Twenty years ago, the world was introduced to an animated raccoon (OK, technically a tanooki) real-estate investor, general store owner and probable mob boss. To say it was a simpler time would be an oversimplification, but there was a certain expectation for what a video game could be that Animal Crossing didn’t quite fit into. Gaming was no longer in its infancy, and when Animal Crossing was released on GameCube (and, in some regions, Nintendo 64) in 2001, it helped to usher in a new kind of player base, and the dawn of endless games were born.
Animal Crossing wasn't the first game to give ambiguous goals and forego a central plot in lieu of making the game infinitely fun for months and years as players shop for items, water flowers, and catch fish. The year before, The Sims hit PCs around the world, and games like Harvest Moon helped generate interest in farming sims that continue to be immensely popular years later, helping to inspire modern games like Stardew Valley. But there was something unique and everlasting about Animal Crossing that made it one of Nintendo's most universally loved IPs. Countless players who aren't traditional gamers got into Animal Crossing, and more recently, as pandemic lockdown orders soared around the world, copies of Animal Crossing: New Horizons kept selling, making Switch consoles incredibly difficult to find. This popularity has kept the series going on most major Nintendo consoles since the GameCube, though with differing results of success.
Some Animal Crossing Games Are Better Than Others
Like most franchises, not all Animal Crossing games are created equal. The original was part of an early generation of games that helped usher in a world that accepted games of attrition, but each sequel brought much-needed improvements and quality-of-life adjustments. Remember when your islanders would move out without notifying you, or you'd get yelled at if you didn't play for a few months? Not to mention the weeds. Oh man, the weeds. Even the multiplayer back then was difficult, with you or a friend needing to physically plug in your Animal Crossing memory card. Oh yeah, back then the game actually came with a memory card because the save file was so huge. But still, it had this multiplayer component, and assuming you had friends who also owned the game it was easy to play together, allowing you to have scavenger hunts, trade items, fish together and so much more in-game while sitting next to each other. This made the early 2000s a great time to own a Gamecube.
In 2008, Animal Crossing: City Folk came to the Wii and added a city shopping center to help make the world feel more lived-in. It also added the option to talk with friends over the temperamental Wii Speak accessory and even visit villages over the internet for the first time. This made it possible to more easily collect limited-edition items, secure exotic fruits, and decorate the home any way you like. Like its predecessor, City Folk provided countless hours of enjoyment no matter what your end goals were, whether you wanted to pay down your home loan as quickly as possible or commit to filling the museum.
About four years later Nintendo launched the first portable version of the game with Animal Crossing: New Leaf, which gave you more control over the town by making you the mayor. Each game offered new improvements, more collectibles, and more customization options. New Leaf continued the tradition of the endless game but giving you even more to do year over year with public works projects and other customizations. For the first time ever you could build bridges, inclines, and even move the location of your home. You weren’t given any of the limitations of the previous games and you were able to make your town something that you truly loved. Plus, with the benefit of it being on the 3DS players were able to play anywhere, anytime, adding to the infinite possibilities that the Animal Crossing series provides. You could actually participate in holidays like Christmas and New Year’s from anywhere -- you didn’t need to plan to be home (or time travel) to score any of the items exclusive to these events. These improvements helped sales for the series soar, with New Leaf becoming one of the top-selling Nintendo 3DS games of all time.
The longer the series has been around, the more success it seems to enjoy. The original game on Nintendo GameCube sold just over two million copies. Gradually those numbers improved with each sequel, and to date, New Horizons has sold over 31 million copies worldwide. More than 1 in 3 Nintendo Switch owners has Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and that’s an insane install base for a piece of software.
Who wouldn't want to take a vacation with the Nook Deserted Island Getaway Package and build an entire community from scratch? For the first time, nothing was set in place, and you were able to select everything from home and shop locations to even building rivers, lakes, and cliffs. New Horizons gives you more to do than ever before. It personifies the concept of an endless game by allowing you to make over your island time and time again, and many players do. Whether you're flooding your island to be open ocean or expertly recreating locales from Legend of Zelda games, you'll likely not run out of ways to keep yourself entertained with Animal Crossing. And even if terraforming isn't for you, the revolving series of updates and seasonal events are sure to hold your interest. Speaking of which…
Something New Every Month, Every Season
Some games have DLC, limited-time events, or updates to keep you coming back for more. Nintendo took this concept with Animal Crossing and turned these updates into seasonal events. Not only are there holidays and in-game festivals to enjoy, but even the fish and insects in the game change with the seasons, constantly giving you reasons to come back for more. Players sink hundreds and thousands of hours into these games. They come from all ages, from all social circles, and their one common attribute? They love being in fictional debt to an adorable raccoon (er, tanooki). This is true whether you're an 87-year-old grandmother playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf for over 3,500 hours or an 8-year-old playing their first Animal Crossing game.
Animal Crossing is a game that you can put down for months or even years, but there's always a force to pull players back in—a fishing tourney, limited-edition Super Mario items, or even a particular bunny that most players have come to despise. These limited-time events and more add to the endless nature of this game, making it something you can return to over and over and over. Even today, you can easily power up your Gamecube if you have one and visit your original village to see how things have changed, or pop into New Leaf to start a new public works project. Plus, Animal Crossing puts the power into player's hands more than other franchises. There really aren’t any mandatory objectives. Even in The Sims you have bills to pay, and your character needs to eat, sleep, and use the bathroom. All of these are optional in the world of Animal Crossing! Which makes this the perfect game for those looking for true escapism.
Animal Crossing has Done Wonders for Mental Health
Those who grew up with Animal Crossing know that it was the perfect game to turn to when the world became hectic or stressful. This became especially true when New Leaf was released on the 3DS, giving us a portable version for the first time, and that continues with New Horizons. Now, getting away to a tropical island is as easy as taking your Switch out of your backpack. Your villagers are always happy to see you, Isabelle is always there to recount her personal TV habits, and your home is yours to customize and decorate as you please. There is no pressure to win, or get better, or defeat a challenging boss. This is why so many non-traditional gamers have gravitated toward Animal Crossing since the beginning —it gives them a relaxing and engaging experience that they don't need to travel very far to obtain, or commit hours to learning complex game mechanics (looking at you, Monster Hunter). It's extremely simple to pick up and start playing, no matter how inexperienced you are, and this remains true even 20 years later. Since the very beginning, Animal Crossing has been a prime example of what an endless game could be, and with each new iteration, players are delighted with more options and customizations to make their towns truly their own.
This is what makes Animal Crossing such an effective series for combatting anxiety and stress. Even if you can't afford a home in the real world, you can afford anything you like in Animal Crossing if you catch some fish and bugs, sell some fossils, and invest in turnips. It makes obtaining a comfortable life possible for everyone, even if it's in a fictional world. But just because a world is fictional doesn't mean it isn't as tangible or important as the one we wake up in every day.
Animal Crossing has been delighting fans for two decades now, and it continues to be a driving IP for Nintendo every time a new game in the series is released. Now can we just please get Tom Nook as a playable character in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate?
What's your favorite Animal Crossing game? What are some of your favorite memories from playing over the past couple decades? Let us know in the comments