Over the holiday season we'll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!
This Soapbox feature was originally published in June 2020.
Do whatever you like, however you like – that’s the Animal Crossing: New Horizons mantra. There’s no big bad boss to defeat, and no final destination to struggle towards. Instead, New Horizons offers players complete freedom to create and develop their island paradise however they like. Or so it might seem.
There is, in fact, an end goal in New Horizons that requires players adhere to a stringent set of guidelines, and that is achieving the coveted Five Star Rating for your island. To achieve Five Stars, you’ll need to adorn your island with just the right amount of furniture and manmade structures, ensure that you have a specific number of trees, and do a great many other things, too.
However, I have a big problem with this system and, to put my reservations in context, you first need to understand a little bit of my Animal Crossing history. Looking back, I’ve always loved the rural aesthetic present in previous Animal Crossing games because it mirrors the countryside I grew up in. Living in a tiny rural village no doubt biased me towards woodland, ponds and wildflowers and, whilst you can replicate this look in New Horizons, I soon learned that to achieve a Five Star Rating for my beloved Stoxall I would have to sacrifice a lot of greenery. In short, I was going to have urbanise my island wilderness by adding outdoor decorations to it.
Outdoor decoration and features were introduced in previous Animal Crossing games (to an extent), and . It makes sense that this aspect of gameplay would make its way into New Horizons but, in New Leaf, I totally ignored my residents’ desperate pleas to install various outdoor Public Work Projects. Take the fire hydrant for example. Because that kind of item (while undoubtedly important in real life) did not belong in my quaint, rural town, I wasn’t having any of it. The same applied to Happy Home Designer and Pocket Camp – I’d often ignore requests for any significant manmade structures. If it stopped me from progressing, I didn’t care, I was playing how I wanted to play.
But in New Horizons, I somehow found myself desperately wanting the shiny gold watering can and the dainty Lily of the Valley flower that came with achieving a Five Star Rating. I was miffed that I would probably have to sacrifice parts of my green island to get it, but maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if I just got on with it.
Let’s (Not) Go To The City
Oh, how wrong I was. As I tried to bump up my Three Star island to the elusive Five Star Rating, I realised that I’d hugely underestimated the amount of outdoor furniture and urban structures I needed. This led to my quaint little parks and marketplaces quickly becoming clusters of benches, swing sets and misplaced musical instruments. My pristine beaches were soon littered with sun loungers, archways and other junk, and my beautiful woodland had to shrink down to a fraction of its former size. Things soon began to look incredibly cluttered, and yet still the game demanded I lay out more decorations every time I went to Isabelle for an island evaluation.
Maybe if there was an option at the beginning of the game (or during the upgrade of the town hall) in which players could alter the parameters of the Five Star Rating to make it better suit their style, then perhaps I wouldn’t have felt like chasing Five Stars was such a chore. There is a precedent for this. In New Leaf you could dictate the nature of your town, setting in place a singular ordinance that altered village life. Picking the ‘Make My Town Beautiful’ option would promote the growth of flowers, encourage residents to tend to nature and prevent the trash from ending up in the oceans and seas. But where is this feature in New Horizons? Its implementation would have a been a lifesaver for nature lovers like myself!
On top of that, New Horizons doesn’t take into account the quality or artistry of your custom design. Talk to Isabelle and she might tell you that your island lacks appealing scenery, and that the only way to increase your rating score (a hidden metric) is by decorating every inch of the island. Basically, your island doesn’t have to look good, it just has to have enough stuff on it! Additionally, the islands in New Horizons are by no means small, which means that a lot of furniture is needed to satisfy Isabelle’s desire for a ‘fully decorated island.’ Setting out such a strict series of rules means that gameplay shifts towards a more mandatory progression style, and that sharply contradicts the 'play it your way' message of the series.
Back to My Wild World
But eventually, I did get the Five Star Rating and, as great an achievement as it felt, I was not happy. Stoxall was no longer the green paradise complete with a modest shopping district and rustic fishing shack that I’d grown to love. Now, with an assortment of objects strewn haphazardly across the place, my island felt crowded and messy. Things had to change. It was time to rewild my island.
But what is 'Rewilding?' In the real world, rewilding is restoring areas of land to their natural state, usually for reasons of conservation or to reintroduce animal life back into a particular region. For me in New Horizons, it would be the process of tearing down my urban expansions, ditching my cluttered marketplaces, and re-establishing the natural look that Stoxall previously sported.
First, I collected and sold all of my ugly outdoor furniture, then I re-established a giant woodland, and finally, I planted a meadow of hybrid flowers that was even bigger than before. Butterflies and other bugs returned to my wild paradise, and there was much more room for fish in my expanded ponds and rivers. I’ve even been encouraging an undergrowth to form beneath the forested areas of my island by letting a few weeds sprout. You know, just to really grind Isabelle’s gears.
And it feels great! The pressure is off, and I can once again do whatever I want with my island. Looking back, I think that Isabelle’s demands for a perfectly decorated island made me feel as though I was playing New Horizons the wrong way, which grated painfully with a notion that Animal Crossing games have worked so hard to establish – that there is no right way to play.
The only saving grace is that I had the power to transform Stoxall back into my dream rural landscape and, even though my island is back to being a Three Star disappointment in Isabelle’s eyes, I’m finally a happy home designer once again.