Animal Crossing: New Leaf is celebrating its 10-year anniversary today, June 9, 2023. Below, we reexamine New Leaf next to the explosive popularity of its successor, New Horizons, and find appeal in the simpler approach.
It's no exaggeration to say that Animal Crossing: New Horizons changed everything for the once-sleepy life simulation series. Thanks in large part to the onset of the pandemic, New Horizons blew past the combined sales of all previous entries just six weeks after release, and it's sold more than 42 million copies so far. But though New Horizons garnered some well-deserved love from critics and fans alike, I've personally put more hours into its 3DS predecessor, New Leaf, which just turned 10 years old, which still stands as the best pure Animal Crossing experience.
New Leaf is the fourth entry in the Animal Crossing series, and it's fair to say that the game was considered a somewhat conservative evolution of what made the series so good in the first place. Prior to New Horizons, every new entry was essentially more of the same, with a few small twists to keep things interesting. Though that might sound like a criticism, the slow-paced life simulation offered by Animal Crossing doesn't need dramatic shifts to entice fans, especially when they wait a few years between releases.
New Leaf nails the fundamental aspects of Animal Crossing as a series, while adding a number of key enhancements that make it significantly better than its predecessor, City Folk. New Leaf's biggest gameplay change is that you're now the mayor of the village, rather than simply a new human citizen living among animal folk. This gives you the ability to create new fixtures in your town for hefty fees, including light poles, bridges, benches, and cafes. You can even pass "laws" that cause your village's businesses to be open later or earlier, depending on your personal whims.
When I first started playing New Leaf all those years ago, I found these increased responsibilities (as I interpreted them) to be bothersome at first. They struck me as antithetical to the "make your own fun" approach that made me fall in love with the series back on GameCube, and I ignored them for the most part in my early hours with the game.
However, as I got further into New Leaf, I realized that these tasks gave me more of a purpose beyond the furniture and fossil collecting of the previous entries in the series. When I played the original Animal Crossing games, I was a kid with seemingly infinite time on my hands--I could put in the hours to savor the measured charm of the series without worrying about bills or responsibilities. The various mayoral perks in New Leaf might cost an absolute ton of Bells, but they gave me something to work towards beyond a house payment--a thing that I begrudgingly admit I want in a modern Animal Crossing game. What's more, I realized that New Leaf simply had a depth of content that no other entry in the series could match at that point: more shops, more villagers, more events, more items.
However, that all changed with New Horizons. True to its name, it introduced a number of fresh mechanics to the formula, particularly those popularized by the survival genre, albeit with their sharp edges sanded off. These changes make it arguably the most innovative game in the series, for better and worse. Players are encouraged to craft their own furniture rather than waiting for Tom Nook's shop to stock their preferred items. The game strongly encourages hoarding recipes and key ingredients like lumber to craft the items you want. Hours into the game, players unlock the ability to terraform their islands, essentially giving them the freedom to completely change the face of their town as they see fit. Squint your eyes while you're chopping down yet another tree to collect enough of the right type of wood to build your favorite fence, and you might imagine one of Minecraft's creepers shuffling through your idyllic island.
At first, I embraced New Horizons with open arms. I have a deep, abiding love for the series, and when I jumped in, I hadn't put significant time into an Animal Crossing game in over five years. I wanted to love it, perhaps a little too much. As someone who generally doesn't enjoy survival games, I was conscious that many of the changes that Nintendo made were likely not made with me in mind, though I tried my best to get into it.
There's no doubt that I did enjoy my time with New Horizons on balance, but my complaints began to stack up from the opening hours. Whereas previous Animal Crossing games generally give you freedom to explore and do your own thing after just an hour or two of play, New Horizons slow-rolls its content behind days and days of tutorials that I found wearying, to say the least. I also felt that it took a long time to obtain furniture or recipes that were to my taste--I found myself sticking to the default gear that I could easily make for far longer than I wanted to simply because I didn't want to go out and cut down more trees.
It was New Horizon's first major event, Bunny Day, that really sapped my desire to continue with the game. Festive eggs replaced every other item in the game to an absurd degree--underground eggs, eggs in the trees, eggs dangling from balloons. (Nintendo even later apologized for this event.) It felt like a parody of itself. I forced myself to pull enough weeds and plant enough flowers for a five-star island, but once I achieved that, my desire to play hit a wall. Sure, I could use the Island Designer app to transform my island into my perfect paradise, but I just didn't have much of an urge to do that--I still barely had enough furniture to fill out my house. Frustrated, I abandoned New Horizons and reset my New Leaf town. And much to my surprise, I found myself enjoying the predecessor much more than its acclaimed sequel.
What's ironic about all this is that you can see the seed of many of New Horizon's ideas in New Leaf. The Switch game's Island Designer app is essentially just a super-sized version of New Leaf's Public Works Projects. For me, the problem is that New Leaf's PWP's felt like a series of goals I was working toward through the core of Animal Crossing--a daily handful of tasks, fishing, hanging out with my villagers--whereas the Island Designer is the whole of what New Horizons is about, buried beneath an endless hamster wheel of chores poached from Minecraft and other survival games. Previous Animal Crossing games had daily errands that weren't required, but gave the game a rhythm all its own; New Horizon's larger slate feels like drudgery. It also doesn't help that New Horizons was missing a large number of key features that I enjoyed in New Leaf at launch, including cafes, many stores, swimming, and overall variety of items. While some of those have been added through patches, it took a long time for it to get there.
As a whole, I have nothing against Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I fully recognize that the series needed to try something new in order to appeal to a wider audience, and that paid dividends for Nintendo. As such, it's unlikely that any future Animal Crossing game will drop the survival mechanics and chore-heavy focus. But for me, I think New Leaf strikes the perfect balance between the classic slow-life gameplay of Animal Crossing while still giving you enough carrots to while the hours away. There's something about the series's formula that inspires instant nostalgia--even if you've never lived it before--so perhaps it's fitting that the best Animal Crossing game is on a dead console. Either way, New Leaf is worth revisiting, even if it's just for that dose of good vibes.
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