Animal Crossing: New Horizons is out on the Switch today. I’ve already splashed down on my island retreat, met my fellow islanders, and sold a ridiculous amount of weeds (yes, with an S, you narc), and although I am deeply enamored with it all so far, there are some things you just can’t replace. You’ll always remember your first time, which for me was on the GameCube in 2002. I got my GameCube as an engagement present (yes, again, I am old) specifically to play Animal Crossing, which was the first (and, for a few months, only) game I had for the system. I kept up with it regularly for a full year, making it part of my daily routine, and experiencing pretty much every special event and secret packed away within it. And then, not long after, my soon-to-be-wife created her own character, and I got to relive it all over again by watching her time in Fantarea. (Yes, I named my village after an album by a band I’m in. Yes, I’ve always been this way.)
In time, though, our visits dropped off. By 2004 we had both exhausted everything there was to do in Fantarea. I apparently poked back in again briefly in 2006, based on the messages on the town message board, but otherwise our fair town and its motley crew of villagers sat dormant for over a decade. A lot of weeds can sprout over 15 years, and entire legions of cockroaches can find their way into your house. Animals, even the nice ones, aren’t exactly thrilled with you when you don’t say hello for a decade and a half—in fact, they routinely remind you the specific amount of months it’s been since you’ve last hung out.
I assumed checking in on this almost forgotten town would be nostalgic, that it’d take me back to 2003, when I’d chat with Wolfgang and Bubbles every day, and search for new bones or bugs to donate to Blathers at the museum. The truth is I had forgotten almost everything about Fantarea. Other than Wolfgang the heavy metal wolf, who I worked hard to make my best friend, I didn’t recognize any of the other villagers. I met a bear who sleeps, and have no recollection of ever having seen him before. I had absolutely no memory of how my village was laid out, and wound up never even visiting the museum. Details jumped out at me that I had no recollection of, like the wanted poster on the police station’s wall, and a sign that said TOUGH SHIT that was posted throughout our town.
Despite it being 15 years, no time had passed at all in Fantarea. The technology was the same it was in 2002—no smart phones, no references to apps or streaming. Instead of finding a little community that had gone on living its life without me, it was more obvious than ever that this world simply does not exist when I’m not in it. The villagers could remind me that 192 months had passed by, or however long it has been, but they couldn’t even begin to act like they had done or felt anything in that time. They’d say that once and then everything would immediately be back to normal. Worse, some didn’t even acknowledge the passing of time—they just started talking to me like a neighbor they’d been talking to regularly forever. For them, that’s true—the last time they existed was the last time I visited them, back in the summer of 2006. It’s like this little music box of a world had sat quiet and still for 15 years, and only sprang back into action once I turned the crank by powering on my Wii. (Yeah, I sold my GameCube long ago.)
Despite its detailed and valiant simulation of life—or maybe because of—Animal Crossing winds up feeling even more prescribed and hermetically sealed than most games. It’s not a game that was built to last—the thought of staying active in this village all this time, writing the same letters and trading the same clothes and participating in the same holidays and festivals, is one of the most depressing things I can think of in videogames. Animal Crossing might be playable for however long your memory card and hardware lasts, but it only really lives for about a year. Beyond that it’s like its own little version of Groundhog Day, but without the self-growth or Stephen Tobolowsky cameo.
I loaded up Animal Crossing expecting to feel a great sense of warmth and nostalgia. Instead I felt nothing. Thankfully New Horizons is now out to potentially help me feel the way I did back in 2002.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.