I am going to start doing a weekly look back at some old, classic games. Not always games I like, not always games I respect, but games I feel are worthy of being discussed and remembered. This week, I’m taking on Natsume’s classic Super Nintendo farming simulation, Harvest Moon.
“So how do I win?”
I think this was the question I asked myself when first provided with Harvest Moon, as it was a game which really kind of went against my own competitive ethos at the time. There was no fighting, no combat, no strict set of rules to adhere to. Even the eventual end of the game became something of a mystery; with multiple endings and a myriad of paths leading towards them, Harvest Moon on the surface looked to be a daunting challenge. It was a game about daily chores, managing your time and making as much money as you could along the way, however you saw fit to do so.
It’s really not a very complicated little RPG in truth. But it sure as heck feels it at times, and it is coming to terms with how the game world works which allows you to find the time and space to perform the myriad of tasks that you need to do every day. Plant crops, water them, pick them, put then in your shipping bin. Raising chickens. Breeding, brushing and milking cows. All the while looking for the elusive Power Berries, and finding time to fish and enjoy something of a social life in the process. The mysteriously long nights without end become inaccessible when you court a wife and want to have children; knowing you need to be back in bed at sundown or she might just run off with the milkman or shipping guy or whoever she fancies next. You forage the mountains for the last scraps of berries and run hell for leather back to your farm, hoping all the while you will get back just in time to plonk those berries into the shipping bin before the Shipper arrives and your produce is completely wasted. As the game progresses, you have to chop wood for fences, make enough money to buy the seeds and tools needed to efficiently run the farm, make enough to upgrade your house twice over and explore every nook and cranny for the Golden Tools, be they from the gods or from little Harvest Sprites.
It’s quite daunting and for a very long time it felt a bit too much like work. There was little narrative pay-off, the seasonal events were nice but nothing special. But I’ll tell you this; Harvest Moon is considerably better than any version or sequel that has come since, and the reason for this really is in its simplicity.
It may have been a long time ago, but Harvest Moon has really aged gracefully and the fact is that it didn’t overly-complicate the process. Everything was manageable and everything was timed nicely. After a few goes, you would get the hang of juggling the farm, the social life, wooing the girl of your dreams, hunting around for hidden berries and magical farm tools as well as buying, raising and profiting from your livestock. Future games saw fit to introduce more RPG elements like experience points and reputation systems and crafting. The original doesn’t have that nor does it suffer without them, because after a while it transcends the whole RPG-style and it becomes something more akin to a strategy game. Planning ahead, making sure you have just the right plants to make money, ensuring you space them out evenly enough to get the maximum reward without getting bogged down in too much running about, wasting valuable time. It reminds me a little bit of Tetris; the basic concept and even the initial reaction is one of confusion and perhaps even dislike, but it has something. It has that addictive quality. For Tetris, it was about high-scores and the speed and reflexes. In Harvest Moon – it’s the accumulation of wealth, and seeing the fruits of your labours come together over time.
By keeping it simple, you don’t bog the player down with more than they can handle. Later versions of Tetris and Harvest Moon are a testament to this fact; I was going in and out of hospital this year and I had picked up a second-hand copy of Harvest Moon DS. Just because I was planning to write this some months ago but never really got around to it. I was actually quite shocked at how much I disliked it too – dungeons which require combat on top of a heavily-restricted stamina system. Too many relationships and things to do at any given step, that sense of knowing you have to do X-Y-Z and only have about fifteen minutes in which to do everything. Crafting, raising pets and the pointless minigames involved in it, gambling and rescuing a hundred sprites often by doing some of the most obscure things – like hitting a specific point in a fence with a hammer. Seriously, this is 90’s Point and Click Adventure Game logic! How the heck am I supposed to know how to do any of this without consulting a walkthrough?
It made me miss the gentle curve and relative simplicity of the Super Nintendo original, because the pace becomes faster but never to the point that you feel as though you are running out of steam. Calm, collected and intelligent foresight as well as an avid watch on the weather and a gentle curiosity could pay dividends, and you never really needed to cheat it or consult a guide. Everything was there; everything happened when it needed to happen, or when you were ready for it to happen. It was a calm, composed game rather than its later incarnations which run around as though someone has set its underpants alight, screaming at us to do something and do it now. Also, why on earth would you give someone the option to poison the whole town? I mean really, moral choice mechanics really have a lot to answer for…
Later versions simply do far too much, and rely heavily on gimmicks and silly additions to somehow give it the illusion of progress. The original was bold, bright and cheerful. It was a simpler, more robust affair. Sure, there isn’t much story and there is less to do than later games, but that keeps the focus firmly where it needs to be in a game like this; on the farm, tending to the daily goings-on, planning and executing your routines and making money as quickly and efficiently as possible. You go to town because you need to buy seeds, or tools, or livestock – not because you are being told to go there every single day. You explore the mountains because they are there, because the pool helps restore stamina, not because they hit you over the head and demand you go there every day in order to fill a requirement to open something else. You control how close you get to people. How the farm develops. How much of the land you clear. Everything in Harvest Moon is in the players hands to control, not an arbitrary addition in order to force the player away from what should be its most crowning glory.
It’s somewhat sad that latter-day versions of Harvest Moon aren’t quite as good as this, because the concept is glorious. Like any good game, it isn’t immediately obvious that there is strategy and planning involved but it is there, and the player can grab it quickly or slowly, but there is no sense of failing. It’s hard to fail in the game, because it handles itself so wonderfully all the way through. Anything that detracts from the managing and strategic element of the farm can only really do the series a disservice. None of it is necessary. I don’t want to bake a dozen cakes in order to make someone happy enough to talk to me. Sod them, sod them all, I own a damned farm! They should be coming to me for ingredients! They should be knocking on my door asking for me to plant things, rear things. They should be coming to me and I should be providing them a service, I shouldn’t be expected to run after them for an hour and a half, that’s time I could be spent making the town happy and prosperous by actually having a successful, thriving farm full of animals, crops and special attractions!
Harvest Moon of today needs to really go back and study this, the original and still the best. Because okay, it isn’t as deep or as complex as newer versions. But that’s exactly what makes it so much better than them. It’s simple and just complex enough without having to force side-attractions in. The star of the show is the farming and that’s what makes Harvest Moon work. Because it’s all about the farm. The farm should be where the fun is, not where you are forced to do daily chores whilst the fun happens everywhere else.
Because then the farm really is nothing but work. So let’s celebrate the original. Because to go forward, the series really is going to eventually have to look back at this one.
You know. Because they really did get it right the first time.