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Local co-op in Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a huge disappointment

Online play is fun. But the local co-op is severely limited. Elise Favis explains the two modes, and what Nintendo needs to do to improve both. (Video: The Washington Post)

During this global pandemic, I wanted to be near family. After a long drive to reunite with them, I hoped to play Animal Crossing: New Horizons with my brother to curb boredom during social isolation. But when we booted up the game, we were let down by disappointing and lackluster local co-op. We gave up before making any real progress.

Animal Crossing, Nintendo’s cheerful life simulation series, has long included online multiplayer. In the lead up to New Horizons, Nintendo teased a more involved multiplayer experience, introducing up to 8-player online and 4-player local co-op. Playing cooperatively with friends and family on a single Nintendo Switch was an exciting prospect, because the franchise had never tackled that before.

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My brother didn’t own a Nintendo Switch, but he’s a fan of the series. So when I arrived at home, we imagined we would share an island part-time, but also make our own islands on separate accounts. That style of play isn’t possible in New Horizons — and what’s currently in the game doesn’t come close.

In New Horizons, players using a single Switch are restricted to one shared island, without an option for each player to create their own. In turn, the first player has the most control: They choose the original layout of the land, and additional players will be met by gated progress, unable to proceed through main quests and certain activities until the initial player does so. For example, a museum needs to be built in order for players to donate to or access it, but only the island representative (the initial player) can construct the building.

It’s an odd setup, and one that can be downright infuriating if you find yourself waiting around for a friend or family member to hop back into the game.

When playing with others in local co-op, you designate a leader and the rest become followers. Unfortunately, there are hindrances here too. Since local co-op uses a shared screen, others follow you into whatever buildings you enter, and they can’t wander too far alone (when they do, they respawn next to the leader in a puff of smoke). Without a split screen, this severely limits everyone’s freedom.

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Moreover, the controls for two players on separate joy-cons aren’t intuitive. When users explore their island together, the second player has no access to their inventory or tool wheel. Instead, they repeatedly press a single button to cycle through their tools. And when the leader opens a menu, any activity the followers may be doing, like fishing, automatically ceases.

Most frustrating of all is that your island feels tailored for a single-player experience: Some activities are just plain impossible when playing with a friend. You can’t go on Mystery Island Tours together to mine resources on randomized islands, which is problematic when resources are scarce to begin with. Limited island materials and fruit may leave you fighting with family members and friends, frantically racing to harvest before others pick resources dry. This is contradictory to Animal Crossing’s overall soothing experience that encourages slow and thoughtful gameplay.

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These problems haven’t gone unnoticed by fans: Some have taken to review bombing the game on Metacritic.

But not all is lost. I regularly return to online multiplayer, which gets a lot right. Playing with a big group is chaotically entertaining, as we bop one another on the head with nets or chase each other while tapping on a tambourine or blowing into an ocarina. In fact, it can be difficult to keep track of all of your visitors, since islands are quite large. (Player icons on the mini-map would have solved this problem).

Altogether, though, having friends over is very silly and fun, and feels right at home in Animal Crossing’s whimsical world.

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The online multiplayer can be a welcome reprieve from today’s difficult circumstances and a nice way to connect with others. Exchanging letters between friends once they’ve traveled to you (these will be sent to their mailbox on their respective island) is also a fun way to express generosity, and an in-game camera with filters and frames lets you preserve memories.

A slew of emotes helps bring a dynamic feel to interactions. Voice chat is available, too, through the Switch Online App. This app also lets you type with your phone keyboard (or, alternatively, you can plug a USB keyboard into a docked Nintendo Switch).

Online multiplayer also makes it easier to acquire rare or unique items, including DIY (crafting) recipes, furniture, clothes and fruit. You can “trade” with another player by dropping items on the ground, and letting others pick them up. Or you can wrap items up as gifts and hide them around the island like a scavenger hunt. For those who enjoy custom designs (i.e. custom-made clothes), you can share and download these in the Able Sisters tailor shop.

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The activities you can do with others are limited, though not nearly as restrictive as co-op. Once friends have had a tour of your town, there’s little left for them to do. Still, for those who take customization seriously, showing off their island can be a moment of pride. The opposite is fun too: Visiting a well-made island with finely tuned customization is an exciting moment. Collaboration is another big draw for me: One of my friends regularly visits my island to give me tips on decorating, and to suggest where I should terraform next.

This feeling of discovery is one I hoped to have in local co-op too, though it’s not entirely nonexistent: It’s fun to see how a friend or family member molds the island to their liking on their own time. And your villagers remark when your friend has been online and what they were up to. But without a more robust local co-op system, these elements remain skin deep.

If you’re thinking of buying Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the multiplayer experience, it’s best to ditch couch co-op completely and play online instead. However, this may not be in an acceptable price range for most consumers: Animal Crossing: New Horizons is priced at $59.99, and a Nintendo Switch itself is $299 (and, if you don’t care about playing on a big screen, a Switch Lite is $199). If you want to play with a friend and experience the game at its best, you need at least two copies of the game and two systems.

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That’s the approach my brother and I took, at least, and we’re having fun. He visits my island and vice versa, so we can compare progress, trade rare items and occasionally join up with bigger groups.

Hopefully, local co-op can be ironed out at a later date. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is akin to a live-service game, after all, and Nintendo has explicitly said updates, like seasonal events, are coming. With that in mind, we hope Nintendo listens to player feedback and implements some tweaks later on to make this wonderful game better with friends.

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