The Greatest Games: Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020)

Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Developed by Nintendo EPD

Never has a game had a more perfectly-timed release. As the world shut down during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, Nintendo released the latest Animal Crossing, a series which risks bordering on the mundane in its celebration of everyday life. Though I have been playing this series since the Gamecube era, I never quite appreciated all it does until finding myself in a position where a game asking for a little bit of my time each day added a much-needed sense of routine. Where I rarely lasted more than a month with the other games in the series (and even resorted to time travel in my youth…), I have checked in each and every day in the two months since New Horizons’ release.

In a medium defined by constant action, Animal Crossing’s pacing could almost be taken as iconoclastic if not so blatantly innocent. This is a game that demands patience; when you order an item from the in-game online catalog, it will not arrive until the next day. And not in a video game day, where you send your character off to meditate around a campfire, your screen fading to black to consolidate several hours into a few measly seconds. A real day.

If you’re anything like me, the hardest time to play an Animal Crossing game is during the first week. The opening day is excruciating in New Horizons. You start with a tent, and you will likely have that paid off in a matter of hours. You spend this time trapped on a small segment of the island. The rest is there on the other side of that river, taunting you. The solution is immediately obvious but something few will accept. There’s no boss walling off your path, demanding you to get better. There’s no puzzle requiring an encyclopedic familiarity with Oscar Wilde. You simply have to put the game down until tomorrow, and that’s somehow the most frustrating answer possible in a shiny new video game.

Continuing its subversions, Animal Crossing becomes most appealing when it stops being new. If most games want to be the main course, this is the perfect snack; you can safely pick this up and play for however long you want in a day, and even a few minutes visiting your island feels significant with how this works. Find a few fossils, visit the shops to see what new items they have for the day, and anything beyond that is an extra delight.

On a simply mechanical level, not much feels different between the various Animal Crossing games. Each sequel offered its own slight improvements, but New Horizons offers enough new features to almost redefine its central purpose. In previous entries, the player was largely stuck with whatever the game threw their way. Villagers popped in and out, usually right on top of your garden. The focus was always your own house, an encouragement to pay off your loans to have a better sense of control in this otherwise automated world. A chance to decorate a full house was the ultimate reward the original game had to offer, but space was always so limited. The village was an interactive set piece with a few creatures to catch, your only control being over the trees and flowers. New Leaf introduced projects, expensive objects which could permanently alter your village’s landscape, but those were naturally tedious unless you made it big on the stalk market. Waiting was always the name of the game.

New Horizons tossed that lack of control out the window. Not only can you decorate the island, you soon gain the ability to shape the land and rivers. Villagers will live where you want them. The slow build feels especially rewarding in this iteration, reveling in how suffocating the opening act can be before handing you the tools necessary to truly make this island your own. With all these possibilities, the series finally rivals The Sims in sheer simulated living design options. This has an exponential effect on the basics; filling out your catalog by buying out the store has more meaning, since you can always put up a new showroom on the island. You might even hesitate on selling off your duplicate fossils to stage a battle between a T. Rex skeleton and a giant robot at your island’s entrance.

Aside from one small gripe (tools breaking has been a consistently tedious experience), the introduction of DIY furniture has added another great layer to daily activity. Moving away from a purely bell-based economy does wonders for the experience, turning the focus away from simply catching critters until you eventually make a few big sales on the stalk market. With some of the best furniture requiring rare material, there’s always more to work toward even with millions of bells in the bank.

Another key introduction is the Nook Miles program, which rewards the player for daily activity. Yet another currency, this one actually encourages continual play, with many of the best upgrades and props locked away behind these points. Earlier I noted that Animal Crossing has always asked for just a bit of your time each day, but New Horizons offers something more – if you really feel like it, there’s always some little thing you can be doing. From decorating to grinding nook miles to hopping around islands in search of a few more stones so you can finally build your very own imitation Stonehenge, waiting for daily changes no longer feels like a barrier.

At the heart of it all, these shiny new features only add to the already excellent Animal Crossing experience. There’s still the joy of tuning into a K.K. Slider show every Saturday evening or being ripped off by Redd because you didn’t notice Mona Lisa’s eyebrow game was a little too on point. Villagers are still their goofy selves, and added behaviors such as them randomly breaking into song really bring the island experience to life.

The strangest thing about writing this now is that none of us have yet experienced the full New Horizons experience; Nintendo is finally taking full advantage of the ability to update their games, and it seems almost certain big changes are yet to come. Whatever the case, New Horizons has already proven the perfect evolution of an already singular series.

The Greatest Games: Rock Band 3 (2010)

Rock Band 3 (2010)
Developed by Harmonix

A decade on, the Guitar Hero and Rock Band craze could easily pass as the video game industry’s very own disco moment. Requiring expensive hunks of plastic good for nothing else (unless you’re the type who thinks Dark Souls is too easy with a traditional controller) and supposedly encouraging teenagers to severely overestimate their ability to translate their in-game skills toward actual playing, mockery came easy. Now its success seems all but a blip.

As a teenager at the time, however, it’s hard to overstate the impact these games had on my cultural development. In a series celebrating popular music, Harmonix did not skimp out on their set lists. I have listened to several thousand albums now, but that all started with Rock Band 2 introducing me to Sonic Youth and Bikini Kill. From David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix to Phoenix and Amy Winehouse, the series covered as many styles and eras as possible, with thousands of additional songs available to download. As a collection of music, this is the height of licensed video game soundtracks.

Of course, a rhythm game is far more than its music. Rock Band 3 was Harmonix at their zenith, but this all started with Guitar Hero. The idea was simple; where its most popular predecessor (Dance Dance Revolution) focused on how the listener interacts with music, Guitar Hero focused on the creative side. Naturally, five buttons and a bar offer little in the way of true simulation, but the joy of this process rests more in gaining a deeper understanding of the songs themselves. The simple presentation highlights this single instrument in a sea of sound. Guitar Hero never taught anyone how to play guitar, but it certainly left some of us better attuned while listening. And, for those of us who actually recognized this as a video game, the series offered its own unique and challenging experience; powering through “Free Bird” until finally managing it on expert difficulty gave perfect bragging rights.

Harmonix expanded on this with Rock Band, adding bass guitars, drums, and vocals to the mix (the Guitar Hero series starting with 3 were developed by a different studio). Rock Band 3 stands as the definitive version due to going yet another step, adding a keyboard and vocal harmonies along with a “Pro” mode which could use an actual guitar alongside a more complex variation on the drums. The amount of content and variety is staggering; with 83 songs included on disc and most utilizing all five instruments, that’s well over 300 different parts to play with the base game alone. The sheer difference between these instruments almost makes this five games in one.

Key to Rock Band’s success is the communal aspect. In an era where mainstream multiplayer games were dominated by competitive shooters and fighting games, Rock Band offered something completely different and cooperative. Few games have replicated the asymmetrical unity on display here. Some of my fondest high school memories found four or five of us belting it out for hours, each contributing our own unique part toward a shared goal. This would always come to a screeching halt as we approached midnight and my step-dad asked us to turn that racket down.

The party might have ended, but only because Rock Band was such a singular experience – Rock Band 4 exists, with a few limitations and largely as a way to harbor the massive content during the generation that followed. There was simply no meaningful path forward with how much Rock Band 3 offered. Though it’s easy to mock those days of beating on plastic instruments, this is where I learned to better recognize music as individual parts building toward a singularly cohesive unit.

Plenty of games have left their mark, but Rock Band is one of the few I can say changed me as a person, and that goes beyond opening me up to the world of popular music. After a childhood of fearing my own voice due to various speech impediments, those evenings of wanting everyone to play a part would eventually end with a microphone being tossed my way. Though it may not be the most beautiful voice, Rock Band offered an outlet for me to realize it was safe to sing among friends.