The author in Animal Crossing action. Credit: Taryn Allen

For most of my life, Animal Crossing was a tiny and indescribable world made just for me. It was reserved for the turquoise Nintendo DS original that I got for my eighth birthday, the now-clunky-feeling device that hosted a sticky and peeling Nintendogs decal across the front and served me throughout my childhood. Playing Animal Crossing: Wild World on that thing was a daily routine during my heaviest DS-playing years, and I was always astonished at how deeply I cared about my weird, anthropomorphic digital town.

Of course, as I grew older, my DS-playing tapered off, and I began to accept the fact that Animal Crossing was but a fond memory of my childhood, of long car rides on the way to vacation, of beautiful summer days squandered by virtual obligations.

That is, until a few months ago, when turnip prices, tarantula catching, Tom Nook memes, and all sorts of other hyper-AnimalCrossing-specific content began to flood the Internet. Suddenly, celebrities like Elijah Wood and Guy Fieri became faces of the game, interacting with Animal Crossing fans on Twitter and Instagram. Local institutions like the Goodman Theatre began to enter the conversation, posting on Facebook some screenshots of Animal Crossing characters recreating recent Goodman shows. Even national athletic teams started joining the fun, like the Detroit Lions, which used the game to announce their schedule.

My guess is that, if you didn’t know what Animal Crossing was before March, you do now—the well-timed release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons has made it the official game of quarantine. However, I’ll debrief for those still confused.

Animal Crossing is a social simulation game where you, as a human character, live on an island full of animals. It’s intensely open-ended, with no core objectives aside from building your world exactly how you want it. You do things like hunt bugs, catch fish, dig up fossils, earn money (“Bells”), customize your house, and socialize with others, all to the real-time pace of the calendar year. There’s even a fluctuating economy, including a stalk market, a high-risk high-reward way to get rich by buying and selling turnips.

I understand that it does not sound fun. Animal Crossing: Wild World—my childhood version—even starts out by gifting you a hefty home loan and forcing you into a job to start paying it off. (In my quest to describe the game’s charm to my girlfriend, that’s where I lost her.)

And I admit, Wild World hasn’t aged too well (the graphics look practically 8-bit now). However, with each new iteration that has surfaced since the original in 2001, more features and characters and customization options have been added, and Animal Crossing just keeps one-upping itself.

The game is quaint and artistic, with pastel colors and lulling music, and because it operates on an actual time clock, players experience a different environment playing in the morning versus the evening. It inspires a compulsive need to check in frequently, to ensure that you don’t miss any special events, the first digital snowfall of the year, or a new villager’s arrival. The daily upkeep of pulling weeds, completing simple quests, and earning money is just enough to convince you to log on every day and keep playing, in a way that miraculously feels less like a guilty time suck and more like a calming part of your routine.

It’s calming because there’s really no way to lose the game. The new autosave feature in New Horizons prevents the greatest hardship that came from its predecessors, which was accidentally losing hours of progress. Sure, you can lose money, have a villager you dislike, or neglect the game for too long, but even the rainiest days on Animal Crossing are more serene than high-stakes violent video games.

That’s why it’s no surprise that New Horizons has taken over the world. After creating versions for GameCube, DS, Wii, 3DS, WiiU, and mobile devices, Nintendo released the newest for the Switch on March 20, and it’s widely agreed to be the best yet, and not just because of its newness or the desperate boredom of people in quarantine. I only recently secured a Switch Lite (frequently out of stock), but after just days of playing New Horizons, it’s obvious that it tops all of its predecessors. It’s hard to imagine a game having a better foundation on which to build, with nearly two decades of success stories behind it.

Despite all this success and my own personal affinity for it, it’s still hard to describe what it is about the game that makes it so wonderful and addictive.

One potential factor is the main character customization, which has only improved in the newer versions. As a kid, for me, this was as simple as choosing “burly” instead of “cute” and playing as a boy, better able to express my sense of style and avoiding the real-life scorn at my picking shorts and a T-shirt over a dress every time. Today, it means creating a character that looks just like you (even for people of color, after many years and much backlash), inventing someone totally new, or creating a celebrity look-alike.

Then there’s the element of connecting with others; it used to come in the form of physically linking up on DS and visiting another town close by, but New Horizons is equipped with an entire airport that can connect players anywhere in the world, as long as they have WiFi. The Switch game has opened a doorway for socializing right when people need it most—even if “socializing” just means staying at someone else’s virtual home instead of your own.

Overall, the Animal Crossing world feels like something special. The game feels like it’s built for everyone in the world, while simultaneously feeling like it’s built for you, and you alone. It’s been a pleasure to rekindle my love of the Animal Crossing universe and to see this game hit the mainstream, beloved by people who get as much joy from it as I did when I was eight years old.   v