Animal Crossing New Leaf
Image: Nintendo

There’s an entire generation of players who hold dear fond memories of dipping their stubby toes in the coarse sand of Animal Crossing: New Leaf’s beaches. There was a calm warmth that came with the villagers that called your slowly built-up town home. The game was a beacon of creativity where you could let the whooshing sound of the ocean’s waves and the crickets and chirpings of the wildlife wash over you. It was and still is a title perfect for unwinding after a long day, and that tranquillity has carried over to the Switch iteration, New Horizons.

Yet, there are those who opt to put aside that blissful and melodic world in favour of the adrenaline and sweat brought about through speedrunning. It’s understandable, for most games, that there’s a pool of players trying their hand at one-upping each other’s time — shaving off seconds in celebratory booms of cheer — but there’s usually a clear and defined end goal to aim for; think Mario Kart’s race tracks that require pixel-perfect jumps off the map to reach just the right spot. There’s often something less exacting that any non-speedrunning player can go for to shave off some time, too. Something for both parties.

Animal Crossing doesn’t have that. The game is an open sandbox dedicated to doing what you want at your own pace, steady or otherwise, enjoying the little world you hatch and nurture. Because of that, speedrunners in New Leaf have had to set their own parameters; 'first debt cleared', for example, where they try to scrounge up enough money in as fast a time as possible to repay the loan for their home.

“When the game came out in 2013, I went into it casually”, Canadian streamer Nick tells us. “I love playing the game as it is. Animal Crossing is by far one of my favorite series, and New Leaf is probably my favorite game ever.” Playing it casually didn’t last too long, though, as three years later Nick got into the speedrunning community, going on to (as of earlier this year) nab the top spot for first debt cleared.

No time to sit around
Image: Nintendo

Nick managed to pay that first home debt in only seven minutes and 36 seconds, shaving six seconds off the then-world record. The pain of dedication and thrill of hitting that record is all over his face throughout the final moments of his attempt, until it all slips away and genuine cheer is visible as he shoots his hands into the air and starts shouting in joy...

But let’s backtrack. The ending is one of explosive giddiness, but getting there requires not a small amount of luck. Still, you need to know what you’re doing to avoid losing valuable time.

In a game that’s so fueled by RNG, the best way to get my time down was just to be more lucky

“The category is completely glitchless,” says Nick, explaining how exactly Animal Crossing: New Leaf’s first debt run actually works. “There’s no need [to use glitches] since it’s so straightforward. In a game that’s so fuelled by RNG [Random Number Generation], the best way to get my time down was just to be more lucky."

"The run is as follows: get off the train, talk to Isabel or Nook to place your house, plant the town tree, buy a shovel, and then find the money rock. The time-saving primarily comes from getting the money rock first try, or getting a map where the tree and town plaza are closer to each other. One other notable technique, as silly as it sounds, is holding the 'R' button while going through text. This speeds it up significantly, and no runner was really using it until golderzoa, a former WR holder and pioneer.”

Watch the video of his record-breaking run (check it below, although be warned that it features some strong language), you may notice another little oddity regarding text. Nick, an English speaker, plays in Korean, and with so many speedruns out there having little tricks, glitches, and exploits to shave off fractions of a second, we assumed this was one of those. As it turns out, the text scrolls faster in Korean, and that time adds up — but playing a Korean copy of the game is one of very few reliable tactics for speeding things up.

“Pretty much everything is down to RNG,” Nick tells us, “from the very beginning of getting a good map layout to the very end where your money rock is, it’s all RNG. For a really fast run, you want a map where the Town Hall is directly to the left or right of the train station, and the tree being on whichever side the Town Hall isn’t. From here, you want a money rock that’s right next to the train station, and you need a perfect fruit tree that’s close to this whole area. If you can get those things just right, you can get a fast time, but everything comes down to that RNG.”

For a really fast run, you want a map where the Town Hall is directly to the left or right of the train station, and the tree being on whichever side the Town Hall isn’t.

Being so reliant on randomness means that this run is ultimately down to blind luck, and it also means you’re going to be restarting over and over again for that perfect beginning. That no doubt gets tedious — we’ve restarted islands in New Horizons before just because they weren’t what we wanted, and going through that arduous startup process again even once or twice was enough to hamper our momentum, let alone doing it umpteen times for a world record speedrun.

Still, Nick isn’t dissuaded from this transformative way of playing New Leaf, and that’s likely the case for a lot of these players. He still enjoys it as a pastime, but has found a new, fresh way to look at it, giving it more momentum — more replay value. Even though he’s spent plenty of time rushing for a quick first debt cleared time, it's perhaps surprising that he doesn’t time travel when playing through casually.

It’s an interesting insight into how speedrunning works. It doesn’t necessarily change what a game means to someone outside of those challenges or even alter the atmosphere it brings, it just offers a unique way of approaching a game that the developers likely didn’t envision. That’s what makes speedrunning such an enriching experience, since it ultimately adds value to games. Even before Super Mario 3D All-Stars, Mario 64 was going strong with a healthy community dedicated to beating it as fast as possible.

Speedrunning keeps many older titles alive, even in the face of new, younger, hipper models.

Animal Crossing New Leaf Balloon
Image: Nintendo