Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 14: Animal Crossing (series)
Each Animal Crossing entry is different, but the core concepts have survived for nearly 20 years now for a reason.
I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
You can’t make me pick just one Animal Crossing game to celebrate in these here rankings. On the surface, they might all seem sort of same-y, but there are some pretty vast differences in how you play these games, even if the core concepts tend to carry over from one entry to the next. Not quite different enough to merit taking up multiple spaces on the top 101, necessarily, not when there are so many other games to want to write about and spotlight, but also obviously different enough that I didn’t want to pull an F-Zero, just write up one title, and call it a day on that franchise. Series ranking it is!
Animal Crossing has very much been one of those series where either you get it or you don’t, and for two decades now. It’s a life sim, but only sort of: it’s nothing like The Sims, for instance, and not just because it runs in real-time whereas The Sims is a game you play on fast-forward until you get distracted for a moment too long and then your character pees on the floor. It simulates life in a small community, but despite this, it’s not quite like the farming-and-dating focused Harvest Moon nor Stardew Valley, and it isn’t trying to be, either.
The sharper edges of the series have vanished a bit over time, so that you have a better chance of getting along with all of your fellow villagers and sooner, but that’s in part because, as the series has grown and expanded, so to has your daily to-do list in the game. It’s a matter of balancing what you spend time on: constant letter-writing to your virtual pals to gain their approval and camaraderie isn’t as much of a priority as it was in the GameCube era, when the only way to visit an irl friend’s village was to bring your memory card to their home and pop it into their console, making the game as a whole a primarily single-player and enjoyed alone experience. Now, in the most recent entries, you spend a lot more time on customization and ease of online play and access to your friends’ living spaces. So, the villagers aren’t quite as critical of you, aren’t quite as threatening, and also don’t bail on you and your town so easily due to your missteps, because your attention is more split than it used to be.
You might have a preference for one particular kind of play over another. I have a bit of a soft spot for each iteration of the game — yes, even the comparatively derided City Folk on the Wii — because of whatever uniqueness they bring to the core Animal Crossing experience. While playing New Horizons on Switch, I was also making a new village on the original GameCube version of Animal Crossing, and that was before I had decided on doing this project, too. I just felt like it, because, even with the comparative technical limitations of the era’s Animal Crossing, it’s a fun game to play even with its awkward design choices.
For me, a vital part of the Animal Crossing experience comes from hating super capitalist Tom Nook. Trevor Strunk had me on an episode of his No Cartridge podcast following the release of New Horizons on Switch to discuss this and the series as a whole, and I went on about it for an hour, so trust me when I say that this raccoon (or tanuki, depending on your region of choice) is your enemy. He is, for all intents and purposes, the antagonist. Sure, he sets you up with a home to live in, but he also locks you into an exploitative contract, forces you into indentured servitude in the earlier releases, and pays you low wages for your work and resource collection before turning around to sell what you’ve found at a tidy profit.
Anyone who says Nook isn’t so bad because he “gives” you a house and no-interest loans is [extremely Zack de la Rocha voice] your enemy. Let me ask you this: how did this guy go from small-town, small-business salesman to person who could afford to buy whole-ass islands that he could make you strip for resources, and also force you to pay for every upgrade on said island? If anything he does seems generous to you, it’s because it benefits him more than it benefits you. The dude doesn’t even help your town grow: the hardest work he does is call a construction company to overcharge you for every upgrade. He put his aspiring-capitalist nephews to work in the store he once would have minded in the days before you exploited your work ethic, and the actual difficult management work of the town goes to poor, overworked Isabelle, while he sits in a cushy office chair and posts on landlord subreddits about how lazy you are. None of this is even subtle: he has a bag of golf clubs next to him early on in New Horizons, before any real buildings are built, while he directs you all over the place to do the work he probably should be doing as the guy who owns this island.
Trying to shape your life the way you want it to be, in spite of the oppressive capitalist overlord obsessed with squeezing you and the town’s resources for all they are worth, is part of the appeal of this game to me, though. Nook doesn’t make me dislike Animal Crossing: his presence enhances it. There is no true antagonist in this life/town sim, in the traditional sense, no endboss with multiple phases, no credits rolling once you’ve destroyed their plans and/or robot form: everything is much too laid back to need that kind of cathartic, big-moment closure. Simply putting in the kind of bosses you have to deal with in your real life, whether they be in your office or retail or housing, is more than enough. That Animal Crossing has no true end beyond making it so you, in your day-to-day, no longer need to deal with or converse with Nook or play the stalk market (ha ha, get it?) in order to find happiness, only enhances that point.
The real-time focus of the game is one of its real strengths. You can manipulate time by playing around with your system clock, sure, but the design is intended for you to play a little bit each day, at different times, to experience all that Animal Crossing has to offer, be it holidays or finding the perfect moment to sell your turnip stocks or catching a creature that will only come out during certain conditions. And all of this for months, and months, and months, if not longer. Each season of the year brings a new look, new bugs and fish to catch, and new holidays, each of which are celebrated with Animal Crossing’s take on them. New Horizons was probably played a little differently than Nintendo had planned on, since it arrived just as lockdowns for the COVID-19 pandemic did: the result was millions of people using New Horizons in place of in-person hangouts, and dedicating far more hours per day to the game than anyone had ever imagined. It still worked, because of the sheer volume of things to do in New Horizons, especially compared to past entries in the series, but still, more people likely dropped off of the game sooner than would have in non-pandemic times, since they mined the game for all that it was worth in that moment.
It’s a slow burn game, though, at least by intent. This spring is a little different than last spring, and it also represents an opportunity to catch those same bugs and fish you might have missed out on the last time. Why would you do that? For the same reason any game’s completionist-leaning task might compel you: you’re reading this, you know how it feels to scratch that itch. Your relationships with the fellow townsfolk are deeper than they were this time last year: your house much larger. There is always some measure of redecorating or rearranging to do, and the ability to craft means you’re not as restricted on these fronts as you used to be. Even making art can be a fun pastime to get lost in with these crafting settings: I spent quite a bit of time making 8- and 16-bit pixel art of Nintendo characters, which could be put on clothing or hung on a wall, but for my own purposes, I used it as an outdoor art gallery that would change up every few weeks. It was fun for me, but also for my wife, Kate, who I shared an island with, as well as any friends who stopped by to check out what we had done with the place. And you can share those designs with the New Horizons world at large, or just your own friends, adding to the desire to make more of them.
Even without all of this new customization, though, past Animal Crossing games were wonderful to play, and for significant chunks of time. I don’t know how many hours I poured into the original Animal Crossing, because the GameCube didn’t keep track of such things, but the Wii iteration of the game got about 300 hours of play on my system. I spent over 150 hours with New Leaf on the 3DS, and in just over a year’s time, I’m already at 110 hours in New Horizons, and that’s despite putting the game aside for long stretches because I needed to focus on playing just a few other games for this ranking project. Even with that, New Horizons is the most-played game on our shared Switch, ahead of even Fire Emblem: Three Houses (number 16) and Breath of the Wild, despite multiple replays and players of and for both. Kate, not held back by things like sorting out the rankings for 35-ish years of Nintendo’s history, has 340 hours of New Horizons down since its release, and is still checking in on the island even now. The game can stick with you, if you want it to. And even if I never play again, I’ve already put 110 hours into it and am satisfied with how those went.
Each AC game has some new modes and gameplay setups that separate them from the previous entry — customization, multiple turnip markets, what kind of off-site places you can visit — but the most significant changes tend to be quality of life ones. You have a larger inventory than in the original GameCube entry, and it’s a whole lot easier to work within, too. Maybe you’ve buried this memory deep, but you couldn’t even easily combine your money in the original inventory, never mind any repeats of items, which made doing basically anything a chore if it involved inventory space. You have more items and tools to work with, which in turn means more kinds of things you would need to use items and tools on. Sharing your village with a friend has come a long way from the memory card roadtrips you used to have to take, thanks to the addition (and improvements to) online play. And your off-island adventures have improved, too, as you no longer need a Game Boy Advance and cable connected to your GameCube to access the hidden island: you can just ask at the desk for a plane to bring you there while the game hangs up a “nobody’s home” sign on your own island.
It’s a little difficult to explain just what works about Animal Crossing, in the sense of why you should play it, but here goes. The characters are, well, characters, making interactions with them a joy. You’ll find yourself wanting them to like you, just like you do with real people you meet. You’ll spend tons of time customizing your home and your garden, as well as your village as a whole, and maybe even yourself depending on the game. Discovery plays a major part in your enjoyment, whether it’s in a surprise visitor, a creature you try to catch, what is in stock at the local shops, some interaction you manage to unlock between you and other townsfolk, what a given holiday is bringing to the table, gameplay-wise, or in simply discovering that a game with no hard-and-fast, concrete goals can be played at your speed, at your leisure, is freeing.
I think that’s more easily understood now that New Horizons released and became one of the best-selling video games ever — it’s currently 16th, beating out every multiplatform Call of Duty mega-release in the process — but prior to that, and especially prior to the launch of New Leaf, it was a little more difficult to find fellow Animal Crossing players who understood this game that was tough to explain the appeal of. It’s not that Animal Crossing games were ever commercial failures or anything, far from it, but there is a significant difference between the 2.3 million copies the original game sold on the GameCube, and the nearly 33 million sales of New Horizon on the Switch. This is not to take anything away from the DS’ Wild World, which did exceptionally well at under 12 million sold. Wild World, however, was followed by “just” four million City Folk sales on the Wii, in spite of that system’s also massive install base. New Leaf did much better than either, with 13 million sales on a console with roughly half as many sales as the DS had and significantly fewer than the Wii managed, but New Horizons is the moment where Animal Crossing fully crossed over from bouncing between an A-/B+ Nintendo series in terms of sales and popularity into becoming the kind of juggernaut that Mario Kart tends to be.
New Horizons was the game of its moment, which no Animal Crossing game has been before, and it’s the second-best selling game on the Switch behind Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and much closer to surpassing it than you might think, despite it only being 13 months old. Like I said: Animal Crossing is on a different playing field than it used to be.
Sales don’t necessarily equal quality, of course, but the point of citing all of this is to emphasize how much Animal Crossing has become accepted and the appeal of it understood on a larger scale than it used to be. Fairly or not, handheld gaming rarely gets the same kind of recognition as console gaming, so seeing Animal Crossing thrive on Nintendo’s hybrid console in a way it never had before, even with its past impressive successes, tells you much about its place in the gaming world these days compared to even half-a-decade ago. More people get it than used to: more people have been exposed to what Animal Crossing is trying to do. And that’s the best way to convince someone to play, really. What do you think drove sales of New Horizons, if not seeing so much of the game shared on social media platforms by people who were clearly enjoying themselves? You might have already known Animal Crossing is great, but instead of trying to explain why to your friends, you simply got to show them in a way you couldn’t have years and years before. That convinced them to give it a shot, and over a year and hundreds of hours later, they can’t imagine why they weren’t on board even sooner.
I have multiple friends who I’ve talked up Animal Crossing to for years and years that didn’t take the plunge until they saw everyone having fun with it this way, in 2020. Some have fallen off, though, after they put in loads of time, and others, per my Switch’s notifications, are still going at it strong. That’s what it takes to truly get Animal Crossing, though: not listening to me talk about it for an hour on a podcast, or even reading this explanation of what I like about the series. It’s experiencing it for yourself, and realizing that these games were missing from your life until they weren’t.
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