It's no exaggeration to say that Animal Crossing: New Horizons has enjoyed a wildly successful first year. With over 31 million copies sold, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is officially the best-selling game in the series' history and the second-highest selling Switch game so far. For many players, as evidenced by those sales figures, the arrival of Tom Nook's island getaway seemed to come at precisely the right time. Launching March 20, 2020, the release of New Horizons coincided with the beginning of lockdown in the UK and parts of the US. When everyday normality was stripped away, this island getaway offered a space for us to reclaim a sense of freedom and routine that had all but vanished in reality.
As time in lockdown continued to stretch on through the days and months, our virtual islands became so much more than an escape – they provided an outlet for creativity and became a platform for us to connect to the outside world when we otherwise couldn't. As serendipitous as the game's release window was, no one could have quite predicted just how successful New Horizons would go on to become or how important it would be to so many players in the weeks and months that followed.
Celebrations and creativity
The confluence of events external to Animal Crossing: New Horizons put the game in something of a unique position. As an online experience, it was able to bring people together at a time when many couldn't leave their homes. As mandated lockdowns became the new normal, live events, celebratory plans, and large gatherings were canceled; suddenly, it started to feel like the world was standing still, and all of the excitement we may have had for the year ahead began to dwindle.
But here was New Horizons, a game that offered a place for you to freely roam sandy shores and craft a world that could be wholly yours. It became a place to celebrate real-life milestones, with players throwing birthday parties for friends and family that they couldn't be with. People even got married on the virtual shores of the game, threw ceremonies for graduations, and tried to recreate canceled holiday trips. It might not have made up for everything, but the creative sandbox nature of the world of New Horizons helped so many be together and find joy in celebrating big life events they would have otherwise missed out on because of the pandemic.
Not only that, but it also served as a platform for a talk show hosted by Rogue One screenwriter, Gary Whitta. If you'd have told me at the start of 2020 that Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox, would be interviewed in New Horizons as his Animal Crossing villager, I never would have believed you, but it's just one of the many surprising ways New Horizons has brought people together in the past year and filled the gap in the absence of actual events that would have taken place if not for lockdown.
The timing of its release no doubt contributed to New Horizons' success, but its continued presence on social media and ability to provide a platform for different communities to connect transformed it into something of a cultural phenomenon. Beyond entertainment talk shows and mile-stone celebrations, well-known art galleries provided access to real artworks that could be added into the game, and an international virtual Pride event took place in New Horizons with Global Pride 2020. Even more people began boarding virtual flights to islands of their own thanks to its prevalence in the public eye, and a passionate community of players behind it.
In the months that followed its initial release, Animal Crossing: New Horizons continued to flood social media feeds on a daily basis as players chased after their dream villagers, and worked to create their ideal island landscapes. Once the initial novelty had worn off, frequent updates released by Nintendo kept players coming back to check in on their little slice of paradise. With the changing of seasons, Animal Crossing: New Horizons changed along with it, ushering in additional content, new catchable fish and bugs, and limited-time events to give island life a breath of fresh air.
As a game that follows the real-world clock, Animal Crossing has always changed seasonally throughout the year, but looking back on all of the updates really makes you realize just how much was added in 2020 alone. From a big summer update that expanded play with swimming and diving, to the return of some well-known faces and features from the series' past such as Luna and her Dream Addresses to Pave and the Festivale event. We've also seen a wealth of promotional items introduced, that could be used to celebrate special occasions and the addition of more inclusive and diverse hairstyles.
The first year very much felt like it was establishing the seasonal cycle of the game and what events we can expect to see in a calendar year. Now that we're about to start another game year, thoughts turn to what lies ahead. Nintendo recently announced the next big update coming to New Horizons that will introduce Sanrio amiibo compatibility, a host of seasonal goodies, and even some changes to the infamous Bunny Day event.
The addition of the Custom Pro design editor also shows that Nintendo is still eager to add new features and improvements a year on. While we can expect to see some repetition in Animal Crossing's traditional seasonal format, island life looks set to continue to offer something new for some time yet. With so many fan-favorite characters in the series who have yet to make an appearance, there's also plenty of scope for new events that could also be added to keep players invested.
Even as we look ahead to the future of the series, it cannot be overstated just how well New Horizons has done in its first year. It's hard to imagine how it can top these heights in the year ahead, given the unique circumstances it released under. But with a passionate and very active community behind it and the hope of future updates that may give the game and its content a bit of a refresh, island life is sure to hold its appeal and continue to draw in new players in the months ahead.