Happy birthday, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Thanks for saving my 2020

Commentary: One year ago, in a world where suddenly nothing was reliable, an island game full of animals arrived.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
CNET freelancer Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
4 min read

Happy birthday to the best video game ever.


March 2020 is a month that a lot of us would like to forget. The coronavirus pandemic meant that schools and workplaces across the nation shut down, hand sanitizer and toilet paper sold out, and innocent activities such as karaoke and handshakes suddenly loomed as dangerous. But on March 20, 2020, one brave, bright light shone out of the darkness: Nintendo released Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the hand-held Nintendo Switch. The game went on to sell 31 million copies in 2020 alone.

Of all the pandemic escapes, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has a gentle staying power that beats that of sourdough bread baking, or Dalgona coffee making. You can't fail at it, for one thing -- looking at you, bread loaves that baked up like bricks. There's also no way to win at Animal Crossing: New Horizons. You choose your own goals, strike out on your own path.

In the game, you decide to move to a tropical island -- an especially appealing idea after worldwide travel was shut down. But unlike other video games, you don't have to raise a certain amount of crops or feed a herd of hungry animals or pursue a certain career path, and you certainly don't have to fight anyone. 

You can fish, or dive for sea creatures, pick fruit, plant flowers and try to get hybrid colors, craft items and sell them for the in-game currency of Bells. You can chop down trees, or you can plant trees. You can befriend a motley crew of animal neighbors, from cats to gorillas, give them gifts and have them give you gifts right back. (Um, Marshal, you can keep all those baby rompers.)


There are no travel restrictions in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Game screenshot by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper/CNET

If this all sounds tedious and boring to you, I get it. It would have sounded that way to me too before I played it. I can't exactly explain why it's so compelling. Maybe it's a combination of the stuck-at-home factor lining up perfectly with an extremely well-designed game experience. Maybe it's an escape at the very time all doors seemed closed. Maybe, once in a rare while, we get the game we deserve just when we need it most.

The past year of Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been well-chronicled here on CNET.  The game creators told us about how landlord Tom Nook is nicer in this game than in past versions. We offered tips on catching the elusive stringfish. We revealed how to give your character tattoos or C-section scars.  We showed how to bring the AC experience into your actual house. And how to make up your own games within the game. Celebrated social-distancing birthdays. Took a trip to Joe Biden's island. Suggested five improvements Nintendo should make to the game. Marveled at the characters re-creating the musical Hamilton. And simply reveled in the simple joys of this security blanket of games.

As a Gen Xer, I was there when the deep magic of video games was written. I played Pong when it seemed like the pinnacle of technological accomplishment, logged hours pushing Frogger across a busy road on the Atari 2600, regularly died fording the river along the Oregon Trail. I wandered through Castle Wolfenstein on an Apple II, the first home computer I ever saw. 


Holiday celebrations in Animal Crossing: New Horizons didn't suffer from any social distancing or crowd limitations.


But then life and career and marriage and parenthood intervened, and video games fell away for me for a long time. Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and an unforeseen pandemic, brought them back.

In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, you can mail a postcard to another player, to one of your villagers, or, oddly enough, to your future self, to arrive six or 12 or however many months down the road. On an especially shaky day last year, when every bit of real-world news was worse than the last (and inspired by a touching viral tweet from a player who sent one from "Past Madison" to "Future Madison"), I did the same. 

I poured into it all the questions my coronavirus-coping self had: Are you out of quarantine? Are you both still employed? Are schools open again?  Is everyone still OK? Is there a vaccine? Please let there be a vaccine.

It's a fake postcard sent to a fictional character on a virtual island, but writing down those questions felt real, one tiny desperate prayer lobbed into the darkness. I haven't received it yet. But someday I'll open the game, walk to my pretty little blue mailbox outside my quaint little Tiffany-blue house, read what I wrote, and remember how scary and dark the real world seemed in mid-2020. 

I don't know if all of those questions will be answered in the positive yet, but things are already so much better than when I dashed it off. When it arrives, I imagine my little character will stand there at her virtual mailbox for a second, pondering all that's gone by and giving a little thanks. And then off I'll go, to plant pear trees and catch sea bass and collect sand dollars on the beach.