(Pocket-lint) - The Nintendo Switch has grown into a brilliant alternative to traditional games consoles. Its portability lends itself to games that don't particularly suit the Xbox One and PS4, and Nintendo's first-party exclusives will always make owners of those rival machines fizz with envy.
Nintendo has clearly taken its sweet, sweet time over its first Animal Crossing for Switch, to ensure that not only will it match the fanbase's expectations - but excel them.
New Horizons is far more than a 3DS remaster or rework, it is an expansion and advancement on everything that has gone before. And we are totally hooked.
Anyone who has played an Animal Crossing game in the series' 19-year existence will immediately know what to expect. And will find much that is familiar, to boot - especially in theme and graphical style. However, the gentle life sim has this time swallowed a survival game with a side order of Minecraft, resulting in something larger, more involving and, well, better.
Swapping the traditional town setting for a small, previously uninhabited island, New Horizons plonks you in the middle of nature - starting you out with just a tent and some nick-nacks and tasking you with, eventually, creating a thriving community of like-minded souls. It is idyllic and perfectly suited to both casual play when on the move, and more intense sessions when you have more time on your hands.
As with all AC games, the mainstay of this chapter is in collecting, bug and fossil hunting, fishing and building, all with an eye on forming bigger, better homes for yourself and your new animal neighbours. This time though, you also get to craft - a lot - and, eventually, unlock the ability to change the entire landscape through terraforming.
This makes it easily the most complete Animal Crossing yet and one with extraordinary longevity. It might start with not much open to you, but give it a few weeks and you'll soon be rewarded with the biggest array of customisation options offered yet.
You start by choosing your map from four randomly generated options, plus the location of your new home - in terms of northern or southern hemisphere. This is important as it determines which season and climate you begin with. Once chosen it is permanent - even for other players on the same Nintendo Switch - so you have to decide wisely as you won't be able to alter it without starting all over again.
The game suggests you set the hemisphere in relation to your own home, which will then ape the exact seasons you experience in the real-world: spring, summer, autumn and winter. However, should you fancy playing the opposite in-game to that outside the window, select the other hemisphere.
Like New Leaf on the 3DS and other former outings, New Horizons plays in real-time, with the real-world date and time in the lower left-hand corner and a synchronised day/night cycle. The time of the day makes a big difference to what kind of bugs and fish are available to catch, and they are seasonal, too, so you will need some dedication if you plan to catch something that only appears in winter, whereas you've started in spring.
Also like its predecessors, this latest Animal Crossing begins with simple challenges, in order to help you settle on the island. It then ups the ante on a daily basis, as you get more familiar with the controls and new features. These start out being mainly handed to you by the returning Tom Nook - who has become something of a multi-business entrepreneur in the last few years - and his nephews Timmy and Tommy.
As more of them are completed - and the island is further inhabited - others will ask you for help too, eventually giving you plenty to juggle on a daily basis. So, while the game seems a little sparse and small at first, it deliciously grows in a similar trajectory to your skillset, which is something Nintendo has been a master of since time began.
The majority of tasks either involve having to pay off debt - first for your on-island settlement package, then for each level of home you construct - and crafting tools and items to improve your surroundings. The first serves a stark reminder that, even when isolated on a deserted atoll with cute animal companions, you get nothing in life for free. While the second affords the game more purpose than ever before.
The in-depth crafting options added this time around mean everything on the island can be seen as a resource: trees for sticks and wood, rocks for stones, iron nuggets and clay, and even readily available weeds can be moulded into a makeshift umbrella. And, anything left over can be sold to earn enough cash (well, Bells, the in-game currency) to hand back to the penny-pinching, wannabe loan-shark Nook, before he sends the boys round.
To be fair, you're only paying him back for services rendered - and the boys are couple of two-foot raccoons - but it still feels like you never truly own anything. There's also always another opportunity to sink into debt again after each completed payment.
Still, there are plenty of Bells to be had everywhere - and we love the idea that everything you can pick up you can transfer into credit.
World Nook Day
Plus, on top of the regular monetary unit, New Horizons adds a new reward scheme in the form of Nook Miles. These are like reward stamps on a Starbucks card.
Indeed, you get virtual reward cards available through another of the new features, your NookPhone, so you can see exactly what you have to do in order to earn them. This can involve something simple, such as catch a certain number of fish or specific type, or can require a more long-term goal, like crafting hundreds of tools. Some of them are daily, easy rewards, while others need to be completed through many months of play.
Nook Miles are different to Bells in that, while you can still use them to pay for some of the rarer in-game items, they can also be spent to upgrade your entire experience - adding new functionality to your NookPhone, for example, or expanding your inventory to hold more items at any one time.
You can also spend them on tickets to take you off the island and to another, one-time-visit alternative, mostly in order to find resources not as readily available on your own. It is there you will encounter potential future islanders too.
Indeed, we found that it was essential to plan regular off-island visits, or it could've taken an extra week in real-time just to harvest enough iron nuggets to help build a shop. And, there can be bugs and fish there you might not have discovered elsewhere too.
For us, that was equally essential, as donating our unique findings to Blathers museum (set-up after a few days of initial grinding in the game) is one of the true highlights of New Horizons. Inside its hallowed halls, you can explore multiple levels, with separate areas for bugs - including a butterfly house - and fossils. Plus, there is a mighty aquarium wing, with the sort of tanks you'd see at the London Aquarium. Even a huge shark tank is available, with any catches you might have made. How a lowly AC islander can catch a shark escapes us for now, but it's an impressive sight for sure.
Fun with friends
Family and friends' islands are visitable as well, and provide other sources for materials for donation to the museum, for crafting, or simply to turn into cold hard cash.
Online and local multiplayer caters for up to eight players, with one being the host and others able to interact with the environment at a restricted level, depending on how trusted they are. You wouldn't want to, say, have a visitor cruelly chop down all your trees now, would you?
You can also have multiple players play on the same Switch. It can support up to four-player simultaneous play on the same screen, with each islander able to join in the fun using an individual Joy-Con or Switch controller.
One of the players is designated leader - which can be swapped - so the screen focuses on him or her, but you can do pretty much whatever you like on the island together, much as if you were playing solo. Plus, as players on the same Switch can all play on the same island (indeed, they have to as it's one island per install), they can even help advance each other's homes and living conditions.
If anything, that's the only main caveat to New Horizons. Cloud saving is not possible, so you can't play on one Switch and continue on another. So, if you do so happen to have a main living room Nintendo Switch and a Switch Lite for travelling (a rare scenario, we'll admit), you will have to start two totally separate adventures.
Or, if you have multiple profiles on the one Switch, they all have to play on the same island together. That's great for a family that wants to share their experiences, less so for feuding brothers and sisters who take pleasure in destroying what each has built.
One thing is for sure, whether you are playing on Switch Lite or a Switch in portable or docked mode, New Horizons looks great.
It is cartoony, as its predecessors, but there is great use of the available colour pallette, lighting and high-def crispness. With four seasons on offer, each with their own specific styling, plus weather effects and day/night cycle, the game has plenty to offer aesthetically.
It is perhaps at its best on the smaller, portable screen - whether that's the 5.5-inch display of the Lite or the 6.2-inch equivalent on the standard Switch - and we're happy to report that all text is purposely chunky to read easily to see at a glance. Strangely, that's not always the case on games for the console.
In terms of audio, we advise you to attach headphones when out and about as there are often sound cues for certain events, such as surprise packages floating overhead or NookPhone alerts and rings. And, you'll be missing out on some great ambience anyway if you don't.
Remarkably, for everything we've covered so far, we can't help feel we've only scratched the surface of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. We've only been playing the game for a couple weeks ourselves, albeit nonstop, so there is still much that even we need to do and experience.
But then, that's the fun of Animal Crossing. We were keen not to give away any significant spoilers, as the whole point of the series is surprise and discovery through exploration. However, we could have talked about so much more and still not given a whole lot away.
In many ways, we will be continuing our journey alongside yours, should you choose to take the plunge, and we're certain you'll be as enamoured by its delectable charms.
It must be said that, with its enhancements and extensions, Animal Crossing: New Horizons requires a fair amount of involvement to get the best from it. Indeed, it's so addictive it could end up taking over your real life. But boy does it reward you for your efforts.
This article was originally published 3 March 2020 and has been updated to reflect its full review status