Harvest Moon. Does that ring any bells? It’s one of the most popular farming simulation video game series ever created, and that’s a very cluttered playing field. All right, so there aren’t many games that encroach on the “raise a farm from scratch while maintaining relationships with villagers” formula, but maybe there should be. Harvest Moon has gotten lazy, and, as a result, it’s begun to lose my interest. Nevermind that I’m probably seven years older than I was when I first became interested in the game; for a series that has run this long, they need to step it up a notch.
The original Harvest Moon games were true classics. Starting out on the Super NES, the first Harvest Moon was down-to-earth, concentrating on planting a variety of seeds each of the four seasons in addition to managing traditional barnyard animals. You had to try to make money by raising chickens and cows, and you could fish and upgrade your house a couple of times. There was a town where you could buy supplies, and women to woo, as well as festivals to attend. It was a simple life that was strangely addictive and unusual when compared to the war and fighting games that were so widespread.
Now, that simple formula is gone. Many games later (too many to count, but let’s try…it’s over 15 for sure), Harvest Moon has had two spin-off series, one of which is successful (Rune Factory). But the games have strayed from just having a simple farm and town to making the player search for musical notes, befriend mermaids, fight deranged chickens, give gifts to talking plants, and gamble with elves, among other things. What’s going on?
A little bit of fantasy is fine in a game; it differentiates it from boring, repetitive reality. But perhaps Harvest Moon should try to find its roots again. At the same time, it would do well to take a hint from the Animal Crossing playbook and design a portable game that mimics real-time. In such a manner, a farmer wouldn’t be running frantically around trying to water all of the crops before they wither away at the end of the virtual season. With modern game systems, many more varietals of crops can, and should be, included, as well as the usual assortment of animals.
Undoubtedly it’s a difficult task to balance a certain degree of playability and fun while respecting realism, but it’s something Harvest Moon did well in the past. Now it seems to be stretching, unwilling to just let the series naturally progress with updated graphics and depth without sacrificing the feeling of true farming. Are all farms on islands?
The next Harvest Moon game scheduled for release in the U.S. is Island of Happiness, and while it appears to be getting some things back on track, problems remain: mainly, the control scheme, and the odd decision to make the player farm after a shipwreck. But the sequel, Shining Sun and Friends, is superior in many ways; look for it to be released in English in no sooner than a year, no later than never. In the meantime, let’s hope that Marvelous Interactive gets bored and replays the Super Nintendo version. The world would do well with one more genuine farming game to calm us all down.
(I know little of the new Wii game, Tree of Tranquility, but it could be good. Time will tell.)