Though Nintendo’s breezy island simulator has become increasingly politicized, the community around its soundtrack has formed a musical sanctuary.
For the last few months Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH) has been a safe space. Released on March 20, it arrived just in time for COVID-19 quarantines. The game quickly transitioned from real life-simulator to real life. With public gatherings and activities banned for much of the spring season, ACNH became an outlet for expression and camaraderie during dark times. I’ve used it as a coping method, darting around my island Palumpolum, named for the Final Fantasy IV characters, as I would be doing right now had my job not gone entirely digital.
Equipped with wireless communication options — New Horizons allows players to vacation on others’ islands via Nintendo Online — the game has successfully replaced the need to hang out in-person. School closures opened the door for virtual celebrations through the game, just as some folks have cobbled together a late-night talk show, live-streamed over Twitch with guests and an audience, filling a void left by the likes of highly-produced network shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Now, as stores begin to reopen and public facilities remove their shutters, ACNH is serving as a diversion from the 24 hour news cycle, which has been squarely focused on public outcry against the murder of George Floyd by the Minnesota police. Peaceful protests, marching, looting and police retaliation with rubber bullets and tear gas have raged throughout the United States, and the world, for more than three weeks, creating a necessary, unified voice in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
As much as Animal Crossing has served as a distraction from an increasingly bleak reality, it’s also engulfed the protesting spirit. In-game islands have morphed from breezy getaways to hyper-aware rally hubs. Players have used the game’s design tools to craft “Black Lives Matter” and “Say their names” signs, in concert with the real-life movements. And the protesting spirit reaches beyond BLM to a variety of causes. PETA took to Animal Crossing to, ironically, protest the game and its treatment of the game’s furry residents. Earlier this year, residents of Hong Kong protested China’s oppression of the region’s rights to expression, leading to the game’s removal from Chinese storefronts. Like it or not, Animal Crossing is being weaponized, and ever so slightly nudging away from its developer-minded intentions of collecting shells and catching bugs.
But as New Horizons becomes increasingly politicized and fans denounce the game’s inherently capitalistic systems, it continues to offer a sanctuary: it’s music. Composed by Yasuaki Iwata, Yumi Takahashi, Shinobu Nagata, Sayako Doi, and Masato Ohashi, the ACNH soundtrack provides the escapism that the core game has trouble maintaining. It’s a lightweight feature, not meant to serve as anything more than background music, but is arguably the game’s strongest proponent of living a simple, island life.
The first thing you hear when you load up Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a strolling flugelhorn melody. Lacking the audacity of Miles Davis or the vivacity of Dizzy Gillespie, the melody is a warm hug, eventually intertwining with ukulele, double bass, percussion, acoustic guitar and a sneaky accordion. The intro track lasts a mere 1 minute and 16 seconds, longer than most will spend on the title screen, but it’s soothing nature is an invitation to stick around for a couple loops. Lately, I’ve even been booting the song up on YouTube, playing it as I start my day.
What’s special about the soundtrack, which features songs for various times of day, locations like the museum and stores and more, is the music’s simplicity and thematic cohesion. Most tracks feature just a handful of instruments, allowing the shush of the wind or washing of waves to build the atmosphere.
Adding to the soundtracks’ beauty is the presence of in-game musician Totakeke. Performing under the alias K.K. Slider, he’s a Jack Russell Terrier wielding nothing but his acoustic guitar (unlike most animals, who wear some sort of clothing, K.K. is completely nude). He’s a digital representation of original series composer Kazumi Totaka and has been a game staple since the inaugural title Doubutsu no Mori (Animal Forest) released in 2001 in Japan.
Slider’s main purpose, beyond playing a concert for the islanders and signifying the “end” of the main game, is to create a host of songs, all of which are playable on in-game stereos and record players. He’s a multifaceted maestro, composing tracks inspired by world genres ranging from jazz (the album cover to which is inspired by the monochrome artwork of Blue Note Records) to soul (which is a cover of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me”) to metal. K.K. even crafts his own, original melodies, strumming along to game specific songs for boating, and city life.
A guitarist by training, K.K. is also a vocalist, singing his tunes in the same digitized warble as the rest of the game’s inhabitants. It’s a refreshing use of music in a game attached to reality through the newswire — there aren’t any lyrics to misconstrue or phrases to interpret. K.K. just offers grooves to fit any mood you might think of.
The soundtrack’s good-natured spirit has spread to the larger community. Cover artists have entrenched themselves in the task of recreating all of ACNH’s music, whether in a group or solo. Few covers are more prolific than Nintendo’s official track, posted to YouTube on May 15 and stitching together performances by the game’s musicians to recreate the theme song.
ACNH’s music community is as soft and loveable as many of the game’s characters. Some of the songs, like Bubblegum K.K., have garnered fan written lyrics, dressing up an upbeat anthem that also went viral on Tik Tok in April.
In the case of Danielle Minch, lead singer for alternative pop-punk band Behind the Facade (BtF), the music of Animal Crossing has been comforting during months of uncertainty.
“I don’t typically cover game themes but I fell in love with Animal Crossing: New Horizons while incessantly playing it during quarantine,” Minch said. “That song brought me comfort and happiness.”
Scroll through BtF’s discography, and it’s hard not to hear shades of Paramore. Hailing from Long Island, Minch and her bandmates, Danny Briones, Griffin Backer, and Eliran Malakov, exist in a state of hyper-awareness, their music drawing inspiration from the moods that stumble across their path. Minch’s voice cuts through the group’s driving instrumentals as she fights pessimism, anger and vulnerability, as she does throughout 2013s We Are The Fighters.
All of that is to say, BtF’s Animal Crossing cover doesn’t really sound anything like the rest of their catalog. What’s more is that Minch wasn’t a fan of 2012s Animal Crossing: New Leaf, admitting at the time she “didn’t catch the bug.”
This time around, she said, “It probably helps that all my friends are playing too. We visit each other’s islands pretty regularly.” The positivity New Horizons theme song brought her, combined with its easy to learn, but complex enough to arrange melody led her and her band to break from their norm.
The ACNH community of cover artists is all inclusive, drawing interest from musicians from all walks of life. Take Izan Rubio, a classically trained guitarist who has performed solo and in quartets throughout Europe. Prior to the pandemic he was booked everywhere from the National Library of Catalonia to concert halls in Trento, Italy. On one of his YouTube channels, however, he dives into musical expression through one of his favorite mediums: gaming.
“The first impulse before I arrange a music piece for guitar has to be ‘wow, that is a very good musical piece,’” Rubio told me. “The first time I listened to the main theme from Animal Crossing: New Horizons I had that feeling.”
Rubio’s cover creativity struck two months before the game’s release. After hearing its theme, he started arranging his guitar cover to fit a particular tuning style that would allow him to play the melody and bassline, while preserving the song’s jazzy chords.
In a way, his passion runs deeper for the music than the game itself. Despite having covered some of the game’s soundtrack, he’s never played New Horizons.
“Unfortunately, my life lately has not allowed me to have any time to play video games and live through such amazing stories. Still, I love the Nintendo Switch concept and can’t wait to see the implementation of new sound technologies in the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X,” he said.
Each of the artists I talked to noted the simplicity of New Horizons soundtrack was the gateway to arranging a cover. Central Washington University student Steven Higbee has been playing clarinet since fifth grade, but as as a multi-instrumentalist with a fondness for the ocarina, he works especially hard to incorporate the sound of an ancient and limited instrument.
“You have to account for the limited range with a lot of ocarinas, which definitely affects what keys you may make the arrangement in, or how you want to do your part writing,” he said. “Not only that, but you have to take into account that ocarinas can’t play dynamics — lower notes are softer and higher notes are louder.”
The ocarina’s intricacies lead Higbee’s cover videos to be split screen affairs, stitching together multiple performances structured around the piano, clarinet, ocarina and others.
Even then, other artists, like Nico Mendoza stumbled into Animal Crossing covers by chance. Despite being a lifelong Nintendo fan, Mendoza didn’t set out to record New Horizons’ music.
“I started covering the ACNH soundtrack when I realized I had all the instruments in my arsenal to get insanely close to the original sound,” Mendoza said. “I’ve always been a huge Nintendo fan, but I had the urge to cover ACNH music once I saw how big this game had become.”
Gaming communities as a whole are polarizing. Lewd fan art often bisects with otherwise innocent games, just as streamers can come together to raise money for charities tackling cancer. Games are an artform, and will inevitably mingle with the new and pop culture of their time. Animal Crossing is here to preserve some of the world’s purity. And when the game fails, its music forms a sanctuary.