The Evolution of Animal Crossing: What Went Wrong?

How has Animal Crossing changed throughout the years?
How has Animal Crossing changed throughout the years? / Photo via Ashley Cortez / Nintendo

"I got burned out of ACNH right around the end of summer 2020, five or so months after the game’s release," said New Horizons player Molly, "One day I just stopped playing and didn’t pick it up again for months."

Most Animal Crossing: New Horizons players can relate to this experience. The burnout that comes from the newest game in the series is one that many different people have felt, and many different bodies of work have explored. 

But why are people losing interest in this series that they've grown up with and come to love?

The Basics of Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing: New Horizons follows a character, created by the player, who moves onto a deserted island upon being prompted by Timmy and Tommy to sign up for Tom Nook’s Deserted Island Getaway Package.

The player is left in debt to Nook Inc., with Tom Nook providing them with a tent which is later turned into a house when they arrive. Other games in the series have followed a similiar premise, with the largest change being the location.

At its core, the game stays the same, but the newest adaptation lacks many features compared to previous entries in the series.

These are simple features, but they're ones that are essential to the Animal Crossing experience. 

With the last major update being announced on Oct. 15, 2021, players have been left disappointed. Considering how long many players waited between New Leaf and New Horizons, with only the mobile game Pocket Camp to tide them over, this is no surprise. Animal Crossing: New Horizons had huge potential in the player's eyes but seems to have fallen completely flat.

I took a look at some of the main games in the Animal Crossing series from Wild World to New Horizons and spoke to some fans of the series to learn more about its history.

Animal Crossing: Wild World (2005)

Wild World was released worldwide from 2005-2006 as the sequel to Animal Crossing on the Gamecube. This entry in the Animal Crossing Series was the 9th best-selling game on the Nintendo DS.

To make the game easier to localize, the developers decided that there would be no region-specific events. This meant that holidays such as Halloween, Christmas and the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival would be removed despite their existence in the previous game.

Many reviewers criticized this choice, with Nintendo World Report saying that the lack of familiar holidays was "lame" and that they "would have preferred it if Nintendo had included all of the holidays from previous versions and simply allowed players to pick their region."

One of the most praised aspects of Wild World was the fact that Nintendo was able to put an Animal Crossing game on a portable device. Of course, nowadays, that's not so amazing, but at the time the idea of a whole game fitting on something as small as a DS system was mostly unheard of.

Features that were newly introduced to the series with this edition of the game are as follows:

1. Online Play Through Nintendo Wi-Fi (Now Defunct)

Wild World brought in an upgrade to the Wi-Fi play. Players could invite up to three friends to their island through online play and could connect to nearby friends as well.

2. New Tools & Gold Variants

New tools were added to the game in this edition to the series. These tools were the Slingshot and Watering Can. Wild World added the Golden Slingshot and Golden Watering Can.

3. Replacement Holidays

Holidays were replaced in Wild World to make localization easier. They removed holidays such as Halloween and Toy Day. As a replacement, developers included new ones such as La-Di-Day, the Acorn Festival and Yay Day.

4. New Characters (Celeste, Brewster, Harriet)

New characters were added to Wild World. These characters included Celeste, who runs the observatory, Brewster, the barman, and Harriet, who runs a hair salon.

Animal Crossing: City Folk (2008)

City Folk, compared to its predecessor, tanked in sales. With the worldwide sales for City Folk being 3.38 million and Wild World being 11.75 million copies.

This, according to YouTuber voyan, is because many refused to give the game a chance due to the similarities between the two. Many felt that it was a rehash of Wild World, leading to a major drop in sales.

City Folk's release also added new features such as:

5. Moving in via Nintendo Wi-Fi

In City Folk, players were given two options upon moving into their town: they could start completely fresh or move in as their DS character. Moving in as their Wild World character allowed the players to keep their catalog and appearance from the previous game.

6. More Holidays

To make up for Wild World's cop-out when it came to holidays, City Folk would add Halloween, Toy Day (Christmas) and the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival back into the game. Other holidays added include the Harvest Festival (Thanksgiving) and Festivale (Mardi Gras/Carnival).

7. The City & Shopping District

City Folk added a whole new area for players to shop in. The city introduced shops such as Gracie Grace, Harriet's salon, and brought back favorites like Able Sisters clothing store and Timmy and Tommy's shop. Other shops included in The City were:

  • Kicks' Shoes
  • Crazy Redd's Art
  • Katrina's Fortune Shop
  • The Marquee with Dr. Shrunk

8. New Characters

Characters that were introduced to City Folk as "permanent shops" instead of rare visitors include Gracie the Giraffe, Redd the Fox, and Dr. Shrunk. Other characters added include Phineas the sea lion, Labelle, Lyle, and Kicks the skunk.

9. Wii Speak Compatibility (Now Defunct)

City Folk introduced the concept of the Wii Speak, which was one of the first gaming microphones introduced and connected to the Wii via USB. This feature was discontinued when Nintendo stopped supporting their Nintendo Wi-Fi on May 20, 2014.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf (2013)

Animal Crossing: New Leaf saw its release in 2013 alongside many spin off titles.

In Animal Crossing: New Leaf, the player would create a villager that would then be offered the position of mayor due to a supposed mix-up, or possibly,peer-pressure, depending on the dialogue chosen by the player.

For the first time ever in the series, players had complete control over their town and villagers. This included the ability to add new buildings, decorations, and more.

New Leaf's main street is similar in concept to City Folk's city area but was smaller in scale and had a few extra things to do.

The above video highlights some features from New Leaf that were either brand-new to the series, reworked, or just all-around notable.

The features that were introduced to the series via New Leaf include:

10. Town Customization

With New Leaf came the introduction of Public Works Projects, which let the player do crowd-funding projects with their mayoral powers. This also introduced town ordinances and the option to change the town tune, flag and more.

11. Main Street: New Buildings, Locations and Shops

With New Leaf came new places for the player to visit. One of the features added with these shops is home customization. These new locations include:

  • The Roost
  • Kicks
  • Re-Tail
  • Post Office
  • Kapp'n Island
  • Gardening Store
  • Photo Booth
  • Nook's Homes
  • Dream Suite
  • Club LOL
  • Happy Home Showcase
  • Nookling Junction
  • Gracie's Fashions

12. Clothing Customization

New clothing types were introduced, including pants, shorts and skirts.

13. New Villager Types

New villager types were brought into the game. These types were the hamster and deer villagers. The game also introduced the smug and sisterly personality types.

14. Wi-Fi Play

Wi-Fi play returned in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, letting players visit other players' towns and have visitors at their town. The Wi-Fi play for New Leaf is still active, which means players can still play online with friends.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020)

New Horizons was first announced at E3 2019 with it's very first trailer. The game was later released on Mar. 20, 2020 and took the entire world by storm.

Back in April of 2020, only a month after the game was put into the market, Forbes wrote an article titled ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ Dominates Twitter Conversation During Quarantine, which covers the look of Twitter during the peak of New Horizons content and the peak of the global pandemic.

“My Twitter feed is a weird one right now,” Dave Thier, a former Forbes contributor, wrote, “about 50/50 dire coronavirus updates coming from the real world and cheerful domesticity coming from most people’s alternate reality of choice: Animal Crossing: New Horizons.”

At the time, in both the US and Worldwide, ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ was the most-talked about game in online spaces.

Thier speculates the reason for this, saying, “The game is prettier than its predecessors, taking advantage of improved hardware on the Switch to render its idyllic scenes with a level of polish that translates much better to a feed than any other entry in the series. And the Switch also comes ready to go with a share button right there on the front: a post is only a couple of taps and a linked account away."

In New Horizons, the player is invited to a deserted island through Tom Nook’s Deserted Getaway Package, and they begin to live there and are allowed to shape the island as they please.

Some features that are brand-new to New Horizons are listed below:

15. Crafting and Furniture Customization

New Horizons introduced crafting to the mainline Animal Crossing series. The player can use the new workbench item to craft furniture, tools, and consumables like medicine and fish bait. Once the player does Tom Nook's customization workshop, the player can begin customizing certain items. For example, pillows patterns can be changed, and some wooden items can, too.

16. Better Player Customization

Unlike previous games, New Horizons has advanced player customization. The player no longer has to answer questions to get a random design and can now choose their skin, hair and eye color. They can also change their hairstyle straight from the beginning of the game.

After the creation of the island, the player can change these details anytime they want in a mirror or a dresser (for clothing). It also allows the player to add custom designs to their faces.

As of the release of the game, instead of picking "boy" or "girl", the player can now pick their "style", which allows them to choose from masculine or feminine styles.

A video demonstrating this feature can be viewed below.

17. New Buildings and Locations

New buildings were added to New Horizons, though they are reworks of previous features.

One building added was Resident Services, which is a rework of New Leaf's Town Hall. Dodo Airlines was added to replace the Train Station, which was no longer needed due to the location change from town to deserted island.

Another location added was Harv's Island. Its original purpose was to bring back Meow Coupons from New Leaf and Pocket Camp, but in the most recent update, it is used as a shopping area similar to The City and Main Street.

Prior to the 2.0 update, Harv's island was used as primarily a photo booth for Amiibos.

18. NookPhone

The NookPhone is the very first time cellphones have ever appeared in Animal Crossing. This feature is used to call Islanders, look up DIY recipes, collect Nook Miles, take pictures, and so much more.

19. Nook Miles

Introduced as a new currency, Nook Miles can be used to purchase items from the Nook Stop. These are collected by completing tasks like fishing, gardening, and catching bugs.

Compared to other games, New Horizons launched with fewer new features than previous games. 

Yasmin Mathewson, better known for her YouTube channel Yasmin's Corner, said, "In light of the 2.0 update releasing just over a month ago, I truly wish that the game had launched with many of these new features, or that we had been given them much sooner."

With what felt like so little content at the time of launch, coupled with the beginning of the pandemic where people suddenly had so much more time on their hands, players burnt through a lot of the in-game content faster than perhaps Nintendo intended.

Mathewson followed that up with saying, "As someone who makes content on Animal Crossing, I have recently been feeling a lot of burnout - despite the resurgence the game has had over the last month with the 2.0 update and DLC releasing."

After a fairly long wait between launch and any substantial updates for New Horizons, players had already burnt themselves out again, or had already moved past Animal Crossing.

“It’s natural to fall in and out of playing any game, so [burnout] isn’t a big downside. I think it says something that I’ve put way more hours into this game than any other Animal Crossing game,” Molly said, “Overall, I still love the AC series and it’s comforting to know I can go back to any of the games and pick up right where I left off! These games have definitely had a big impact on my life and my time growing up, so I’m glad they exist and have such a welcoming community.”

After a year, the last major content update was announced (see above) and even with select features brought back from New Leaf, there's still nowhere near enough content to make up for everything that the latest installment in the series is lacking.

On the topic of New Horizons’ development during an interview with CNET, Aya Kyogoku, Manager of Nintendo EPD Production Group No. 5, said, “...Animal Crossing is a game where you’re able to enjoy seasonal changes throughout the year, and it syncs with real time and through that you are able to basically sync your real life with the game. We want to make sure that in two years or three years down the road, players will still continue to find new surprises in the game…”

Given that it's a very vague statement, a lot of fans assumed that meant there would be updates for at least two or three years. Despite this, Nintendo seems to have completely dropped working on New Horizons outside of smaller updates.

New Horizons isn’t the only Animal Crossing Nintendo has been working on. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is a Nintendo mobile game that provides fans of the series a regular stream of content, though that content is heavily monetized.

The Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp Dilemma

Pocket Camp, released on iOS and Android in October 2017, is still going strong. In Pocket Camp, players are dropped into a world where they’re the camp manager and they have full control over their camp, which villagers live there, and the additions to their creative space.

The game was originally advertised by Nintendo as a “free-to-start” game, or “freemium” game.

Built in a freemium business model, a word which combines the words “free” and “premium”, Pocket Camp allows players to take part in the basic features of the app and then charges money for players to be able to participate in special, or “premium”, features.

“Pocket Camp is a mobile game through-and-through, and I mean that largely in the worst way possible,” says YouTuber Maddmike, “It does all of the ‘mobile’ things that make gamers revile the platform so much: a premium cash shop, timers, the ability to spend real-world currency to speed up said timers, and perhaps most insidious of all, how heavily it showers you in premium currency for free for the first couple of days to get you used to the luxury that is Leaf Tickets… only for that well to slowly dry up the longer you play.”

In Pocket Camp, players have free reign to decorate the camp they now own as much as they’d want and move in whichever villagers they want by becoming friends with them.

There are areas to explore like the beach, a waterfall, and more, where random villagers will show up once every three hours. 

Talking to villagers increases the friendship level. Some villagers may even give the player quests to collect certain items which also increases the friendship level and gives the player crafting items to craft furniture that each specific villager likes.

The problem with Pocket Camp is not exactly the way the game is built, but more so that Nintendo continues to service it and has been since 2017. And yet, they’re stopping service on what is arguably one of the most awaited Animal Crossing games in the mainline series.

The Problems with Animal Crossing: New Horizons

To preface, I am a huge fan of the Animal Crossing series. I’ve been playing since New Leaf and it’s been a staple in my life ever since I first got my hands on a 3DS. And, as someone who’s played the previous game, I can say that New Horizons just doesn’t feel the same.

While many fans love New Horizons and the series itself, they can also admit that they are disappointed with the place the series has gone. With the lack of content, the game feels incredibly shallow or, at the very least, surface-level.

A few issues that players have with New Horizons are as follows:

20. New Horizons' Island Progression

There’s only one store in New Horizons that allows for upgrades: Nook’s Cranny. The Nooklings store is where players can go to buy furniture, tools, their native fruit, and where they can sell items they don’t want anymore.

Nook’s Cranny starts off as a small store inside of the Resident Services tent. Players can buy and sell goods from Timmy and later build the Nooklings their own shop after completing certain objectives.

Unfortunately, the Nooklings store only has a total of two upgrades, which is a major letdown compared to previous games. The first upgrade takes place soon after the game starts, and only allows the player to give them a building to run their store in.

The second upgrade is one that is only slightly bigger in its expansion but has more stock. Still, it’s much less than shop upgrades in older Animal Crossing games.

21. Repetitive Villager Dialogue

Molly, who’s been playing Animal Crossing since Wild World, said, “...Compared to the previous games, the way the villagers talk feels bland. In other games, the villagers had very colorful dialogue and were much more expressive. In New Horizons, it seems like they sanded down the edges quite a bit to make the dialogue more palatable for a younger audience…”

Animal Crossing: New Horizons villagers are just, well, too nice. It’s unsettling sometimes due to how robotic that they feel when the player speaks to them.

A video by Crossing Channel on YouTube explains the difference perfectly, “...The villagers have really changed a lot and especially how they talk to you they're much, much nicer now… The villagers will not say anything mean to you whatsoever. They might leave some sort of comments that could be taken as mean but it's definitely not intentionally mean like it was in [Animal Crossing] or Wild World or even City Folk.”

The Evolution of the Animal Crossing Series
Villager's attitudes were on another level in Animal Crossing for GameCube / Photo via Reddit
The Evolution of the Animal Crossing Series
While "special" dialogue in New Horizons goes about as deep as this screengrab. / Photo via Screen Rant

22. Lack of Major Features on Launch

When New Horizons was released, it was missing a ton of features that many players considered integral to the series.

A few examples of this can be found within player experiences upon release.

In a post dated Sept. 2020 on r/AnimalCrossing, user Robertdudeman compiled a list of features still missing from Animal Crossing: New Horizons that were present in previous games.

Keep in mind, this list was made prior to the 2.0 update, which has since added a few of these missing features.

In the list, he said the following things were missing:

  • Fruit like bananas, lychees, durians, lemons and mangos.
  • Perfect Fruit
  • Brewster’s Coffee Shop
  • Reese and Cyrus’ furniture customization
  • Gyroids
  • Crystals from rocks
  • Tortimer Tours & Minigames

23. Meaningless (And Sometimes Endless) Dialogue

In previous Animal Crossing games, specifically New Leaf, NPCs like Blathers would get lost in thought while the player is speaking to him and go off on tangents about running the museum or about his sister. Sure, he still goes on tangents, but they’re never about anything that makes him feel like more of a full character.

In New Horizons, Blathers can tell you about the creature, fish, or fossil you’ve dropped off for him, but that’s about as deep as his character gets.

“All of the fun of interacting with [villagers] hinges on one simple thing: their written dialogue. And New Horizons easily brings some of the most dull and uninteresting dialogue of the franchise,” says YouTuber The Salt Factory in his video titled Animal Crossing New Horizons: The $60 early access game, "After the first week or so it becomes very apparent that they don't really have much to say. Having multiple villagers of the same personality type becomes grating as I listen to my first cranky villager tell me how his bones ache and then the next one says the exact same thing.”

Salt Factory brings up an example of this within Sahara's carpet and wallpaper shop.

The Salt Factory says, “The very slow and arduous process of interacting with certain NPCs only weighs the game down… Buying from Sahara is mind-meltingly slow: you talk to her, you pick out which rug you want, she tells you that's her favorite size and then you hand her bells. She hands you a rug, then she explains the ticket system. If you buy every size of rug, you repeat this process two more times.”

He brings up that this process is similar in the Able Sister’s shop, where the player can only purchase one type of item at a time. For example, if the player likes four different variants of a shirt or pair of pants, they can only purchase one variant at a time. To purchase all the ones they would like, they have to go through the mass amounts of dialogue just to get the item.

“...You go into the changing room, Mabel speaks to you, you pick out your shirt, you pay for it, the game asks you if you want to wear it out, you come out and then Mabel talks to you again. Then you do the whole thing over again for every color of shirt that you want.” He explains.

24. Social Media and Animal Crossing

While social media impacted the game in a positive way, there’s also negative factors in which the easy way to share Animal Crossing content via the Nintendo Switch has made the burnout a lot worse for some players.

“I think there can be a lot of pressure to be inspired to create things in-game to show to your audience,” says Mathewson, “but this is more of a 'me' problem than a problem with the game, I think.”

An example of this can be found within the embed video above. Many players post content like this, and while there isn’t necessarily a problem with this particular video, a lot of players also struggle to feel motivated to play when they can’t seem to create something similar.

In a video by Screen Therapy on YouTube, she says, “unlike any animal crossing game before, New Horizons has an online social media presence that is honestly daunting… So many advanced and extremely dedicated New Horizons players have Twitters, Instagrams, Pinterests, YouTube channels, Twitch streams and so on.”

Screen Therapy follows this up by saying, “While sharing our islands on social media is definitely very enjoyable for many players… many who haven't had the time, energy, or desire to clock in impressive hours into landscaping or farming bells and who might also still expect themselves to be extraordinary or exceptional in the game; all of this can take a toll quickly.”

This is a type of burnout called Upward Social Comparisons. This, according to media psychologists, can usually take place on social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. 

Psychologists define this phenomenon as, “When we engage in upward social comparison, we compare ourselves to someone who is (perceived to be or performing) better than we are.”

It takes a huge presence in, for example, when seeing someone around your age with a nice house, family, or on an expensive vacation, you can feel happy for them while also feeling a deep panic or belief that you don’t measure up.

“They, in their perfect social media presence which is edited for our eyes, always seem to be doing something meaningful or exciting while we're lying on the couch watching our favorite Netflix show for the third time,” Screen Therapy says, “These negative feelings all tie back to a sense that we just don't measure up with those that we see on social media or with friends in real life.”

The Problems with Animal Crossing Updates

The main issue with stopping major updates for Animal Crossing: New Horizons is that the game is still missing a ton of quality-of-life updates that players want.

“Crafting is a pretty central part of the game, with it being new to the series as of New Horizons,” Molly says, “but it takes a painstakingly long time to craft anything because of the lengthy dialogue menus you have to click through to craft just one item. It ends up feeling more like a chore than an accomplishment, especially if you have more than a few things you want to make.”

A few more examples of QOL updates players want include bulk buying items, making terraforming less tedious, better game mechanic explanations, consistent schedules for special NPCs, a way to store unused DIY recipes, and much more.

“Most people, including myself, assumed that after the holiday lineup was completed in the first year, this year’s updates would be more focused on fixing some of the game’s longevity issues," YouTuber Protendo says in his video The Problem With Animal Crossing New Horizons' Updates, “Some new shops to unlock, some new islands to visit, some new characters to interact with, etc. Instead, we’ve mostly gotten the opposite.”

Protendo claims that updates in New Horizons have been decreasing in quality ever since the beginning of 2021, which is a sentiment that many fans of the series share.

A few of the key issues with stopping major updates include how limited the progression and achievement of New Horizons is.

Protendo says, “In past Animal Crossing games, shop upgrades and unlocks were always something to look forward to. You’d visit someone else’s town or go online to see a massive, towering building to unlock and immediately set a goal for yourself to eventually upgrade your shop to that level no matter how long it took.”

With New Horizons, however, there is little to no progression. Shops can’t be upgraded besides the previously mentioned single Nook’s Cranny upgrade.

On the other hand, many new parts of buildings are just handed to the players. For example, the art gallery wasn’t originally included in New Horizons’ museum, but when Redd was added to the game, players could all of a sudden add it without completing anything beforehand. It removes any and all sense of achievement from gaining new things within the game.

“This isn’t progression. It’s being handed something by Nintendo on a silver platter,” Protendo says, “Any work that the player put in is invalidated by the fact that no work had to be put in.”

Is New Horizons Worth It?

At the end of the day, many fans of the Animal Crossing series still love the game despite its flaws.

“For me, the Animal Crossing series has always been a very comforting, cozy space. The first game I played was Wild World when I was around 8 or 9 years old, then New Leaf at age 13, and now New Horizons as an adult,” Molly said, “It’s a nice way to relax, escape the problems of the real world, and just have fun living a virtual life with a bunch of cute animal characters. You can pick the game up whenever you want and play for a few minutes, or a few hours, and take it at your own pace without the pressure to achieve an end-goal.”

While the 2.0 update added a lot of features from previous games that players wanted, it didn’t address the biggest problems the game had such as lacking quality of life updates and Nintendo announced that they're done with free major content updates. The kind of content they continuously add is the type of content that leaves players burnt-out and unfulfilled.

Not only that, but with the shallowness of newer iterations of the series, there’s a lot less content for players to take advantage of when it comes to villagers. Ever since the release of New Horizons, all players cared about is whether their villagers were cute or whether they weren’t, and if they weren’t, it was time to get rid of them. In older games, that superficial stuff didn’t really matter because the villagers actually had personality and it felt like you were friends with them.

Unfortunately, burnout is something that is just very likely to happen with games that require you to play once a day for a certain set of time. Like with Animal Crossing, a lot of the features are often ones that players will eventually get tired of, or feel are repetitive.

In the age of streaming and constant entertainment being available for players, getting bored and dropping games that you enjoy after a while of playing consistently is just a by-product of a passionate fanbase.

Mathewson said, “Overall, I think ACNH is a fantastic game (even if I don't think it's completely perfect); it was released at such a crazy time, what with lockdowns starting across the world. Personally, the game massively helped me through that scary and sometimes lonely time, and for that I will always be extremely grateful for it.”