The Secret Behind Animal Crossing’s Meteoric Success

By Kate BoveLast Updated Sep 21, 2020 9:09:17 PM ET
Tom Nook
Pictured: The series’ iconic raccoon entrepreneur/mastermind Tom Nook and his salesperson nephews, Tommy and Timmy. Photo Courtesy: Nintendo/Nintendo Switch

If you’ve been paying attention to social media even just a little bit during the past month, you’ve probably heard about Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which was released for the Nintendo Switch on March 20. Although New Horizons marks the fifth entry in the long-running Animal Crossing series, it might be the first time you’re hearing about it, unless you are (or know) a gamer. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced folks worldwide to shelter in place and physically distance themselves from family and friends, seems to have strangely set the perfect stage for New Horizons to take the world by storm.

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The game offers a calming escape — and the opportunity to virtually hang out with your buddies. At an unprecedented time like this, those offerings shouldn’t be underestimated: New Horizons sold 5 million digital copies in its first month, breaking console game records for most single-month sales. Production shutdowns and global supply-chain issues have impacted most industries and many products, and the Nintendo Switch is no exception.

Animal Crossing Contributes to the Worldwide Nintendo Switch Shortage

However, the higher-than-anticipated demand for New Horizons, paired with these other COVID-19-caused issues, has led to a global shortage of Nintendo’s premier console for the last month. (Also, this Virginia-based teen may’ve had something to do with it; he created an automated shopping bot that allows buyers to bypass the checkout process and snatch up the consoles.) The Switch, which allows the gamer to play on the go, like a handheld device, and on the TV, like a standard gaming console (hence the clever name), is out of stock everywhere.

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Photo Courtesy: Nintendo Life/YouTube

Well, unless you want to pay a third-party seller upwards of $600. For comparison, the standard Switch retails for $299.99 and the Switch Lite, the less Bells-and-whistles version, retails for $199.99. Switch sales more than doubled their numbers from March 2019 and, according to TechCrunch, although the console launched in March of 2017, this March marks its best-selling March yet. Needless to say, if you didn’t manage to get your paws on a Switch four weeks ago, you probably won’t be playing New Horizons until the end of May or early June, especially if you want the standard console. Whether you’ll be able to play Animal Crossing soon or not, we’ll get you up to speed on this social media darling and its meteoric success.

Before we get to New Horizons, let’s take a step back and revisit the early 2000s. Back then, Nintendo’s at-home console was the GameCube, and its first-year big-name hits included the likes of Super Smash Bros. Melee, Luigi’s Mansion and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3. But a little game called Animal Crossing hit shelves in September 2002, just a year after the GameCube’s launch — and a year and a half after its Japan-only Nintendo 64 debut. One of the best-selling GameCube games of all time, Animal Crossing was also a hit with critics.

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So, What Does the Player Actually Do in Animal Crossing?

In the social simulation game, the player character is a human who moves to a distant village inhabited by various anthropomorphic animals. One of those animals is Tom Nook, a raccoon shopkeep with an eye for business. Nook provides the player with a house — but it comes at a steep price. In order to pay off the debt, the player must explore the village and catch fish, sell bugs, hunt for fossils and so on in order to accumulate Bells, the local currency.

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Photo Courtesy: Nintendo/IMDb

Once that debt is paid off, Nook uses the money to not only upgrade your house, but also to expand his own business. And so the near-endless cycle of debt continues. The game also utilized the GameCube’s internal clock and calendar to simulate a real passage of time. Boot up the game at night and the village will be dark with villagers preparing for some shut-eye; play the game on Christmas, and you’ll be greeted with snow and presents.

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Let’s back up: To non-players, that whole "pay off your debt" concept might not sound relaxing. (To be fair, Nook was much more, well, sinister sounding in the original game.) But New Horizons takes those long-standing elements and infuses them with a bit more chill. In it, the customizable player character moves to a deserted island after purchasing a package from Tom Nook. Playing in real-time, the player can explore the island — and venture to others — to gather and craft items and furniture, catch insects and fish, and hunt down fossils.

Gamers can also collect furniture and outfits; plant flowers and grow fruit trees; design clothing patterns; contribute animal findings to a local museum; attract more animal residents and business owners to their islands; sell turnips in what’s been dubbed the "stalk market"; participate in fun events (you may have heard about Bunny Day, for example); and help Nook develop their little island communities into flourishing ones. Of course, you still have to pay off your debt every time you remodel your house or add infrastructure to your island, but as a Nook loyalist, you also gather up miles (like rewards points) and work with Nook to make the island a real destination.

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Living the Simple Life and Building Community

Better yet, even if you’re isolated, you don’t have to play New Horizons in isolation. Players have the opportunity to invite friends and other gamers to their islands or visit far-flung locations themselves. Translation: If you’re confined to your home, you can get your fix of the everyday here. You can be social in a virtual way, share items with your pals and just explore.

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Photo Courtesy: Nintendo/IMDb

During the worldwide shelter-in-place orders, we’re unable to travel, to hang out with friends. Even everyday things, like going for a walk and stopping in at the store, are complicated by COVID-19 risks. New Horizons offers up the simple life from the safety and comfort of your couch — that’s what makes it so enticing. It’s easy to pass time in the game, to get lost in the little side tasks where you have to collect certain items or help out a fellow villager in need.

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Simply put, Animal Crossing is escapism at its finest: Players get to live a virtual life in a new place and socialize with adorable animals and their friends. Although there’s debt, it feels manageable. The nonlinear nature of the gameplay allows you to unlock new areas of your island, or new customization options, at your own pace. Because everything feels like it’s on your terms, it’s easy to feel accomplished and, during a time when we’re all a bit aimless and anxious, that feeling is hard to come by. That is, perhaps, one of Animal Crossing’s most appealing features: In a world where everything feels uncertain and out of our hands, New Horizons gives us a little control back.