Hmmm

The launch of Animal Crossing: New Horizons creeps ever closer, and fans are absolutely gagging to set themselves up on Tom Nook's island and once again place themselves under the yoke of the tyrant raccoon and his Mini-Mes. It's gonna be amazing!

Yet despite a steady flow of new information bringing excitement at seeing old favourites return, there's also a second flow of info that's less welcome and consistently leaves me scratching my head. By this I mean the slow drip feed from the 'WTF' tap which sullies every announcement and leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

I want to preface this with the fact that I love Animal Crossing. I clocked up several hundred hours with Animal Crossing: Wild World, easily the best game on DS - I still have no idea how you monsters didn't vote it into our Top 50 DS games! Animal Crossing: New Leaf on 3DS got similar treatment from yours truly, and despite a slight disappointment that the upcoming Switch entry seems to play it very safe rather than using the power of the platform to push boundaries, I'm still itching to take Nook up on his offer of an island getaway. Animal Crossing has always been a refreshing tonic to help escape life's irritations and annoyances, and now and then we could all do with a drop of escapism.

Yet at every turn Nintendo seems to be complicating matters where things were once simple. We've known since last year that Nook's island in the upcoming game is a one-console, one-island deal. It doesn't matter if you've got multiple copies of the game, or kids that want an island each - multiple islands require multiple Switches. It's not ideal, but it forces people to play together and there's an argument that it's an endearing restriction that enforces empathetic, social play. Fine, we can get on board with that.

How about some common sense? Eh!?
How about some common sense? Eh!?

Still, it's hard to deny the negatives of some of the companies other decisions. Given the fact that Switch is a portable console and thus infinitely more liable to be dropped, lost or stolen than your Xbox One or PS4, the game's lack of cloud save compatibility is less easy to forgive. We've been here before, several times in fact. The list of games which aren't compatible with cloud saves isn't as short as it should be and contains several first-party titles including Pokémon Sword and Shield and Splatoon 2. Players invest huge amounts of time and effort in Animal Crossing - hundreds, even thousands of hours go into cultivating villages, into building collections and relationships. The idea that all that could be lost when Nintendo already has a system-wide cloud save system in place seems unthinkable - to the point where I often think I must have hit my head or misunderstood somehow. It's such a blindingly obvious, common sense feature.

There's more. Not only is switching save data between systems impossible for this game, but at present you won't be able to move your island to another Switch on a permanent basis via a system transfer either. Don't worry if it takes a while for that to sink in - as I type this I still can't quite believe it's true, but there you go. Fans build strong attachments to their AC villages, and based on previous games having to give mine up would genuinely force me to reconsider buying new hardware.

Today, however, it seems common sense may have prevailed and Nintendo is thinking about providing a way to back up your save data. New Horizons still won't be compatible with the Nintendo Switch Online cloud saves, but a suitably 'Nintendo-like solution' is under consideration according to the game's Japanese Q&A page. Google Translate gives the following answer to the question 'Can I back up my Save Data?' a characteristically quirky feel, but the details are clear enough:

This software does not support "Save Data Storage" of Nintendo Switch Online, but in case of failure, loss or theft of the Nintendo Switch [console], we are considering a function to back up save data. Use of this function is limited to Nintendo Switch Online subscribers. Correspondence time is undecided. We will inform you as soon as the time is decided.

So, from the sound of it a Super Mario Maker 2-style walk-back patch may be implemented at some stage that will let you retrieve your island should the worst happen. Bear in mind that this must involve some variety of online backup as confirmed by the 'failure, loss or theft' part of the above answer, and this potential solution would only be available to Switch Online users. Obviously the translation is far from perfect and implies a totally separate solution from Switch's already-running cloud save system. Presumably this would give Nintendo more control to monitor for nefarious data-duplication activity.

the inability to transfer your island to a new Switch [...] steps over a line from 'ah, Nintendo gonna Nintendo' into something that's consumer-unfriendly and, ultimately, damaging to the company's business.

All of these issues come down to the fact that Nintendo doesn't want people tinkering with clocks and gaming the system with Animal Crossing: New Horizons. That's understandable - duped islands, items and the rest have the potential to spoil the experience for some, but it has reached the tipping point for me where I really don't care. It's a game and I'll spend the majority of my time playing offline in handheld mode. Frankly, I couldn't care less if some cheater wants to dupe items, and it increasingly feels like fans who just want to breed flowers and sow turnips are suffering due to the platform holder's heavy-handed, old-fashioned approach to the modern internet and gaming in general.

For all its advances and social multiplayer features, New Horizons appears to be very much the same style of walled garden as the previous games. We're not getting blistering new MMO zones or bustling marketplaces or communal urban areas to visit and interact with strangers in - at least not unless Nintendo's been keeping the lid on some incredible new features. Every island will be its own self-contained pocket of paradise that you invite others into if you want. Given that context, draconian restrictions feel at odds with how the majority of players want to play the game, and out of step with other companies who solved these sorts of problems years ago.

Trowel

Cumulatively, these constraints and blanket 'one-system, one-island' edicts start to feel wilfully, aggressively ignorant. Personally, the inability to transfer your New Horizons island to a new Switch if, say, I wanted to upgrade from a Switch Lite to the standard model steps over a line from 'ah, Nintendo gonna Nintendo' into something that's consumer-unfriendly and, ultimately, damaging to the company's business.

Imagine if your New Leaf village had been trapped on the first 3DS you played it on. That sure would have made me think twice about upgrading to a New 3DS.

Say, for example, my child has a Switch Lite and desperately wants the gorgeous new Animal Crossing-themed standard Switch. "Hold up Lil' Timmy," I might reasonably say, "that Switch Lite is barely six-months-old! No, no, you can have Animal Crossing for your birthday and if you're lucky maybe we'll think about another Switch for Christmas." Except as things stand Timmy would have to say goodbye to his animal friends and start over again on an entirely new island on another Switch. Both Daddy and Timmy would be understandably displeased in this scenario, and it's one we can imagine playing out across the world as Nintendo inevitably releases more themed Switches down the road. How many 3DS consoles did you go through? Imagine if your New Leaf village had been trapped on the first 3DS you played it on. That sure would have made me think twice about upgrading to a New 3DS.

The whole situation is confounding and needlessly complicated. Throw in Nintendo Switch Online subscriptions required for each player and all the other caveats of the software in a game designed to be shared between children, parents and gamers all over the world, and it starts to feel like more trouble than it's worth. Much like the online component of Mario Maker 2 which bafflingly didn't let you play with friends online at launch, or the fact that despite having access to a system-level friends list, that same game inexplicably uses a bespoke system, the approach to Animal Crossing on Switch displays plenty of the negative aspects of the 'Nintendo difference' I've discussed before.

It's enough to make an Animal Crossing fan - somebody with hundreds of hours logged in Wild World and New Leaf - consider not bothering at all, certainly not before the cloud save issue has been 'considered' and implemented. Life's busier than ever these days, and I was already wondering how I was going to squeeze New Horizons into my day.

Gimme gimme gimme

Perhaps the most confounding thing is that Nintendo seems oblivious to how convoluted all of this is. It's like the devs never played a video game in the 21st century. Infuriating, obtuse, unfriendly - all adjectives that could justifiably be levelled at Nintendo's approach with Animal Crossing. Quirks like these might have been forgiven as naively charming in the past, but those times are gone. For all the company’s advances with Switch, it sometimes seems like Nintendo's got its head in the clouds. Just not the one we want.

And in spite of all the curmudgeonly thoughts above, I'm still excited for New Horizons. I just wish Nintendo would get out of its own way and stop tripping over self-imposed obstacles which appear to be total non-issues for other companies. It really needn't be this hard.

Everything will be all right in the end. What's your take on this confusing, calamitous clusterbomb? Does Nintendo's approach give you pause, or are you content with whatever solution (or non-solution) the company arrives at? Feel free to share your thoughts below.