My wife and I don’t play many games together, but when we do, a grudging rivalry develops. She becomes the Goku to my Vegeta or in NBA terms the Larry Bird to my Magic Johnson. The antagonism is nothing cut throat, it’s more of a one-upmanship.

If she gets a shiny Houndour in “Pokemon Go,” she’ll lord it over me for weeks on end. If I beat her score in a rhythm game, I brag about it, much to her dismay. That rivalry has extended to a game that shouldn’t even be about competition — “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.”

The life simulator for the Nintendo Switch is meant to be a relaxing title, in which the players create a character and move to an uncharted space as part of Nook Inc.’s Deserted Island Getaway Package. From there, they’ll have to establish a colony as residents move in, amenities are built and shops open up. Players mold the island in whatever way they see fit.

That’s where my wife’s urban planning philosophy and mine diverged. I crafted my island for density with houses laid out on a grid and a center built around a main street with shops. I left the rest of my island as a camping spot dotted with bamboo forests, a playground and hidden knickknacks.

My wife doesn’t subscribe to that idea. Her island sprawls outward with a riot of houses and buildings built haphazardly in divergent areas. Flowers sprinkle the ground and visiting her island is a nightmare to navigate. Watering her plants is even worse, but she says she has no problem with its organization. She criticizes my dense housing saying if coronavirus infected my locale everyone would be dead.

The fact that “New Horizons” lets players express, ahem, smart design and utter chaos is a testament to its accommodating vision. The title partly mirrors efforts such as “The Sims.” Players work — in this case they collect bugs, dig up fossils, harvest fruit and catch fish — and spend their earnings on house expansions and furnishings. What sets “Animal Crossing” apart from its peers is that the game occurs in real time.

When it’s dawn in real life and the sunrise creeps through the windows, a similar light is cast on the island. The game has a flow that demands players abide by its slower pace. It’s not a campaign that you can binge unless you cheat by “time traveling,” also known as adjusting the system’s date and clock. I advise you avoid that because players should enjoy the leisurely pace and savor the anticipation of tomorrow when a new visitor might drop by or a new bridge gets built.

“New Horizons” is a title that’s made to be played daily and in bite-sized chunks. Go beyond that and it feels like work. Grinding for Bells, the in-game currency, goes against the relaxing approach. The campaign is best played naturally while accumulating Nook Miles, a second form of currency that’s awarded for accomplishing everyday deeds such as chopping wood or fishing.

The other element of “New Horizons” is self-expression. As readers must have observed on social media, players like to add their own flair to their islands or create themed rooms. That’s seen in clothes that can be tailored-made with logos and prints to the flags representing the island. Players can even change the graphics that make up the ground.

To unlock these options, players will need to add amenities, lure new residents and invest in infrastructure. Improving the island by accomplishing tasks such as filling the museum with bugs, fossils and fish opens up more options. Blathers, a curator, establishes a museum. The Able Sisters build a dress shop that players can use to access new designs.

The items that players collect for their island adds to the palette for expression. Players can craft movie scenes or a jazz cafe. Players let their creativity go wild so they can share it with friends, and that has been the biggest change to the franchise in “New Horizons.” The Switch is naturally set up to share screenshots on Twitter and it’s easier to invite friends over to check out your island.

The cross-pollination also helps players speed up their collecting efforts. Each island has native fruit, flora and shop items, and friends can drop by and raid them to bring to their own locale. Of course, solo players can do the same thing with Nook Miles tickets that drop players on random islands, but the process takes much longer.

Again my wife and I have different tastes when it comes to island aesthetics. She designs BTS-themed posters and makes her environment an oppressing homage to the K-Pop band. I try to make my island a Disneyland-ish theme park. I like bragging about all the fish and bugs I captured and she slaps BTS album art on the ground so it’s the first thing I see when I step on her island.

Although many of the upgrades in “New Horizons” are welcome (The ability to rearrange house furniture is a godsend.), the game could use changes to the crafting, which is tedious if players are trying to make several items such as medicine. Tool durability is also an annoying quirk and players must constantly make them, but despite this onerous element, the latest entry to the “Animal Crossing” proves how it’s a special type of game, one that should satisfy those looking for something unique.



4 stars out of 4

Platform: Nintendo Switch

Rating: Everyone


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