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The latest entry in Nintendo's long-running life sim series was a ray of sunshine in a gloomy year.
Over the next week, we will be posting features for what we've nominated to be the best games of 2020. Then, on December 17, we will crown one of the nominees as GameSpot's Best Game of 2020, so join us as we celebrate these 10 games on the road to the big announcement. Be sure to check out our other end-of-the-year coverage collected in our Best Games of 2020 hub.
It's become cliche at this point to remark on Animal Crossing: New Horizons' fortuitous timing, how it arrived at exactly the right moment to ease us through the first few, uncertain months of a world-changing pandemic. And yet, it's impossible to view the game without also looking at the circumstances surrounding its release. More than any other title that launched this year, Animal Crossing felt like a panacea to 2020. Just as the COVID-19 virus began surging uncontrollably and forced many parts of the world into lockdown, suddenly shattering daily norms and routines that we had all taken for granted, here came this wholesome, candy-colored bit of escapism--this digital playpen where your next-door neighbor is a fitness-minded penguin and your biggest concern is whether the sofa you just purchased matches the rest of the decor in your living room.
Given these circumstances, it's easy to see why Animal Crossing became such an immediate, inescapable hit, particularly during the first half of the year. As an unprecedented pandemic upended our collective sense of normalcy, the game offered a welcome bit of respite, a chance to socialize with friends virtually and revel in the mundanity of daily life that was now being denied to us. Of course, this in itself is hardly novel; many other games also serve as a virtual social space where you can hang out and pass time with friends. But what made Animal Crossing hit differently is its emphasis on the smaller, unceremonious aspects of daily activities: the joy of checking out what new items are in stock at the store; the small thrill of seeing town hall swap out its fall decorations for Christmas lights; the satisfaction of reeling in a new type of fish not yet on display in the museum.
What gives these little moments their resonance is the same thing that has set Animal Crossing apart from other life sims since the series' inception: its real-time clock. Animal Crossing unfolds according to the date and time set in your system, so it follows a much more measured rhythm than other games, even within its genre. Days and seasons pass in the game just as they do in real life, while stores open and close at specific hours. Pop into your village at 10 PM, for instance, and you'll miss your chance to peruse that day's wares, forcing you to come back the next day (unless you don't have any scruples about setting your system's clock back).
New Horizons is a warm hug of a game that has helped many a player find digital refuge from the relentless torrent of this year's woes.
This deliberate pace extends into how slowly the game metes out its features. When you first arrive on your island, you'll find no amenities beyond Tom Nook's makeshift resident services tent. As you return each day, however, your island home will gradually blossom; new villagers will move in and new facilities will slowly open up, which in turn will give you access to a richer array of things to do and see. In a time when many video games are all too eager to indulge in instant gratification, the boldest thing a game can ask you to do is wait--and as Animal Crossing illustrates, there's value in taking things day by day.
What truly elevates New Horizons are all the smart ways it builds upon the series' formula. While past games have always offered some degree of customization, New Horizons is the first to give you free rein over every decision. Not only can you now place furniture and other items outdoors, but you can also handpick the exact spot where other villagers move in and even edit the very landscape itself. New Horizons is the first Animal Crossing game to truly embrace customization, presenting players with a veritable canvas that they can color however they please. This makes the experience much more personal and rewarding, and watching your island home gradually develop into a proper village feels immensely gratifying in a way few other games can replicate.
Customization isn't the only area where New Horizons improves upon its predecessors. Nintendo has made numerous other tweaks and refinements to the gameplay, both large and small. The ability to dig up and replant trees, for instance, is a welcome boon, as is the increased inventory space you have in your pockets and at your house. Tying these disparate elements together are the new crafting and Nook Miles systems. The former lets you fashion furniture, clothing, and other items out of the various materials you can gather around your island, while the latter doles out reward points for all kinds of actions, from chatting up a certain number of villagers each day to even getting stung by wasps. Thanks to these systems, every item in the game--even seemingly useless ones like weeds and trash that you can fish up out of the river--and every action you take has a purpose, feeding back into a satisfying gameplay loop.
More than anything, though, what makes New Horizons a special game is its irresistible charm. Watching a villager plop down in front of a tree to read a book or break out into a spontaneous song in the town plaza--these little moments are endlessly endearing and never cease to put a smile on your face. New Horizons is a warm hug of a game that has helped many a player find digital refuge from the relentless torrent of this year's woes. There have been many excellent games over the past 12 months, but none of them will be as inextricably associated with 2020 as New Horizons.