Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ latest free update is available today, paving the way for February’s Festivale event. With the game’s next DLC not coming until March, fans now face an unthinkable reality: They’ve now seen almost everything the game has to offer.
As strange as it sounds, the game’s one-year anniversary isn’t too far off at this point. Animal Crossing games tend to cycle between a set of holiday celebrations, which means that players will once again be on the same track they were on a year ago. And yes, that means it’s already time to break out another round of memes for the much-criticized Bunny Day event.
With a loop looming, Nintendo has a huge challenge ahead when it comes to keeping its life simulator relevant. If New Horizons is going to be the kind of game that keeps players engaged throughout the Switch’s life span, it’ll need some big changes that go beyond repeating holidays. Here’s just a few of the ways Nintendo can freshen the experience up heading into year two.
Holidays are important in any Animal Crossing game, as they provide easy touchstones for players to latch onto. They create a mental calendar that reminds players when they should log in. That’s baked into even the smallest parts of the game, like K.K. Slider’s weekend visits, but holiday events provide a primary reason to dust off the Switch every month or so.
In its first year, Nintendo didn’t have to do much to make this flow click. With fans hungry for new content, simple activities like Wedding Season were enough to pique curiosity. Even if fans weren’t ultimately into each new event, they at least had something that felt new to see every month.
That’s where things get tricky heading into year two. Fans already know what these events look like and whether or not they like them. While lackluster events like Bunny Day still got fans to log in, it’s hard to imagine those who hated it feeling motivated to relive that — especially if they already collected all of the egg-themed rewards.
Holidays need to feel different this time around. That means altering what players do during them and offering some new cosmetics for participating. Museum Day, for example, shouldn’t simply ask players to do the same three-minute stamp-collecting minigame they’ve done before. The more a player’s island starts to feel like it’s running on automated patterns, the faster players will drop out.
Minigames might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the Animal Crossing franchise, but they’re an integral part of what makes it tick. Even going back to the original GameCube release, the game included fully playable NES games that gave players something to do in between chores.
That design philosophy pops up throughout the series and even fuels events like Bug Offs or neighborly quests. It’s easy to fall into set routines with Animal Crossing — and that’s when the game begins to lose its charm. Little events break up the monotony that comes from hitting rocks or watering flowers every single day.
While New Horizons has some smaller games baked into it, there’s still more it can do to expand those offerings. Animal Crossing: New Leaf’s Welcome Amiibo update provides a perfect template for how fresh side activities can liven the experience up. In addition to adding Amiibo support, the free 3DS update brought a self-contained board game to the mix. Desert Island Escape was essentially an island survival game where players have to collect enough resources to build a raft and escape.
While it wasn’t a groundbreaking addition, Desert Island Escape added a bit of liveliness to a game I had already played for 200 hours at that point. Rather than logging in every day to repeat the same set of chores, I felt like I had more options when it came to actually playing in the space. In its current state, New Horizons is missing something along those lines.
One of the bigger changes New Horizons’ made to the Animal Crossing formula was stripping down the number of shops players can visit in the game. While New Leaf and City Folk contained an entire plaza of retailers to bounce between, New Horizons strips that number down to a handful of buildings.
The decision to reverse that momentum remains one of the Switch game’s oddest choices. Rather than giving players a dedicated gardening shop or shoe store with rotating merchandise, non-player characters instead visit the island sporadically to sell goods. Miss the one day Kicks shows up and you may not have a chance to peruse his footwear for weeks.
Bringing additional merchants in the game has proven to be successful for New Horizons. Jolly Redd’s late arrival in the game expanded players’ museums and added another set of collectibles to chase. While Redd’s shop isn’t available every day, having something new to check in on every day helped expand the number of unique activities one can do in a session.
While New Horizons no longer needs spaces like New Leaf’s barbershop or comedy club, two shops seem like obvious additions. First, there’s Brewster’s Cafe, which brought a coffee-making minigame to New Leaf. Then there’s Re-tail, an upholstery shop run by two alpacas that allows players to buy and sell goods. While the shop’s crafting function is no longer necessary, giving players an official place to buy and sell goods would add another layer to its multiplayer component by letting players haggle with friends. Players have been doing makeshift versions of this since the game’s launch, so it seems like a no-brainer that would make fans particularly happy.
Those are just a few ideas that could entice players to come back in, but there are certainly more to dig into. From more town customization projects to capitalizing on the game’s flirtations with farming, Nintendo has plenty of options when it comes to freshening up the island living experience. Let’s just hope they come in time to soften the impending eggpocalypse.
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