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I first played Animal Crossing almost two decades ago, in 2002, and if you had told me then that twenty years later I would be Acrossing the Miles with some of my favorite cartoonists, I’m not sure how I would have reacted.

The long-running Nintendo series has you step into the shoes of the sole human inhabitant of a village populated by adorable anthropomorphic animals. There, you’ll befriend the locals, collect furniture and clothes, create custom patterns, decorate your house, and capture seasonal fauna. In other words: it’s everything you need to cling to the thin shred of your sanity in quarantine.

Halloween 2020 in Animal Crossing with Freebird and Rebecca Kaplan.

GameCube Origins

As a kid in the United States, I didn’t have access to the original incarnation of the game on Nintendo 64: instead, I had to wait for the GameCube version. But when it finally arrived in September 2002, it was worth the wait.

Just like the current Switch version of the game, the GameCube Animal Crossing was intimately connected to the system’s internal clock and calendar. If you play at 3:00 A.M., it’s 3:00 A.M. in the game; during December, the ground will be covered in snow; on Halloween, your neighbors will demand you distribute a treat or face tricksy retribution.

Creepy Halloween 2020 shennanigans with Avery, Rebecca, and Cookie of Kittiwake.

The idea of the real-world passage of time affecting a video game was somewhat novel at the time (diurnal and nocturnal Pokémon had only recently been introduced in Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver, released for Game Boy Color in North America in 2000), and Animal Crossing utilized it to great effect. Players attempting to manipulate the GameCube’s internal clock could see themselves forced to endure a lecture from the surly time-policing mole, Mr. Resetti.

Snow-folk on Dharma Island.

However, for those fans who are only familiar with the more recent incarnations of the franchise, the limited capabilities of the GameCube version may come as something of a shock.

“I’ll always fondly remember the GameCube one,” Simon Hanselmann told me when I visited Tasmania, his Animal Crossing island. “You know, it’s so basic: you’re stuck in the horned hat. You couldn’t change your hat! It was terrible!”

And for those of us whose interest in the series has outlasted the gender we were assigned at birth, there can be some especially strange moments in the recollecting.

Avery and Emma (Pseudonym Jones) attend a concert, as in the before-fore times.

“Actually, this is the first Animal Crossing that I’ve played as a female character,” Pseudonym Jones told me when I visited Hollyhill. “I remember playing New Leaf [on 3DS], and when you wore a skirt you had a different walk, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t let anybody see this.’ I would wear the skirt, but I would be very secretive about it. I always made sure to take it off before I saved the game, because that’s how closeted I was.”

Crisis Point

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was originally meant to be released in 2019, but on June 11th, 2019, during a Nintendo Direct presentation, senior executive officer Yoshiaki Koizumi announced that the game would be released a little later than expected, with a delayed launch date of March 20th, 2020.

Avery, Freebird, and Rebecca enjoy the fireworks show.

Although it was impossible to know at the time, the updated release date meant that the game’s launch would be almost perfectly timed to the United States being unwillingly plunged into quarantine.

In the week leading up to the game’s March 2020 release, I prepared by booting up my copy of New Leaf and transposing outfits from old Katy Keene comics into clothing patterns that I would be able to upload when the Switch version was released.

Technically, this outfit was worn in the Katy Keene comic by the eponymous character’s sister, Melissa.

And what a release it was: with the larger world in quarantine, there wasn’t much to do besides Animal Crossing. And with the huge degree of uncertainty at work in the real, COVID-infected world in March 2020, the peaceful fantasy of Animal Crossing was more alluring than ever.

Megan Brennan‘s doll council.

“In Animal Crossing, everything is quiet, and you get to be with people and you get to build your little town, and you’re kind of isolated in a nice little warm space,” said Megan Brennan when I visited Jellicle, perfectly encapsulating why the game was such an antidote to those early days of quarantine.

“Timing wise, they couldn’t have planned for people being trapped in their houses like we are, having so much time to burn on this game,” Ron Chan observed when I visited his island, Figaro. “I think they imagined it would take people a lot longer to go through the content.”

“I feel like in some ways the most valuable thing that Animal Crossing has given us as a society is given us a reason to be excited to get up in the morning,” joked Alison Wilgus when I visited their island, Cranberry.

They used Animal Crossing to hold a book release party for The Mars Challenge. And they weren’t the only ones to utilize the virtual book release party strategy!

Mathew New of the island Koriko also arranged a special space on their island for the release of Billy Johnson and his Duck are Explorers. He explained that 2020 was a difficult year for a comic to be released, particularly a debut.

“It’s an interesting year to have a debut book coming out,” New said. “Because you kind of think you’re going to get to have… You spend all this time and you’re working on this thing, and you kind of get a tiny little window where you feel like you’re being kind of recognized for it more publically, and that’s kind of all gone away this year.”

Acrossing the Miles

Perhaps one element of Animal Crossing that has allowed so many different people to embrace it is the customizable aspects, which run to almost every aspect of how you play the game. For example, when I visited Atlas Isle, Steenz told me that before the museum expansion was released, she started designing some art of her own.

Steenz‘s fine art collection.

“I painted these before we got an art museum in the game,” Steenz said, showing me her depictions of Girl with a Pearl Earring, Saturn Devouring his Son, Birth of Venus, and Ophelia. “But I still love doing them because they’re super relaxing.”

Seth Smith‘s rural kitchen.

One of the fascinating aspects of visiting multiple cartoonists’ islands is seeing how each individual makes the game their own. For example, on Beans, the island of Seth Smith, the cartoonist has made a concentrated effort to incorporate environmental storytelling. He described the thought process behind his placement of a train track custom design: “‘I’ll just put them places like maybe a train used to run through.’ It’s narrative!”

As Aatmaja Pandya said when I visited her island, Mezzaluna, “Each island has their personality, so it really does feel like visiting a friend.”

Acrossing the Miles: Year Two?

Visiting Wendy Browne‘s island over the summer!

We’re nine months into Animal Crossing and the COVID-19 pandemic, and Nintendo has continued to consistently update New Horizons – a pattern that seems likely to continue into 2021.

Along with essential additions like more inclusive hairstyles and save data advancements, the updates have introduced more characters and furniture. But there’s still one type of furniture that is sorely lacking in New Horizons.

One of my favorite updates introduced Pascal, the otter who clearly has the munchies thanks to a stash of seaweed.

“I’m seriously stressed about the lack of food items!” said Wendy Xu when I visited her island, Salt Falls.

Hopefully, one of the 2021 Animal Crossing updates will remedy the problem. We’re very hungry, Nintendo, and we’re coming back for seconds!

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