When the first Harvest Moon came out, the press generally marveled both at how unexpected a game it was and whether a niche concept like “farming” would sell on the console market. I doubt anyone expected it to spawn such a long-lived series with multiple spin-offs and copy-cats. The Harvest Moon series’ ongoing success shows how a lot of the the “common wisdom” about “gamers” and what they “really want” can be wrong. Here we have a farming simulator with a dating/marriage component that is popular across demographics. It is also, sadly, kind of stuck in a rut. No less than two companies are currently in control of the franchise. Marvelous is the original creator of the series and owns its original “Story of Seasons” name in Japan, but the series’ former publisher Natsume owns the Harvest Moon name here in the West and has created a competing series of games. Yet both companies seem unsure of how to grow the series. What was it about the original Harvest Moon games that was so unexpectedly compelling and can it be brought back to either of its successor franchises? With so many games in the series, where does a neophyte start?
Contrary to popular narrative, I don’t think the success of Harvest Moon was in how unique its subject matter was. It wasn’t the first farming simulator in gaming, nor was it even the first quirky simulator for the Super Nintendo. It arrived late in the console’s life, before the N64 and PlayStation would really battle it out, but after the Super Nintendo started to run out of titles. In particular, it was one of the last RPGs, still a niche genre but one that had grown a steady market for itself in the West during the previous console generation. Strong word of mouth and massive coverage in magazines like Nintendo Power at a time when every young nerd had seen every Chrono Trigger ending and was desperate for ANYTHING Japanese rpg-related certainly helped, but it wasn’t the only reason for its cult success either. What I think solidified Harvest Moon as a classic was how it built on the expectations of previous games and communicated that to the player.
“Simulation games” are one of the oldest genres of video games, especially on PCs. The term is incredibly vague, and can cover many different styles of play, but there is definitely a certain, slow-paced style of simulator that long-term game players would be familiar with. The classic simulation game is usually pictured as very text and menu-heavy, with less emphasis on action and more on planning and patience. There are exceptions of course, but even the simulation games that borrow from other genres tended to be very complicated and require a lot of experimentation to learn its systems. In comparison, Harvest Moon is almost ludicrously simple. There are just four plants and two animals to raise, all with the same basic rules, and the romance option is as simple as throwing flowers and cakes at a girl until she likes you. You can lose the game, but you almost have to actively be trying to do so.
However, that simplicity is necessary because of how fast the game moves. You only have a few real-world minutes of daylight with which to make money, after which the town closes down and your work options are limited. Not only are you limited in time, but also in stamina. Each action you take uses up a little stamina, and you need to manage that at the same time as you manage time. These limits mean you can’t do everything in a day, but the simplicity of the game means you can easily learn to fit enough in. You can basically do almost anything and still progress, and this allows the player a great deal of freedom despite how few options there are. But the game doesn’t stop with you figuring out the best pattern and endlessly repeating it. The game’s beauty lies in enticing you to continually break the patterns you create.
Trying to fit the best actions into a tight time limit can sound like an arcade game, but Harvest Moon borrows its controls from a different game: The Legend of Zelda. Instead of menus and text, you manage your farm using what is essentially the same control system as Link’s Awakening for the Gameboy. You hold two tools at a time and use them the same way Link wields a sword or hook shot. Your little farmer works the land, clears fields, woos ladies, forages and cares for animals the exact same way Link fights moblins, uncovers hidden caves and trades items. This means that anyone raised on consoles (i.e., the target audience of a late-era Super Nintendo release) can instantly pick up and understand the game despite it being a different genre and subject matter than what usually warrants those controls. The fact that it apes the controls of a game that is also very friendly to first time players means that people new to any and all video games, not just simulators, also learn how to play it quickly.
More importantly, the fact that it plays and resembles an early Zelda title conveys another key point to savvy players: this world has secrets. Harvest Moon sprinkles its extremely simple world with strange mysteries. Hidden caves contain treasures, tools can be upgraded, there are mysterious local legends to uncover, and not everything is as it seems. Nothing hidden is dramatic or going to interrupt the fast-paced-but-relaxed attitude of Harvest Moon‘s world, but it’s enough to entice players to break from their effective schedules and explore. That is in turn what transforms a generic “work simulator” into an adventure that resonates. Harvest Moon successfully transformed the Legend of Zelda into a farming/dating simulator, and I believe THAT is what made it a critical success. Playing Harvest Moon had the same effect on our brain as seeing a YouTube video of a non-puppy animal acting like a puppy: that feeling of the familiar and the alien joining forces to become just plain appealing.
The Nintendo 64 sequel continued this. The game’s appearance is kind of a fascinating look at what an extremely low-budget alternate universe Legend of Zelda that was released between A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. Like what an off-model Legend of Zelda released for the Sega Saturn in a universe where Nintendo fell on hard times might look like. The game itself builds on its predecessor by increasing the number of things you can do, while keeping the fast pace. The townsfolk also play a more important role, providing you reasons to learn about and interact with characters other than the ones you want to marry. The clock is slightly more forgiving to accommodate this, but in exchange you no longer have an endless night. This evens out so that you’re still playing through multiple days in a session, and having to think quickly even as you relax on your idyllic farm. There is never nothing to do because you cannot finish a task without having to figure out how to then make the most of your remaining time, but at the same time you’re never stressed. That balance of both being forced to make choices and move quickly, while still feeling relaxed and free, is key to the series’ success.
It is worth talking about the dating elements for a second and how they start to change from the original. We’re not talking about grand love stories here, but the 1 dimensional characters have now grown into 2 dimensions. Characters interact with each other without you, and will even fall in love and marry someone else if you are uninterested or too slow. The game even gives us a surprisingly (though still simple and cartoony) dark story about an alcoholic family that can end with one of the characters fleeing in the night never to return if you can’t become her friend and support her. Like the farming aspect, the romance is simplified and relies on the quick pace and ease of understanding to be compelling.
The series would run into one big problem with the switch to disc-based systems: loading times. This interrupted the fast pace, but not by providing you more to do. As a result, later Harvest Moons learned to compensate in different ways. PlayStation 2’s Save the Homeland tried to focus more on story, giving you a short time to find one of many ways to, well, save your homeland. Unfortunately this came at the cost of being able to really build and define your own farm or take part in even simple romance. The later Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life also went for a slower paced game, this time focusing primarily on the romance and child-rearing aspects. The arrival of the Gameboy Advance and its cheap 32 bit cartridges meant that a “classic” Harvest Moon could be released again that focused on the already established, well received themes of creative freedom via time management. The last game of this era, Magical Melody, ends up combining elements from all the previous games, and is probably the most successful of the PlayStation-to-GameCube era Harvest Moons.
But even with these successes, critics were complaining about how each new Harvest Moon was feeling same-y. Each new game tended to have the same crops, the same animals and the same non-farming activities. The towns even had the same archetypal villagers each time. Long-term players already knew the basics enough to make a ton of money early on without experimenting, and adding additional activities and time just slowed down the game. The weirdest example of this is Harvest Moon DS, which deals with the fact that you can pretty easily do everything in a day by simply making every long-term goal take longer to achieve. It also throws in a ton of bizarre mini games to do with all the extra time you have each day. Sure, it now takes thousands of presents to make someone like you more, but you can explore a cave full of evil cows or go to a fairy casino. The weirdness aspect is oddly fitting with the series, but the ridiculous amount of time it takes to do things simply makes the game feel banal long after the weirdness wears out its welcome. The next Wii and DS-era Harvest Moons tried to get around this problem by adding new hoops for the player to jump through to prevent them from doing everything at once. Instead of being forced to do the same tasks over and over, you are instead forced to unlock each new tasks. This may require ringing magic bells, uncovering magic stones or reaching a certain farm level, but it kind of stood out like a sore thumb. Every bottleneck in the previous games could be understood visually, or at least explained in a single text box. Now you have to explain to the player why magic stones that can only be achieved by friendship must be brought to a magic temple to raise islands that can be populated by blah blah blah. The resulting tutorials and cutscenes slow the once fast-paced games to a crawl. Worse, their less-obvious methods of completion required the time you have each day to be extended yet again. Where once you could watch a season pass by in an hour or two, now you only see a few days pass by in that time. The relaxing pattern of learning and developing an in-game routine, and then being enticed into breaking that pattern to explore, is not as easily accomplished if each in-game day takes too long to get through.
Ironically, the game that best found the balance between the original simplicity and demand for more to do was the series’ seemingly more complicated spin-off: Rune Factory. Just as Harvest Moon took a fantasy adventure game and turned it into a simulator, Rune Factory takes that same simulator and turns it BACK into a fantasy adventure. Not just in the obvious way of copying the original adventure games it originally aped controls from, but by using the Harvest Moon rules and themes in new ways. Every action still takes up stamina, from farming to fighting monsters. The only way to survive the long dungeons and intense fights is to use your farming techniques to manage the dungeons. Growing crops creates safe spaces you can recover some of your stamina, allowing you to slowly make a dungeon easier to beat. Later Rune Factory games put the simplified romance system to use by letting it not only decide who you marry, but also allow you to turn anyone into a fellow adventurer and develop their abilities through socialization. Rune Factory‘s leveling system is also connected to the same open-ended gameplay as the original Harvest Moon, as you gain stats based on the activities you like to do the most, and thus encourages the player to both specialize in tasks they like for long-term growth and branch out and try new things for quick short-term gains.
But as the Rune Factory games grew more polished and focused, the main series became anything but. New animals and crops were added, but they were always functionally simillar to the previous turnips and cows. Relationships were no more complicated from a narrative or emotional standpoint, but now featured longer cutscenes. Travelling across the world took longer, but since the days were lengthened to compensate you never felt like you had a lack of time. You spent more time doing nothing than every before. The 3DS’ A New Beginning remedied some of this by adding a focus on customization, allowing players a better chance to define themselves and their farms. From a commercial standpoint, the 3DS entries have been some of the most successful of the entire series, with the most recent Story of Seasons doing extremely well. Unfortunately, the modern era Harvest Moons also brought a terrible new problem: buggy frame rates. I am as far from a “frame rate purist” as you can get, but the most recent Harvest Moons have such a painfully inconsistent frame rate that I am physically incapable of playing them for long before I get a headache. With the current pace of the series, that means I only play maybe one or two in-game-days at a time. That is excruciating, but I accept that I may be more sensitive to it than everyone else is.
The biggest lesson I wish future games would take from the best Harvest Moon games is that simplicity doesn’t mean simple. Dumping numerous, but identical, tasks onto a time-management game doesn’t mean more or better gameplay. However, appealing moments and secrets (and more importantly COMMUNICATING those secrets to the player) is how you make the simplest tasks worth exploring. The best Harvest Moons offer both the illusion of total freedom with the illusion of rigid progress, but actually offers something more. Rather than a capitalist fever dream of repeating mantra-like work routines in the pursuit of endlessly increasing amounts of money, Harvest Moon is actually about learning to let go of pursuits. They are about learning to fit the moments and interests you care about into a life. What keeps bringing us back to the farm, and what keeps us from wanting to return to the existential dread of a similar world like that of Fantasy Life, is the acknowledgement that these tasks exist for our own purposes, rather than trying to trick us into believing we exist for theirs.
Playlist: There are 20 Harvest Moon games not counting remakes, “girl versions”, spinoffs or the new Natsume alternative line. So where does a newcomer start? If you’re intrigued and want to get into the series, below are 5 good places to start, as well as a few interesting experiments and alternatives.
- Harvest Moon (1997, Super Nintendo/Wii Virtual Console): As noted above, this is a simple game to pick up and learn. It sets the standard all future games in this series would follow, and its an easy game to like.
- Harvest Moon 64 (1999, Nintendo 64): Never saw a rerelease, but worth tracking down or emulating. Improves the first in every way and has the best atmosphere and mysteries of the earliest HM games.
- A Wonderful Life (2004, Gamecube): Tells the story of a farmer from youth to death, and focuses on social, romantic and familial aspects of the franchise. Probably the most successful “story focused” Harvest Moon.
- Harvest Moon: Magical Melody (2005, Gamecube/Wii): Sort of a “greatest hits” version of Harvest Moon, featuring returning characters and ideas from across the series up to that point.
- Rune Factory 3 (2009, Nintendo DS): Honestly, all the Rune Factories are good, but if I’m sticking to 5 games then I would say Rune Factory 3 is the best of the original trilogy. Rune Factory 3 is the most polished, has a likable cast, lets you define your play style in interesting ways, and importantly is the only game ever that lets you be a were-sheep.
B-Sides and Experiments
- Harvest Moon 3 (2001, Gameboy Color): The transition to the gameboy meant that some choices are limited (there is only one marriage option and playing as a girl farmer arbitrarily means your game ends when you get married) but comes up with some clever new things to do for such a tiny game.
- Harvest Moon: Back to Nature (1999, Playstation/Playstation 3/PSP/PS Vita): A more polished but somehow less exciting take on the Nintendo 64 version. Introduces a lot of activities other games would copy including mining and cooking. It is unquestionably the better game technically, but despite that superiority lacks the rough charm and mysterious world of the N64 version.
- Harvest Moon DS/Cute (2005/2008, Nintendo DS): A surprisingly WEIRD game from early enough in the DS’ life that developers were just throwing random ideas at games. Can be frustrating but strangely charming. Side note, the Japanese version of DS Cute featured lesbian marriage and adoption options that were cut from the American release.
- Legend of the River King (1999, Gameboy Color/3DS Virtual Console): A sort of sister-series from the same company, this one uses Dragon Quest controls to create a fishing game.
- Rune Factory 2 (2008, Nintendo DS): Ties the series’ romance options and its relationship with the steady passage of time into jrpg mechanics by having who you woo decide what kind of child takes up your quest and ultimately saves your character during the next generation’s battle.