Animal Crossing fever will probably never die, and the well of merchandise has continued to be full since Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ release in March 2020. This huge merchandising campaign is still trucking along to commemorate that game’s release. Animal Crossing, the aesthetic, will remain a spark of joy for many, but that feeling becomes a susceptible, vulnerable target for new ventures despite New Horizons’ latency.
Many New Horizons players are eagerly anticipating any new major update to arrive any minute now, while others have simply stopped playing the game. It is easy to conclude that the latter group may have been the category of players who were never much into video games to begin with—hence Animal Crossing‘s 2020 popularity being seen as a fad or “phase”—but there is justifiable criticism over the game’s lack of content and an unclear timeline of what is to come.
The Animal Crossing fandom, instead of playing new content in the game, is being saturated with new merchandise—home goods, clothing, and, naturally, plushies. Alas, I was not immune to the wiles of capitalism and found myself taking some part in the deluge of it all to fill my unfulfilled Animal Crossing needs.
I love stuffed animals and plushies of all sorts, but it has been years ever since I stepped in a physical Build-A-Bear Workshop location in any capacity. Losing my beloved white cheerleading dog named Snowy many years ago has instilled some sort of trauma in me, setting me against ever revisiting the idea of making a new friend.
That said, when the Build-A-Bear collaboration with Animal Crossing was announced, so many possibilities ran through my head. Animal Crossing is a great series filled with a plethora of characters deserving of a prime, huggable form. Zucker is one of my favorite villagers in the series—is a octopus made of takoyaki even huggable? I wanted to find out.
Build-A-Bear announced dates when Tom Nook and Isabelle will be made available, and recommended that people pre-register with the clear suggestion that they may sell out. My mind was made up: I had to get the rodent.*
The morning of, my browser tabs were at the ready when I received an email that threw me into a digital queue. Lines in real life are bad, but virtual ones somehow manage to be much worse. Ultimately, I was not able to make my purchase. Estimated wait times tied to the queue kept getting longer—made even worse by the fact that I accidentally exited the page at some point, resetting my wait time—and I was ready to admit defeat. To possibly no one’s surprise, another round of acquiring a Nook or Isabelle was announced not too long after. Thus, my journey in getting this stuffed lad was far from over, eventually meeting a happy conclusion.
Like most Build-A-Bear orders, your newly fluffed-up friend arrives coupled with a “birth” certificate and an appreciative letter you can sign if you are gifting it. There are some missing elements to the typical experience, however, such as the little house box, in which you would typically take your new plush home from a store, being absent from the packaging. It would have been nice if that was included, so even if you are unable to experience the more magical, in-person stuffing experience at an actual Workshop location, at the very least you could have pretended you did.
The certificate included all the necessary pieces of Tom Nook’s information, such as his fur color and measurements. As per the template of all Build-A-Bear orders, his name section was left blank in case I wanted to be a little morbid and wipe him of his original identity (but I didn’t!). Although purchasing Nook was a whole ordeal, I was impressed by how quick the order was put together and Nook’s high huggability leaves me satisfied.
The exclusivity of going through this process was ruined when Build-A-Bear decided to release some pre-made orders for other storefronts anyway. The initial availability of only Tom Nook and Isabelle is simply not enough to represent Animal Crossing’s wide, expansive cast. Winter outfit versions of the two, however, were also released not too long after. (Which, unfortunately, are treated as a package purchase—you cannot get the accessories separately!) But rumors imply more characters are to come, and one of these predictions indeed came to fruition with a K.K. Slider option now available following Tom Nook and Isabelle’s releases.
The Build-A-Bear Workshop partnership is but one of many Animal Crossing merchandising campaigns that have already launched, with more to come. One of the first big collaborations was a makeup collection with ColourPop, a cosmetics brand known for doing many limited-run products with brands and IPs, such as an absurdly large Tetris-inspired collection. I fumbled and tripped trying to nab a cute towel from a collection UNIQLO recently dropped, foolishly underestimating the necessary purchasing speed—it quickly sold out. A re-skinned Monopoly board game is also now available. There are several various luxury brands that carry Animal Crossing goods, such as a Gelato Pique loungewear collection, but thankfully, I took a good look at my wallet before making rash decisions. Unfortunately, the brand’s latest stint in apparel with Puma has has come under criticism as Palestinian activists have encouraged a boycott of the athletic wear brand.
To reiterate, all of this merch is meant to generate enthusiasm for Animal Crossing: New Horizons, as the game finds itself on shaky crossroads between players who remain feverishly committed to it and those who fell off of it. The game was released at the right time and right place, highly praised for its ability to connect new and longtime players—all unified and packaged with cute characters in a sickeningly sweet aesthetic—during a time of deep social isolation. The FOMO effect that New Horizons created has encouraged many who have previously not played video games before to get into the hobby. But nearly one year later, where has that energy gone? In spite of being a source of joy and escaping melancholy for many in difficult times, was it also a game that was simply just released too unfinished and too early?
Animal Crossing: New Leaf had a similar slow climb when it came to updates. It was released in 2012, but it had its definitive and last overhaul in 2016 with its Welcome Amiibo update, but this is where the comparison ends. The lack of appearance of staple characters like Brewster and the gyroids in New Horizons is noteworthy, and arbitrary changes to the UI have made some aspects of the game less accessible compared to New Leaf. Some feel these elements should have been present in New Horizons from the start.
Nintendo, meanwhile, has made promises that surely more content will be arriving for New Horizons, but players have questioned if priorities are simply being made for Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp instead, a game dependent on microtransactions.
Sure, the endorphin rush of purchasing a fluffy, Isabelle pillow is nice—but why can’t I apply that in New Horizons? But I certainly would not want to share the experience of a Pocket Camp player where I would have to spend real-life money for my virtual home either.
Aggressive push for Animal Crossing merch despite stagnancy in the most recent mainline game will continue to raise a lot of questions, but I know I am partially part of the problem as I fiddle with my Tom Nook toy. Perhaps I am trying to fill a void in my own lack of regularity playing New Horizons. Or maybe I just think it’s all so damn cute and there’s nothing more to think about. Oversaturation is certainly an understatement: Animal Crossing the game can’t stop the cockroaches from festering in your virtual home, but Animal Crossing the brand sure finds itself busy elsewhere—and serious human rights issues in real life won’t stop it! While there is currently nothing much new left to spend my Bells on in New Horizons, there’s plenty to spend my real-life Bells on—even if that’s not actually how I want to be getting my Animal Crossing fix.
*A tanuki is not technically a member of the Rodentia order, but Tom Nook is spiritually, if not literally, a rodent.
Elvie somehow finds bliss in purposefully complicating the art of storytelling and undertaking the painful practice of animation. If you see her on Twitter at @lvmaeparian, she is doing neither of those things. She currently helps with managing the socials to ensure that the secret recipe will never be revealed.