserted tropical island. This new setting certainly helped with the escapism of the game as so many people missed out on holidays and the outdoors during lockdowns. The initial emptiness of the island also served to give the player complete and utter control – allowing them to choose the location of every house, shop and item. Players could now place down any furniture item outdoors, and as the game progressed, terraforming tools could be unlocked, meaning players could even shape cliffs and rivers. This feature set, alongside the removal of set genders for items and hairstyles, created customisation opportunities like never before. As stay at home orders set in, people found themselves with far more free time, and quickly sought out comfort and solace – for some it presented itself in the form of virtual islands. The timing of the game’s release certainly contributed to its success, and it released to critical acclaim and has surpassed the sales of every previous Animal Crossing game combined. Currently, it’s sitting at 33 million sales, making it the 15th bestselling video game of all time.

Clearly the circumstances of the world when the game released benefited It, people not only had more time to play but were also forced to use online tools more creatively. For one, sales soared, including those of the Switch console and its Animal Crossing variant – both of which were regularly out of stock and scalped online for double RRP. The ban on most social gatherings left people desperate to connect with others, and the world of Animal Crossing lent itself to virtual gatherings perfectly. Players used it to host graduations, weddings and birthdays online, as well as simply hang out with friends. Brands also quickly jumped on the opportunities the games popularity provided, using the in-game pattern and clothing design tools to bring their own clothing lines into the game; sports teams, Marc Jacobs and even brands like Microsoft had designs available. KFC, Montray Bay Aquarium and Klarna amongst others all also attempted to provide unique and interactive experiences through the game in order to attract consumer attention. There was even a talk show (‘Animal Talking’) streamed live on Twitch and recorded directly within Animal Crossing, with guests such as Selena Gomez, Brie Larson and Cavetown all making appearances. Online content creators found plenty of content within the game, hosting tournaments for charity, partaking in island tours (both their own and those of fans) and even recreating the entirely of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton in game, song by song. Like most things in life, the game couldn’t escape an element of politics, as the Joe Biden administration created various designs in support of his campaign. In China, the game’s role in democracy activism saw it banned in the mainland.  

Despite the games near perfect scores at release, New Horizons faced controversies and criticisms in retrospective coverage. One of which was the games underground black market, which involves the selling of in game items for real money – often on websites like Ebay. This breaks Nintendo’s terms of service, but was still a wide spread practice as players became desperate to get their hands on bells, nook mile tickets (an item commonly used in lieu of bells in trading, or for when searching for villagers), rare items and crafting recipes or villagers. The most glaring example of this desire is the frenzy created over a villager introduced in New Horizons, Raymond – the business cat with heterochromia (two different coloured eyes). Technically, no villager in the game is programmed to be any rarer than another villager, but trying to find one specific villager in a pool of over 400 can be time consuming and tedious. Combine the novelty of a new villager, who subsequently lacked an amiibo card at launch (a physical trading card that allows you to summon a villager to your island) with his perceived cuteness and you’ve got a gold rush. With how quickly every offer for Raymond was snapped up, his prices on online trading sites such as Nookazon (a play on Tom Nook and Amazon) were sent sky high – and this was just on sites that only operate with in game items. The internet will always have strange fixations, and in this case, the obsession with dressing up a cat in a maid dress drove many to spend money and fuel a veritable illegal trade. As time went on, the game also faced criticism for its lack of long-term content, particularly at release. Despite its extensive customisation options, it failed to bring about the return of many series staples. Whilst post launch patches have seen the restoration of some beloved NPCs (non-player characters), many remained missing for well over a year. A number of items and furniture sets also appeared to get the axe, most controversially, the froggy chair – an item that had become a popular online meme. This initial lack of content and increased play time did result in many players experiencing burn out. Animal Crossing is a franchise intended to be played in short time increments across a series of months or years, not dozens or hundreds of hours that players sunk in, in a matter of weeks or months. Although progress in the game is partly locked behind the progression of time, players desperate to continue playing simply alter their switch’s internal clock – this is a hotly debated topic known as ‘time travelling’. Couple time travel with the ease of accessing almost any item and unlimited resources through online communities, sometimes almost instantly practically destroyed the intended slow-paced progression of the game. Eventually many players found themselves with nothing else to do or collect and abandoned the game or heavily considered resetting all their hard work.

 Fortunately, a good amount of the features previously considered missing: including, but not limited to, a café run by a pigeon, gyroids (small collectible statues) and art pieces returned with post game updates. This article was inspired by the version 2.0, the last major New Horizons update that released on November 5th. This update is monumental for the game, providing the return of sorely missed NPCs and features as well as a swathe of new content, including new things to do, plenty of new items to buy (marking the return of the froggy chair) and sixteen new villagers to befriend. The update also launched alongside Animal Crossing’s first paid DLC (downloadable content); acting as a sequel to the 3DS spinoff game Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, Happy Home Paradise gives you the ability to design holiday homes for various villagers. It retains the themes of the original (where you designed full time residences rather than holiday homes) but integrated it into New Horizons tropical island theme. And rather than being a separate game, Happy Home Paradise is an extension of the main game, being fully accessible from your current save file, with skills and features that are unlocked being usable back on your main island. You are tasked with meeting the demands of each villager’s brief, now including allowing two characters to share one home – the villagers can include special NPC villagers whose homes never usually appear in game. Eventually, the ability to remodel the main homes of your island residents is unlocked, only furthering the total and utter creative control you can have over every aspect of your virtual island paradise.

The popularity of the Animal Crossing franchise has propelled it outside of its own games, a version of the villager character is playable in Super Smash Bros Wii U and Ultimate – Nintendo's fighting games that pits video game icons against each other. The games are also referenced in earlier Smash Bros iterations, and also feature in Mario kart 8 as only one of 4 non-Mario franchises. Two racers (the villager and Issabelle – the beloved secretary dog who debuted in New Leaf) and a race track based on Animal Crossing were released as part of DLC. Animal Crossing also has other media, including comic book spin offs, the aforementioned collectible amibo cards and a little-known anime film that never received an official English dub. Physical merchandise is also widely available, including a collaboration with Build a Bear workshop.

 In the midst of a pandemic, New Horizons served as a vital escape for millions of players. In many ways it came at a perfect time, and its legacy as the game of the covid-19 pandemic will undoubtedly follow it and its franchise for years to come.


  1. Great article. As a family myself, my husband and my 6-year-old all really enjoy playing Animal Crossing and enjoy the Nintendo crossovers. The recent update has been a nice refresh of content to keep us playing. Like you say, it has been a great escape and kept us busy during the Lockdown.


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