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Animal Crossing: New Horizons guy in a top hat

Fun File: Animal Crossing’s Co-Op Evolution

Nintendo showing us that players really do make the game

Spanning more than two decades and having appeared on six different platforms since its launch on Nintendo 64 in 2001, the Animal Crossing series has become a Nintendo fan-favourite. The adorable slice-of-life game is all about making friends and collecting goods in real time, and you’ll find yourself trading rare fruits and items, sentimental letters and fashionable clothing with a variety of characters in order to stay up to date with the latest trends.

As we’ve all discovered over the course of Melbourne’s (and the world’s) numerous lengthy lockdowns, though, the Animal Crossing experience becomes a whole lot sweeter when your human friends join the fun. It’s something that the series has prided itself on, and with Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ one and only DLC expansion released just last week, we’re here today to celebrate exactly that: focusing on the core series, we’ll be taking a look through the multiplayer features that have come and gone from Animal Crossing, starting with the first title from 2001.


Animal Forest (2001)

Animal Forest (N64) screenshot
Animal Forest (N64)

It was two decades ago when we first encountered the series that would become Animal Crossing — and a worldwide phenomenon. The first title in the series was a Japanese exclusive Nintendo 64 cartridge called Animal Forest. For those interested in exactly what players could buy and decorate with twenty years ago, here’s a remarkably interesting ASMR video looking through the original Japanese strategy guidebook.

Back on topic though, and quite surprisingly, multiplayer functionality was available even this early on. Animal Forest allowed up to four players to live in the one town together, but with a couple of caveats: you lived in a predetermined location near the town’s entrance, and only one of the four players could be on screen at any given time.

Animal Forest (N64) screenshot
Animal Forest (N64)

Although there could only be one player actually playing the game at a time, it was entirely possible to visit your friends’ towns as well, just like it is in the more modern instalments. Using a Nintendo 64 Controller Pak stored in the back of the controller, you could travel to your friend’s hometown, which allowed you to see how they decorate and also to buy extra furniture or clothing from Tom Nook. You could also bury items in your friend’s town for them to pick up later, purchase items from their personal gyroid, Lloid, and collect the local fruit — which, of course, could be different to your own island’s. It all comes together to create a fun, connected experience… without actually being connected.


Animal Crossing (2001-2004)

Animal Crossing (GameCube) screenshot
Animal Crossing (GameCube)

The series’ first international release the GameCube’s Animal Crossing is essentially the exact same game as Animal Forest, but with some added features like having a journal in your room, Blathers’ museum, and a new shop: the Able Sisters’ clothing store.

Given that it’s largely the same game, it stands to reason that the multiplayer offering is the same as well. You can still have up to four players living in the one town, you’re still limited to only one person on screen at any given time, and you can still visit your friends’ towns just as you could on the Nintendo 64 — except you now use GameCube memory cards instead of the Nintendo 64 Controller Pak.


Animal Crossing: Wild World (2005-2006)

Animal Crossing: Wild World (DS) screenshot
Animal Crossing: Wild World (DS)

Player interaction made great strides in 2005, when Animal Crossing: Wild World launched on Nintendo DS complete with the ability to use the internet to travel to each other’s towns in real time. It still only supported one person on screen at a time, so you couldn’t actually interact with your friends directly, Wild World was the first time players could access each other’s towns while they were both playing. It also allowed players to send each other letters at any time, using local or internet connections.

Although Wild World’s Wi-Fi features have long since been discontinued, there’s still some footage of the feature out there:

Not all of the inclusions are positive, however, as Wild World now forces the four players on one save file to share the one house — a limitation that has since been removed. Wild World also debuted a message-in-a-bottle system, where players could write a letter and send it to another player’s beach by… literally tossing them into the ocean. It’s a good thing that feature has been discontinued as well, given that promoting ocean littering isn’t the best message to be sending to kids.

Players can also get Celeste’s help in customising their own constellations and sharing their patterns with other players; I’ve been wishing upon the stars that Nintendo would bring this feature back, but given that Nintendo isn’t committing to any further content updates, it looks like I might be waiting for the next Animal Crossing release.


Animal Crossing: City Folk (2008)

Animal Crossing: City Folk (Wii) screenshot
Animal Crossing: City Folk (Wii)

Returning to home consoles with the Wii’s Animal Crossing: City Folk, we saw further advancements in live player interaction; you could now send and receive messages in real time, and — even more impressively — partake in live voice chat using the Wii Speak add-on. This easy communication makes playing together feel even more immersive and connected than ever before, especially with the ability to learn a set of in-game expressions!

Outside of its new messaging features, though, Animal Crossing: City Folk goes back to the series’ roots, allowing all of the players on a save file to live in their own houses, randomly placed around your village. On top of that, Lloid the Gyroid gets his own place too: he’ll now sell your items to visiting friends at his own auction house in the city.

Animal Crossing: City Folk’s official online functionality has been discontinued, but some fans are continuing it by hosting their own online servers — an excerpt of that is embedded below.


Animal Crossing: New Leaf (2012-2013)

Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS) screenshot
Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS)

2012 was a brilliant year to be an Animal Crossing fan, as the Nintendo 3DS’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf brought a buffet of new online features for all to enjoy. With both local and online play (which is still running today!), players can shop in the huge entertainment district, fish from the land, or even dive under the sea together.

Much like the previous titles, up to three players can visit your town at a time, but they can now all be on the screen at once, which came in handy now that players and their friends could travel to Tortimer Island and challenge each other in 12 different multiplayer Tours. The Island Tours were the first time Animal Crossing allowed players to compete against each other, battling for rewards that they could use to purchase exclusive items at Gram’s island shop. The Island Tours have been the best multiplayer feature to come to Animal Crossing in the series’ history, in my view, as they were always quite different and a whole lot of fun; I truly hope to see them return to the series at some stage.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS) screenshot
Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS)

On top of that, Animal Crossing: New Leaf marked the first time that each person on the same game file could pick and choose where their houses would be placed. The first player on the island would be deemed the Mayor, and would receive access to additional special services, but everyone had that little bit of freedom to choose where they’d live and plan their home accordingly.


Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020)

Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch) screenshot
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch)

Eight years after New Leaf revolutionised the way Animal Crossing players could play the game together, Animal Crossing: New Horizons did it all over again. Arriving on Nintendo’s most powerful and innovative console to date, and at the perfect time to help a lot of isolated souls deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, New Horizons took the games industry by storm, making fans out of even the most skeptical players.

New Horizons takes full advantage of the Switch’s power by allowing four players to play the game at once on the one console, and eight players in total to live on the one island. You could also have up to eight visitors on the island at any given time as well, making this by far the most multiplayer-friendly title of the bunch, and allowing for even more local fishing, bug collecting and of course, trading. One of the more underrated bonuses of having eight players living in a single town is just how well it works with the new ability to place furniture outside your home, meaning that players could come together to build truly unique islands and neighbourhoods, with hidden gems in every nook and cranny.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch) screenshot
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch)

New Horizons’ vastly improved multiplayer functionality has also proven particularly useful to anyone looking to get their debts to Tom Nook paid off quickly and get to the relaxing part of island living. It’s easier than ever to trade valuable DIY cards you might be missing so that you can start crafting big-ticket items either to sell at Nook’s Cranny or use to decorate your home and garden, but the main money-maker is turnips: every island’s turnip price varies, and the ease with which players can connect with each other allows players to find the best prices they can find and travel to those islands nice and quickly to sell them off for a massive profit.

Of course, you’ve also still got the ability to send letters to your friends both on your island and on their own; you can also attach gifts to those letters if you’re feeling generous! You’ll also receive gifts and letters from AI townspeople as well, which is a nice touch. It’s not hard to see how New Horizons won awards for its multiplayer offering given just how important it has been to stay in touch in whatever way you could over the last couple of years.


Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch) screenshot
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch)

Going forward?

It might be a series that revolves around living your best life with the animal friends that inhabit your village, but the one thing that has remained the same throughout the Animal Crossing series is that sharing the joy of Animal Crossing with your real-world friends will earn you better rewards, whether that’s in the form of more Bells, fruits and other items that are more difficult to acquire, or even just that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when a friend sends you a letter.

With that in mind, it’s safe to assume that that will continue to be the case as the series continues to evolve; New Horizons’ downloadable expansion, Happy Home Paradise, was focused on the single-player side of the experience, but we’re sure there’s more multiplayer content on the horizon!


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