Returning to Animal Crossing New Horizons after a year away is overwhelming

Animal Crossing: New Horizons
(Image credit: Nintendo)

I am ashamed to admit that I abandoned Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game responsible for keeping my mental health in check during the pandemic, as soon as my life returned to a semblance of normalcy. There was just too much to do IRL – too many other games to play, too many real-world friends to visit, too many bar doorways to darken – that I couldn't justify spending hours tending to my virtual gardens and checking in on virtual friends. 

But the Animal Crossing: New Horizons update 2.0 and the fervor surrounding it piqued my interest, so I decided to boot the game up more than a year after I last played it. And while the familiarity remains in my daily New Horizons routine, there is so much new content that I'm somewhat overwhelmed – especially since a lot of that content isn't advertised in-game. It's the dedication of New Horizons fans and the power of social media that help walk me through the updated game, giving me a chance to make the most of the new content.

Returning to Animal Crossing New Horizons after a year is, in some ways, what I expected, and in others, entirely surprising. Here's how my homecoming went.

An uninvited guest

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

(Image credit: Nintendo)

After charging up my very dead Nintendo Switch and updating the year-old software, I boot up my island and am instantly warmed by the familiar tune before I'm greeted with the tried-and-true Isabel announcement. Aside from her usual check-in, she takes some extra time to vaguely explain ordinances, a new feature you can enact that changes an aspect of your island. Like a lot of New Horizons features, I have to look them up to see what they actually do – and it's a good thing I do that, as a tweet showing the downsides of the Beautiful Island ordinance immediately deters me. 

After Isabel concludes her announcement, my little avatar steps out of the house and is greeted by a blinking mailbox that's filled to the brim with gifts, including a birthday cake from my mom (happy belated 31st to me), and a one-year anniversary cake. There are actually too many presents in the mailbox to fit in my pockets, which I had nearly filled during my last play session, so I decide to step back into my house to offload some items. 

I'm immediately greeted by a skittering cockroach, which startles my avatar – but not me. I've come across these buggers before and squash one under my feet before the Happy Home Academy has a chance to tank my home rating. After the ghost of the cockroach ascends to the heavens, I decide to refamiliarize myself with my home, dipping into my onsen-inspired bathroom and running through my kitchen that I've decked out to look like a '50s diner.

But the tour of my cockroach-infested home is quickly interrupted by a speech bubble belonging to one of my islanders, Puddles. I freeze in place, baffled – since when do islanders walk into your home? "I'm coming in, comrade," Puddles says. I walk out of the kitchen and my avatar freezes for a moment in the doorway, presumably waiting for Puddles to walk in. As she does, I get excited at the prospect of giving her a house tour, but that excitement quickly vanishes.

Another cockroach skitters across the floor, causing Puddles to jump in surprise, exclaim that she hates bugs, and turn around and leave. "What the hell was that?" I ask aloud. Puddles' quick visit is just one of many instances I stumble upon something new in Animal Crossing that isn't advertised in-game. It's an approach that can provide hilarious moments like an entomophobic villager, but it can also be incredibly frustrating, as its exclusions mean you can entirely miss new features.

Figuring it out

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

(Image credit: Nintendo)

After Puddles' impromptu visit, I head over to the Resident Services building (painstakingly plucking every weed along the way) to enact an ordinance. Isabel's description of each ordinance is painfully brief, so I turn to the internet to see what everyone else picked. I'm initially drawn to the Beautiful Island ordinance, which Isabel tells me means villagers will water flowers more often, as I think my island is quite bare compared to some of the builds I've seen. As I mentioned early, the bevy of tweets and Reddit posts dissuade me, as they warn players of the flower overload caused by villagers watering them so much they multiply like Gremlins. 

Just imagine I had enacted the Beautiful Island ordinance? My island is already in desperate need of renovation – I've barely paved it, the building layout makes no sense, and there are several rivers halfway dug through because of an attempt to make an island inspired by Venice that I abandoned mid-construction. If I had enacted the Beautiful Island ordinance, my island would be inundated with flowers, which don't stack in your inventory and have to be individually dug up. There were already too many random flower clusters on my island that had me groaning in frustration as I dug them all up to do some landscaping – the Beautiful Island ordinance would have broken me. I avoid mental anguish solely thanks to other Animal Crossing: New Horizons players, as Isabel would probably have gotten some sick satisfaction out of the flowerpocalypse. 

On my second day back, I quickly grow bored trying to dig Venetian canals and wonder what else is new aside from boat tours with Kapp'n. I remember the fervor around cooking, so I try to buy a recipe card from the Nook boys but am immediately shut down and told I don't have what I need to get cooking recipes. So, again, I turn to the internet (thanks, Animal Crossing: New Horizons cooking recipes) and learn that I have to head to Resident Services to buy a Be a Chef! DIY Recipe+ upgrade with my Nook miles. With that unlocked, I run back to Nook's Cranny to buy some more recipes, excited at the prospect of bringing over a carrot cake to Puddles as penance for the cockroach mishap. As soon as I see the ingredients, my cooking dreams are yet again placed on hold – where the hell am I supposed to get wheat?!

Animal Crossing New Horizons pumpkin patch in farm

(Image credit: Nintendo)

By doing some Animal Crossing: New Horizons farming, obviously, which requires me to get vegetable and crop starters from Leif. But that silly sloth only shows up on my island once a week, and I don't want to wait until then to get started on my crops. Puddles needs a carrot cake to forget about my cockroach-infested home, time is of the essence. At the risk of sounding redundant, I drop my Switch on the couch and pick up my phone yet again, furiously Googling "Leif shop every day." Turns out the weed wizard can have a permanent shop set up on Harv's Island – you just gotta pay 100,000 Bells to get him there.

The majority of my first few days back on Animal Crossing: New Horizons are split between tedious tidying, confused exploration, and determined Googling. The updates offer so much new stuff that isn't outwardly advertised that I'm equal parts irritatingly miffed and pleasantly surprised during playthroughs. I love surprise visitors and the ASMR I get from Brewster's coffee shop; I loathe the lack of direction for new features. It's a markedly different experience from when I initially played New Horizons and used it as my daily source of serotonin – it still has moments that genuinely make me squeal with delight (every time I see Flurry), but it also has its fair share of overwhelming tedium. I gave up on the canals, and there are still random clusters of flowers everywhere. I'm sorry, Isabel, I failed you.

Our Heather Wald went on a magical walking tour of their Animal Crossing: New Horizons island in first-person.

Alyssa Mercante

Alyssa Mercante is an editor and features writer at GamesRadar based out of Brooklyn, NY. Prior to entering the industry, she got her Masters's degree in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Newcastle University with a dissertation focusing on contemporary indie games. She spends most of her time playing competitive shooters and in-depth RPGs and was recently on a PAX Panel about the best bars in video games. In her spare time Alyssa rescues cats, practices her Italian, and plays soccer.