Every fan of the long-running series, Animal Crossing, had March 20, 2020 circled on their calendar since the release date was announced. At the time, COVID-19 was not on anyone's radar. But as the release date inched closer, the news around the world was quickly becoming grim. A new COVID illness was turning into a full blown pandemic. New territory for many in this lifetime. Lockdowns and Shelter in Place orders were being issued worldwide. Boredom and loneliness was setting in quick for many.
There was help for the isolation coming in a way that many would not have thought. By using the online capabilities in Animal Crossing, players were able to virtually visit and hang out with their friends again.
On midnight of March 20th, if the digital version was purchased, the game could be downloaded, and many started their island paradise adventure. Others went out hunting down the Switch so they could play this game. The Animal Crossing communities sprang back to life. A new fan base was born.
For those not familiar with the game, a created character starts out by agreeing to help convert a deserted island into a bustling town with fun animal neighbors and attractions. The game was launched with many of the standards of the series, and like all games, it gently walks a player through getting started.
On the first day, after landing on the island with two other islanders, and the Nooks, it's time to get to work. Tom Nook, who always plays a major role in the game, helps guide players through the basics so the world isn't as intimidating when setting out to explore. Players are given a basic tent, taught how to gather resources, the basics of crafting, and are given small quests to help build up the island and move into a home. As the island develops, players can add 10 NPC (not player controlled) islanders, who come in the form of cute animals. Two players can reside on one island. Playable characters are in human form and are customizable.
Early on in the game, within the first few hours, the airport opens. This is where the game helped break the isolation for many. With a Nintendo Switch Online account, players are able to connect with friends, or even strangers met through various communities for trading, completing activities together, visiting, and so much more.
A Nintendo Switch Online account is inexpensive when compared to the other console online plans. While monthly and quarterly prices are available, a year for a single account costs $19.99 with the family plan costing $34.99. The family plan allows for up to 8 people to be on the account. Everyone uses their own payment options for online purchasing, so it is not uncommon for friends to pitch in and purchase a family plan to get the cost down.
Once the ability to visit other islands or have others visit the player, the game really opened up the world for many again. Players were able to go visit their friends and hang out. Meeting up for fishing and bug hunting tournaments is not uncommon. There are actually boosters for teaming up, to encourage people to do so. With the timer tool in the second upgrade of Nook's Cranny, people came up with their own games. Some based off of games that the NPCs would want to play, such as treasure hunter, where someone buries a "treasure" on the island, sets a certain amount of time on the timer, and their friends had until time ran out to find the treasure. Hide and seek became a favorite. Many did their own fishing tournaments.
As weeks in quarantine turned into months, we started missing out on holidays, birthdays, and other things together. Animal Crossing players had a solution. Birthdays are celebrated in game anyway. Every islander has their own birthday, which comes with a party. And on a player's birthday, their islanders will throw a surprise party, complete with a special concert from K.K.Slider, a series favorite character. It didn't take long for people to invite their friends to their islands to celebrate their birthday with them or even for the friends to plan a second party on someone else's island. With the many items in game, coming up with gift ideas for these gatherings is not hard.
The month of August introduced firework shows at 7pm on Sundays. Hanging out with friends on the island with the fireworks in the background often gave that backyard summer hangout feel. The custom design tool, which allows for the creation of clothes and patterns, could also be used to design specialty fireworks for a player's island. So island hopping during these shows to see what other's made is fun for those who love to see the creativity of others.
There are meteor showers to watch together, and with islands having different weather patterns, pop up parties are not uncommon. Many will open their islands to strangers for these by posting on one of the many Animal Crossing Communities. These communities are also a great place for new players to learn about the nuances of the game and all players to trade items and help others complete collections.
Nintendo has always worked holidays into the game as events. During these events, the majority is done with just the player and their NPC animal neighbors. But with some creativity, players were adding to the events for their friends. One community had a member posting a different kind of Easter Egg hunt than what was built into the game. They hid wrapped bags around their island with spring items in it for people to find.
Because of many proms and graduations being cancelled again in 2021, Nintendo added clothing for proms and graduations. Prom wallpaper and flooring were added, as well as prom court crowns and sashes. Players are already planning on recreating proms and even graduations with these additions. A wall hanging item called formal paper was already in the game, but will work well to hang in one's home to represent their high school diploma.
While virtual events will never fully fill the void that is in many lives because of the pandemic, Animal Crossing allowed many a bit of normalcy. It gave the community a way to interact with their friends and recreate yearly events that they would miss. Perusing the plethora of community groups and websites that are dedicated to the game, it is not hard to find someone doing an event. Whether it is star gazing or a cookout. By interacting with those in the community and visiting each other's islands for these home grown events, friendships are being forged that will last long after the pandemic is under control. For many, both the virtual animal friends, as well as the new friends met while playing, Animal Crossing has eased the boredom and isolation caused by the pandemic.