Nico Mendoza: Island Life (Music from Animal Crossing: New Horizons) - Album Review
Album release information
Released 20 April 2022 (YouTube Music); 8 May 2022 (everywhere else)
I first heard of the incredibly versatile VGM cover artist Nico Mendoza through an online article sometime at the start of 2021. He had just released his New Year’s medley from Nintendo’s 2020 pandemic phenomenon, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. After hearing the music in-game during the New Year’s Eve countdown and falling in love with it, I was eager to hear it again in the form of a concert suite. Nico did not disappoint, and the lovely big band orchestrations of the game’s main theme glowed throughout the cover, celebrating the end of the year with your islanders. As a violinist myself, hearing the violins in-game was a rush; it was so nice to see them included here, too! He even weaved in “Auld Lang Syme” into the mix as a secondary theme. An arrangement of this tune played when you were walking around your town in the GameCube version, away from the party at night. This video weaved together so many wonderful Animal Crossing memories, both old and new, and got me excited for more, including what would eventually turn out to be his big album celebrating the game.
One of the things I’ve loved about Nico’s arranging style is how he matches the original source material the best he can, while adding in his own flavors and performances to let listeners enjoy the music from the game in a new way. New Horizons was the first game in the Animal Crossing series to have live musicians playing the soundtrack in-game, and I think this blended well with the HD visuals and really helped bring the series into the modern era of AAA gaming. This made it perfect for Nico to play along with guitars, basses, and drums, while adding some of his own synths and occasional instrument substitutions along the way.
The Animal Crossing games have a large quantity of music that can be divided into different categories for when they are used in the game. Nico picked a few tracks from each category for the album, and this organizes the types of music we hear quite well. After hearing some of the music you’ll listen to on an average day on the island, Nico transitions into some of the many hits of K.K. Slider, before ending the album with the winter holidays that end each year in late-December.
Day-To-Day Island Life
One of the biggest selling points of the series is its real-time clock. Day turns to night exactly when it does for the player in real-life, and the seasons slowly change, adding new colors around your island. The first four tracks of Nico’s album showcase some of the hourly music, which is what you hear as you walk around the village during a normal day.
The album opens with “5am (Sunny)”, which captures the slow brightening of colors at the crack of dawn beautifully. The track starts with a slow cinematic build featuring synth pads layering on top of each other, and those iconic opening notes of the New Horizons main theme, which is heard all throughout both the album and the entire game! This original opening takes the ideas of the 5am theme and expands upon them wonderfully before the piano and shakers come in with the melody in full. I adore the horns playing in the background, mimicking the synths from the introduction (and the original track). As it progresses, more instruments are added, like a drum-set, bass, and a beautiful synth keyboard with vibrato panning across both ears. It’s a wonderful start to the album, bringing the listener into a comforting space, and surely will offer plenty of nostalgia from when they first booted up the game.
While "10am (Sunny)" is relatively the same as the original track, I adore the fiddle being swapped out for the flugelhorn here. I do love the original track for having a fresh instrument added to the hourly score, but to me, the fiddle provides a nice nature/country-esque feel for a sunny morning, heading out for a nice walk, and it fits perfectly here.
"5pm (Sunny)" is one of the grooviest hourly tracks in the whole game, and this rendition of it does not disappoint. I will say the bars with the chromatic rise in-between phrases is a little less exciting without the triplet rhythm, but that’s a nitpick for sure. The second half of the track adds some funky bass to the texture, which just adds that extra spiciness to the groove. And all throughout, the electric guitar interjects with some great quips of its own, even ending with a fun solo to finish off the track.
Finally, Nico shifts to the winter side with “12pm (snowy).” This is another one of my favorite hourly tracks in the game, and by changing the weather, Nico shows off how Nintendo changes the instrumentation to accommodate. Sleigh bells, marimba, and vibraphone enter the texture alongside the strumming guitar and synth melody. The marimba especially sticks out here, and is fantastic. In the second half of the track, the percussion and bass are added back in as in the “sunny” version of the track, combined with all the wintery instruments. This was such a clever decision, and it showed off how this track can groove just as well as some of the others. A solid finale to the hourly section of this album.
There’s one more track Nico threw in here: “Nook’s Cranny (Before Closing).” Nintendo put in some “closing time” music if the player is still at Nook’s shop 10 minutes before he closes throughout the series. Wild World was the first game where we got the lush strings, which happened to be a slowed-down version of the Gate theme. City Folk was the same thing as the DS version, and New Leaf was a slowed-down version of the Nooklings’ shop theme, with violins playing the melody, pizzicato strings, and what I think is a bassoon sample.
This leads us to New Horizons’ version, which now has live violinists playing a slowed-down version of this game’s Nook’s Cranny theme alongside piano arpeggios. The oboe takes the theme for the second half of the track; Nico swaps that instrument out for a melodica. But otherwise, it’s pretty much the same gorgeous piece of music as before, absolutely my favorite Nook’s Closing theme in the series. What surprised me was when the electric guitar came in for a third time through the track, even more involved violin parts, and drums, ending with that gorgeous iv-I progression. It was so unexpected but perfect that Nico would add his very own arrangement to the mix, and the orchestration blossoms into a phenomenal ending. It’s as if the Nooklings just stay up all night and party when the shop closes!
K.K. Slider Hits
The second section of music is (canonically/in-universe) composed and performanced by Totakeke, or K.K. Slider. This popular character is a singing dog based on one of the series’ composers, Kazumi Totaka. By attending these performances on Saturday nights, the player can receive records to add to their music collections at home or around the island. K.K. has been in the series since the very beginning back in 2001, and Nintendo opted not to update these tracks as they did for the town music, preserving them exactly as they’ve always been throughout the series. Nico chose five of these tunes and updated them himself to fit his style; it’s a nice mix of nostalgia and some of the newer tracks introduced in New Leaf I’m less familiar with.
“Drivin’” is a great first track to start out with, and I love the introduction with the five-note ensemble hits on a D-flat major 7th chord right off the bat. These synth harmonies explore more seventh chords with drum fills in-between, before we get to the melody in electric guitar. I love how the melody travels from guitar to synth to piano and back to guitar, with the drum fills and chords continuing on in the background. There are some different synths and a piano in the original track too, and I feel this bouncing instrumentation fits even better in Nico’s version as the different timbres are much more pronounced.
I’m not sure when K.K. Cruisin’ became such a popular track amongst the VGM community, but it really has become the go-to improv session for the gaming world. (I even joined in for StringPlayerGamer’s community improv video in April 2020.) Case in point, after hearing Nico’s collaborator, GALVN, jamming out on the keyboard to showcase the main melody the first time through, with drums and bass as a backing track, the entire second half is full of incredible improvisations on these chords. Nico really brings in his bass background here, which I loved to hear a solo for.
K.K. Soul is a bit more chill, featuring an electronic drum kit, some vibes and guitars, and a groovy bass line that adds filler in-between melodic phrases. In the second half, we even get different synth effects on the melody—I always love these smaller changes when hearing something repeated. K.K. Fusion continues the electric guitar solo with the melody, the rockin’ bass, and back to an acoustic drum kit. In this track, I really like Nico’s improv with the synth, using octave F’s to help him quickly get from the low end to the high end. And I loved the thrilling high Cs he reached in the guitar, playing to the end of the melody before one more bass solo, and ending on that opening gesture.
Nico ends this section with the quiet “K.K. Ballad,” which is a refreshing change of pace after all the rock ‘n roll tracks. The opening cycle is just the piano playing that gorgeous melody, before the violins and a soft electric bass are added for the second time—the perfect use for them. A gorgeous cymbal roll leads into a key change for the third time through, up a tri-tone from before. The counterpoint on the strings with the bass is spot-on, and the whole arrangement ends up feeling like something out of an anime.
To start the finale of his album, Nico chose to head to the most wonderful time of year: Christmas! In the Animal Crossing universe, Christmas Eve is known as Toy Day, and is one of the many holidays and events that occur throughout the year. Just like in real-life, in late December, the village gets all decked out with lights and a big festive tree, and the accompanying music during the event is incredibly warm and cozy. Ultimately, the Switch game’s version is an arrangement of Shinobu Tanaka’s tune from the Nintendo 64 version back in 2001, but I maintain it still holds up. I like the staccato synth opening the track, and the trumpet taking on most of the melody beyond that. In the second half of the track, the melodica plays the role of the accordion from the original—ultimately a weaker instrument, but it gets the job done. I like how he kept this as a calmer rendition of the tune the game has rather than adding his own spin on anything, as we will get to the exciting party next.
We have finally returned to where we started: that New Year’s medley, from Auld Lang Syme and the opening of the countdown as the clock strikes 11pm to the after-party starting at 2am. Each track leads attacca into the next without pause, so it really all feels like one complete piece in the finale. The Auld Lang Syne theme is played with a trio of trumpet, saxophone, and trombone alongside electric bass, and the gorgeous chorale texture helps set this intro apart from the party coming up. I love how he weaved the New Horizons main theme in there with the saxophone, as if to remind us this is still all about that game.
From here, there aren’t many changes to note. The Auld Lang Syme comes in whenever there’s downtime in the original track, mainly to help transition the listener between the different sections of music. 11:50PM has the most involved version of Auld Lang Syme, shifting between saxophone and trombone. Each transition slows or speeds the music to help us get on with the next moment, and they are all incredibly smooth, so the one after this slows into the finale. I love the electric guitar playing this final introspective melody at 11:55PM, with the flugelhorn playing one final rendition of Auld Lang Syme before a sudden G dominant 7th chord, getting us into the snare roll for the big climactic moment as the clock strikes 12 and the villagers get ready to dance and celebrate. The melody here is played wonderfully in the trombone, and the violins add wonderful new colors to the mix. I could nitpick about their articulations, some of which are slightly different to that of the original, but it’s just great they’re here and Nico doubled them to get that full string section sound. The New Year’s celebration is treated as a big band rendition of the game’s main theme, and really feels like we’re at Times Square watching the fireworks. At 2am (of which the time gap is thankfully shortened for this suite), the party slowly disperses into a jazzy piano trio. I love how the flugelhorn and trombone add to this texture with a duet, with some wonderful high B-flats in the former. The saxophone sends off the album with one final nostalgic rendition of the game’s main theme, before we bid farewell to An Island Life.
Before leaving this album till my next listen, I would be remiss to not mention all the special guests Nico had performing on it with him. I’ve mentioned David Galvin adding his own spin to the keyboard for “K.K. Cruisin’”. Jake Parcell rocked out in “Drivin’”; and K.K. Soul featured Patrick Rosal with guitars and Richlee with synths, drum machine, and mixing. Nathan Banegas brought it with a gorgeous trumpet solo for “Toy Day.” And the big finale was a celebration from everyone: Nathan on trumpets here, Jeremy Davalos playing the main trumpet lines, flugelhorn, and shakers; David Scott on alto saxophone; Robert Burton on trombone and bass; and GALVN providing an additional track on keyboards. And of course there's Nico himself, tackling everything else with gusto and arranging all this music so well. I am so happy for how this entire album came together to celebrate this incredible game. Hearing the contributions of Nico’s fellow instrumentalists really brings to mind the initial vision of Katsuya Eguchi with the original Animal Crossing: to make a game where you can connect with friends near and far. And isn’t that what the VGM community, and the music community as a whole, is all about?