If you're a fan of nerve-shredding tension, there are plenty of video games that'll get your pulse racing. Love a steep challenge? Why not test your reflexes against a rock hard shmup or grind through an intimidatingly expansive RPG? Want to give your grey matter a workout? There's no shortage of mind-bending puzzlers, and there's always Ring Fit Adventure if you want to build brawn as well as brains. Can't stand being mollycoddled? The Souls games are just the ticket, dropping you in the deep end and letting you get on with progressing inch-by-inch through the world using trial and awful lot of error.
There was one game in 2020, though, that had my heart racing faster than any other: possibly the most friendly, approachable game of the year, in fact: Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
This is not a joke or an exaggerated take I'm using to squeeze more article juice from 2020's juiciest fruit; I can say with the utmost sincerity and confidence that my most nail-biting gaming moments this year came while busily making a life for myself on Tom Nook's deserted island. And the majority of those moments occurred while engaged in that most extreme of pastimes, fishing.
Much to J.R. Hartley's dismay, I've never left a sign upon the door and gone fishing in real life. In fact, just a few years ago I couldn't have imagined anything more boring than sitting in one place for hours on end, dangling a line in a lake and hoping for a bite. Anyone who can't see the appeal of watching football (or any other sport, really) probably know the feeling. All that time and effort and you can still end up with a nil-nil draw? What's the point?!
As I've grown older, though, the idea has really grown on me. I now understand a critical truth: 99% of the time, catching a fish is not the point. You get to sit out in beautiful surroundings, get some fresh air in your lungs, enjoy your chosen vista of land and/or sea, and potentially kick back and relax with a pal and perhaps a fine beverage, too. You might even catch something. What's not to like?
if you don't see the shadow of a fish, there's no reason to cast your line at all. The moment you do, though, it's squeaky bum time.
For many of us in 2020, Animal Crossing has offered just that kind of wholesome escape from the calamity and drama of everyday life. However, there's little reason to cast a line in Animal Crossing if you're not looking to land a lunker. Whipping out your rod in New Horizons immediately ups the game's tension quota, and the abstract way the series presents fishing eliminates the unknown factor of the real deal almost entirely. If you don't see the shadow of a fish, there's no reason to cast your line at all. The moment you do, though, it's squeaky bum time.
This isn't something new with New Horizons; fishing in Animal Crossing has always been one of gaming's most intense activities for me. The mounting tension as a fish notices your lure, approaches and — eventually — drags it beneath the surface has never failed to give me sweaty palms. Will it take the bait this time? It's backing up ready for the gulp... surely it's got to be this one!... getting ready with a pre-emptive button press the momen— oh crap. Too early. It's gone.
The pressure as a fish investigates your lure — bloop... bloop... bloop...... bloop... PLOP! — can be every bit as nail-biting as the most 'hardcore' video games, especially when you've got a good idea what the fish it. The fins sticking out of the water throughout shark season signal substantial rewards (those bloody suckerfish notwithstanding), but also present a smaller window of opportunity once they pull on your line and are trickier to catch as a result. I'm one of those people who's taken to closing their eyes once a fish takes interest. Too many times have I gotten ahead of myself and mashed the button before the actual bite. It's easier to just listen for the plop.
If trying to fill my fishy Critterpedia wasn't stressful enough, there's the 'Cast Master' Nook Miles achievement for catching ten, fifty and a hundred fish in-a-row without letting one scarper. I made the huge mistake of consciously 'chasing' that particular achievement. I couldn't hack the tension and would invariably hit the button a fraction too early after spending forty-five minutes trawling my waterways, rod-in-hand.
Then there's the arduous hunt for more elusive catches. I had great luck finding the rare Golden Trout relatively quickly — the same could not be said for the Stringfish, which tool multiple hours of digging up manila clams, crafting hundreds of fish baits (hello again, RSI!) and shadow-hunting in the right spots. Night. Mare.
It wasn't just the fishing that moistened my brow; beetle-catching over the summer was similarly tense. Hunting shiny scarab beetles and prowling around palm trees only to scare the bug away with a blundered swing... ARGGGGHHHHHH!!! A visit to Lordran felt like welcome respite after umpteen trips to Nook Miles Islands hunting rare, reclusive beasties. And that's to say nothing of marauding tarantulas and scorpions. Through training, I would eventually become self-proclaimed 'Scorpion King', but it needed one hell of an investment of blood, sweat, tears and anti-venom to get there.
A visit to Lordran felt like welcome respite after umpteen trips to Nook Miles Islands hunting rare, reclusive beasties.
The appearance of the blowfish in November (and more recently the snowball-pushing dung beetle) enabled me to finally complete by Critterpedia logs. For me, it's the bookend to a remarkable nine-month journey. There's loads more to do, of course, but Animal Crossing has always been a series where you make your own ending and finding all the fish and bugs is the milestone I've always used to mark 'the end'.
It's a little saddening, but also a relief. New Horizons — for all its happy-go-lucky, chillout charm — served up my most nail-biting gaming moments of 2020, and we've hardly been lacking in anxiety and tension this year.
Hey, it is a life sim, after all.