The Harvest Moon series (Or Bokujou Monogatari, or Ranch Story, as it is called in Japan) has been a big part of my gaming life for almost the entire 15 years the series has been out here in the USA. Considering how many games in the series I've played, and the fact that the series is celebrating it's 15th Anniversary, I figured I'd do a personal retrospective, talking about my personal experiences with the games, as close to the order I experienced them as can be. Now being a personal retrospective, it won't go into the details of production of the games, it's just my way of showing how much joy this series has brought me in an industry that seems happy shooting each other online in brown-grey shooters endlessly. Also being personal, I could get some of my facts wrong, like the order I played some games, or years when I list them, and things like that. I decided to do this on a whim and started typing it immediately when I did. Also remember, because of the personal nature of this retrospective, it is biased, so don't feel too bad if the game you enjoyed isn't on here or I say negative things about it.
Part One: First Sowing
I first heard of Harvest Moon through a friend of mine. He told me about this strangely addictive game he had rented called "Harvest Moon." After that conversation I decided to check it out, and found myself on one of the many emulator and rom sites of the time. Now I never owned a Super Nintendo, not from a lack of trying mind you, it was just back then my parents were against me having a gaming console for whatever reason. So I played a rom version of the SNES Harvest Moon. Like most I thought to myself “What is so great with this?” in the first few days, having to talk to literally everyone to forward a sequence was a bit of an annoyance, but I hung to it, and soon enough I was enjoying the game despite limitations. The catchy tunes (of which the fall theme seems to echo in my brain today) were, and still are fun to listen to in their original form (sadly the remixes that have appeared in the newer games as bonuses aren’t as good for the SNES ones).
I played through a complete cycle on Harvest Moon, having married Nina the first couple times, with Eve being the second girl to woo. I believe I also once married Maria. I would later get Harvest Moon the day it released on the Wii Virtual Console service, and enjoy it as close to the original version as is within my power to have. However, during my play-throughs of the original, I had a visit from my best friend (of almost 20 years now) and I would then learn of the game that to this day has had the most rentals from me, but I would never actually own myself…
Part 2: The Second Harvest
Harvest Moon was a fun game, no doubt about it, but when my friend visited with the game he had rented one weekend, titled “Harvest Moon 64” I knew things would never be the same. Everything I loved about the original game had been enhanced. Better graphics, sound, a rucksack to carry items in so you didn’t have to carry things one at a time, the list goes on. That weekend was only a small sample of the fun that was to come. After my friend returned the game to the rental store (I believe it was funcoland) I immediately picked it up myself. I don’t really remember much from that week, at least in terms of real life happenings, since I spent most of the time on the game. One rental turned into two, then three. One of the five total rental weeks I rented the game (before my friend got his own copy that I borrowed for a while) I made the mistake of letting my sister try it out. It was quite the fight to get the game back to return to the rental store.
I remember a few things from the game, like marrying Popuri, and befriending the then tool seller Rick. I also remember all the conversations about the game we noticed, like when night hits it gets eerily quiet, and we both swore one day we’d come to the vineyard and walk into the house one day and discover Karen’s mom having ended herself due to how depressed she was every time we saw her. The music was even better than the first game, with the summer and fall themes once again taking center stage. Back then it was a simpler time, so things like having to enter the pause menu to see the clock, and the odd delay when on the farm itself when exiting didn’t deter much from the grand experience. I also remember ignoring Elli’s grandma for as long as possible so that she didn’t pass away until I could get her recipe. Harvest Moon 64 was an amazing title, and it would be hard to beat. However it wasn’t that long after I got an N64, that I also ended up with the smaller, slimmer, and rounder PS1, and would discover one of my top 3 favorite games in the series…
Part 3: Back to Old Memories, and Nature
My experience with the playstation is…interesting. My first few games were actually played using “Bleem!” which for those not in the know, was a retail playstation emulator, the idea being that since you had to still buy the games to play it, it was legal to do. While I never heard of any legal disputes over the program, it’s update 1.5b was the last update ever, and soon it was stopped being sold. By that point however, the minor glitches involved with emulating Playstation games at the time made me get a PSone system. After a year or so with the system I was at Fred Meyer one day (one of the places I used to get new games from) when I saw something I didn’t know existed, “Harvest Moon: Back to Nature” sitting on the shelf (the only copy I found on their shelves) for 20 bucks. Naturally I convinced my mother to let me get the game and get it I did. I found out later, that the 20 dollar price tag, which I don’t believe had the game name printed on it, was the incorrect barcode for the game, it was actually for an older version of the NBA 2K games I believe. So it was luck that allowed me to get the game at such a great buy.
My mind was basically blown when that title screen came up with the waving grass, I couldn’t wait to get in and see what this version was like. The only thing that made me say “well that’s kind of dumb” was the name of the town, Mineral Town. The last village was called Flower Bud, so it was such a jolt, but I went ahead anyway. I quickly learned why gamespot’s review of the game, of which I checked later, said the words “you’ll find yourself saying ‘I’ll play just one more day’ more times than you can count.” I spent a long time on that game, even after my memory card had erased and I had to start again. Unfortunately I never DID see the ending to the basic story on that one, for my disc broke before I could finish the story. Music was again great, with the Spring and Winter songs being the highlights of the soundtrack, and a very catchy town theme. Sound effects did what they were supposed, even with the brow raising springy “pop” sound the character made when walking.
I quickly grew to love the new setting, the reimagining of the HM64 cast a great move, even if they Rick into a jerk, hating Kai for no adequately given reason besides “he doesn’t actually live here.” I have always married Karen when it comes to Mineral Town. Even when It came to the GBA port of Back to Nature, entitled “Friends of Mineral Town.” The reason why I’m not making a separate entry for the GBA title is because…well it’s the same game as Back to Nature, nothing of real importance changed (aside from the removal of the Tomato Festival, how dare you Marvelous?). The Mineral Town saga gave me the most actual in game time passed to date, having accumulated at least 9 years throughout the Back to Nature on PS1 and PS1 classics on PSN, and Friends of Mineral Town, which I purchased 2 copies of, however before I got FoMT, I got my PS2, of which I still have today, and my first game purchased for it would be the game I have the most mixed feelings about…
Part 4: Homeland to be Saved
When I got my PS2, I didn’t have any games for it for a couple weeks, sure I rented Final Fantasy X, which had come out by then and it dropped my jaw, but my PS2 was incomplete, it still needed two things, a memory stick, and a game to call my own. About a week after I got my PS2, the main water line to our house sprung a leak. After diagnosing the problem , I had to break up the concrete, wait for the repair guy to fix it, then reclose the hole. It was a lot of work, but my prize for it, a deal struck between my parents and I, was a shiny new copy of “Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland.” Even though I didn’t have a memory card, I didn’t care, I still played it, getting to mid-summer every play session. It wasn’t long before a trip to the then closing K-mart near us yielded me to not only get a memory card, but also Final Fantasy X, so I could actually see the end of the thing. I was finally able to play StH all the way through, probably going through 5ish cycles of the game’s story in the process.
The graphics at the time were great, sure some of the animations were a bit on the stiff side, but the cell shading was awesome, and the details were nice as well. To my shock, awe and amazement, this was the first game where you could get a different dog that I had played (I never played the GBC games). I always chose this second dog, because I loved it’s look. Music was good overall, with all of the seasons having strong themes, in perticular, the Summer theme when on the farm. In my mind to this day, there has not been a single song ever in the series to top that theme, even the remix, which appeared in later games, while one of the stronger remixes, was not as good as the PS2 original. It was also the first HM game I played that had the “chance” of the weather, rather than “it’s going to rain” like previous games. The setting and characters really clicked for me, Bob on the ranch from whom I got my black horse, Nexus from because I brushed him the most and first.
The biggest disappointment for me was the lack of marriage. Considering the game repeated every year, and thus, while your farm didn’t change, the relationships with the villagers did, and therefore you could not get marriage in the game, which irked me because my favorite female character to that point, Gwen was in it. There were other minor issues I had with the game, only four crops to grow kind of defeated the purpose of the whole farm aspect, and of course the whole “one year” aspect. I still enjoyed the game quite a bit however, but I was kind of vocal on the idea of only one year and no marriage. Now after getting FomT, I finally got a gamecube, and along with Mario Kart (which came packaged in) and Animal Crossing, I also got the next game in the series…
Part 5: A New Life, A Valley to Never Forget
I finally got a gamecube around…2005ish. Along with “Mario Kart: Double Dash”, which was packaged in with the system I also got a coupon that said “buy one game at 20 bucks and get another 20 dollar game for 5.” Naturally I got “Animal Crossing”, and “Harvest Moon: A Wonderful life.” AWL was a strange game at first. Only 10 days per season, having to propose before the end of the first year, weather that naturally rolled in and out, more realistic scenery, and other things. Graphically the game was fantastic, high detail, lovely looking water effects, and odd yet charming characters. Me and my friend would constantly joke about how Forget-Me-Not Valley’s doctor was a retired James Bond villain.
Music was used differently in this game compared to the older games in the series, and indeed is the only one (including the PS2 version released the next year) to not have dedicated season themes, instead you had a record player on the farm that would play music specifically for your farm. Other areas had their own song, like Cody the artist’s trailer, or the scientist’s lab. Most were more rhythms and less song, but I did spend most of my time listening to Quiet Winter, gazing up almost in a trance at the stars at night. Sound effects were the closest to realism in this game, so much so that many are still used in titles to this day. One of the little things that kind of got to me was how my character actually got hungry, which when starting out meant my little farmer was always hungry since food was hard to come by until ingredients could easily be gotten. Nina passing away meant Galen was always so sad, and it was a little heartbreaking to see it. I’ll admit I didn’t get too far into A Wonderful Life. It’s a great game, but something else was coming that would take more of my time…
Part 6: A Catchy Melody
When I heard that Magical Melody was incoming, and coming with characters from both the ORIGINAL Harvest Moon on the SNES AND characters from Save the Homeland, I immediately when out and pre-ordered the game. I got the plush sheep, which is now named “Wooly Gear” and picked the game up launch day. The game was like a return to the old days, but with many new features, like land ownership. The game returned to the isometric view that older titles used, and had a graphics style that could be best described as “The SNES game in 3d.” Presentation wise, it wasn’t until summer that I learned the tricks the game employed, when there was a heat wavy effect from late morning to evening in the game. The player could choose where his or her farm was, and could even buy more land to increase space for farming. The game even had a multiplayer mode, although it was just a bunch of minigames.
Music in the game was very upbeat and easily hummable. The spring theme is the one I really remember most, as well as the “event” theme. Sound effects once again did their job, even if they weren’t anything outstanding. The characters were a lot of fun. The revivals of the old characters was a very welcome sight, as were the characters from Save the Homeland. The new characters were great, and returning characters from the likes of HM64 and BTN were also welcome additions to the setting. Heck they even threw in a rival farmer. To be honest, I never liked Jamie much, she (in my game Jamie was a she, therefor I will refer to her as such, but I am well aware that Jamie is a boy when you play a girl) always was so cold towards my farmer for reason I ever got in my play time. Despite being a marriage candidate, I wouldn’t consider marrying her since… well you needed 50 notes and the game ends if you marry her.
Overall I had a lot of fun with Magical Melody. Even with some irksome things presented in the game (there’s a red outfit for the farmer in multiplayer mode, why couldn’t I wear it in the actual game?) the fun outweighed the issues to create a game I played quite a bit of. However my ending to playing the game was not due to lack of interest, or a broken disc, or a new game coming out. My large gamecube memory card kicked the bucket, and since GC Harvest Moon titles like to take a bunch of space, and I only had the memory card I got with Animal Crossing, I had to stop playing my GC HM games all-together. Nowadays I could emulate Magical Melody, I tested it out on the Dolphin emulator (and yes I still have the actual GC disc, and no I don’t have the image on my computer anymore) and it worked fine, A wonderful life on the other hand… the music was messed up. But my dad got a DS, and I was itching to finally have a game of my own on it. It was then that I surfed on gamestop’s website…
Part 7: Dual Simplicity
While surfing on gamestop’s website in the DS section, I discovered that a Harvest Moon title actually existed on the system. Like most games at the time, it was just called “Harvest Moon DS” and I soon had the game. This entry will be short, because there isn’t a whole lot I can say about the game that isn’t covered in earlier entries. It takes the main character sprite from FoMT, and shoves him into a sprite version of Forget-Me-Not valley. The only real new thing gameplay wise was having to build things like a chicken coop on your field, though limited buildings were there, and the… I’ll call it Sprite TV, which was all the normal features of a hm game done by the harvest sprites (more on them in the characters section), and special items you can hold to increase things like stamina (which replaced the, in my opinion, superior Power Berries).
There really isn’t any music that I feel really stood out in the game. If it wasn’t for the record player, the music would have been just kind of there. Sound effects were standard, and even the prsentation was just…ok. The game didn’t really use the DS’s capabilities well, but it was nice to have a regular Harvest Moon title take place in Forget-Me-Not. A silly choice was it takes place like 100 years after the events of FoMT and AWL, yet every single character is the exact same as their ancestors. The layout and look of the valley remained the same after all those years, with absolutely no real change in technology or anything. The only thing different was the Harvest Sprites. There were 101 of them that you had to find, and about 9 of them actually had personality, and they were the ones that ran Sprite TV. To be honest, I didn’t like the look of those sprites, the afros they had looked rediculous and just… I dunno.
Overall the game was just OK, I definitely place it as the lowest point in the series of the games I’ve played. What killed me from playing the game anymore was actually a glitch. In which having the sprites fish for you in winter, you had a chance to end up with 1 billion G. At that point I didn’t need to grow anything or do any work at that point. If I wanted something, I’d just buy it. Luckily this dark time in my HM history didn’t last long, with the Wii came an all new adventure…
Part 8: A Tree to Nurture
It had been over a year since I had gotten my Nintendo Wii (i.e., 2008), and it was around summer that I had actually grown bored with Animal Crossing: City Folk (it was an ok game, just it seems that series is just destined to be best as a hand held title when you can pull it out whenever you want). Eventually I managed to my hands on a copy of the first Wii outing, “Harvest Moon: Tree of Tranquility.” It was also around this time I learned of a Wii focused game reviewer on YouTube, who did a review of the game and gave it a positive review (wiiviewr for those curious). I popped in the disc and…well…
It was odd to see a 3D console harvest moon title with the slightly more realistic, though still cartoon style graphics do the semi-top down view thing. I mean you could look up at the sky, but you couldn’t rotate the camera much, if at all. Players once again got to choose their location from one of three spots, each with its plusses and negatives. It was a fairly standard HM experience, with the big new features being the tree, of which you had to craft… seven I think it was (if not, then five) special recipes to resurrect the tree. Most of these required rare and really hard to find or craft materials or ingredients, one of the items in one of the later recipes required ingredients that took a whole game year to collect. One of the choices involving this new feature was after you finished reviving the tree, would the player keep going, or would give their rucksack to the next generation, beginning the game basically anew.
Presentation wise the game was kind of hit or miss. On the graphics front what was there mostly looked fine, but the game didn’t have a widescreen mode or even progressive graphics, so it looked stretched and a bit blurry on my TV. The most stand-out thing to me was the water, it looked really…painterly, and it was indeed nice, and there were some decent lighting tricks in some areas. Music wise the actual songs for at least spring and winter weren’t bad, but the quality was inconsistent in terms of actual audio quality. Much of it sounded…muffled, with the occasional clear sound coming out. It was jarring to say the least.
Waffle Town wasn’t a bad place, the layout was decent, and while the people were good, I don’t really remember any of their names, just some of their appearances come to mind. This was the first Harvest Moon game I had that the various things about the game itself (not a glitch caused me to stop playing, and it’s the only game in the series that I’ve owned to have traded in later). I’m not sure why but it just… Tree of Tranquility never clicked for me. However I Had a PSP, and I needed a farming adventure for that underrated hand held marvel...
Part 9: I need a Hero
Having had a PSP for a time, I felt the need for some farming on it, so when I heard of “Harvest Moon: Hero of Leaf Valley” I knew I had to own it. This section is going to be much shorter than the other ones, since this is basically the same game as Save the Homeland, with some new features, I’m only going to go into the new stuff.
The first big news with the game was the fact the story doesn’t end until after 2 years instead of one, meaning the player could get married, and in a nice change of pace, the player could keep going after the story ended as well, meaning no more resetting relationships. The graphics were basically the same, the layout had only minor changes, and there were a few festivals now. It felt more like a Harvest Moon title. However there is a major story issue I came across that not only made me have to restart, but also made me once again no longer be able to play the game for any length of time. Basically there is one event in which two different endings compete for in the second year. Unfortunately the main ending is NOT the ending that takes priority. Basically if you pursue this side ending, you cannot get the true good ending to the game which is a bit silly. Otherwise the game was good, had a nice new soundtrack (though the summer theme in this game is the weakest of the bunch.
However I soon got my own 3DS, and with it I started building up my back catalogue, and one of the games I would get would be a title that was harder to find by that time…
Part 10: Raise Dem Islands!
Having gotten a 3DS at launch, one of the major plusses was be able to finally obtain and play DS games I missed out on, not having a DS of my own. I decided that, since the newest DS game at the time had already been out for quite a while, that I should pick it up before it got too expensive to do so. So after about two weeks of waiting, I got my hands on Harvest Moon: Sunshine Islands. I skipped island of Happiness because, well the touch only controls pushed me away.
The new thing was collecting the sun stones to raise the islands. Raising the islands meant more farming ground, as well as more areas, activities and villagers. Some were simple to find, like just searching the correct place, or having a certain amount of animals on the farm. Others were more difficult to obtain, and some were just frustrating, like talking to an NPC and having like a 5% chance of getting the stone. Personally I thought if these stones were so darned important, if the NPC had them already, they shouldn’t hold out, unless you had to become their friend. One other big chance was the weather prediction. Instead of having a TV to tell you the weather prediction at any time, you had to speak to the elder, Taro at the early morning to find out what the weather would be. It was a bit of an inconvenience, since you had to leave your house, head to him and talk to him to find out what tomorrow’s weather was, and then head back to do your farm chores, and he only told you once, so if you forgot… too bad.
Presentation was, again… just ok. The land looked fine, being 3D models and textures, but the sprites weren’t as good looking, and didn’t have as much animation as past games. I would have preferred low poly models to the sprites, but that’s just me. Music was…music was… uhhh… hold that thought for a second. Okay back, and man is that music so forgettable. There isn’t anything that I consider to be good. Nothing bad either, just… I already forgot the tunes and I just listened to them on hmotaku’s jukebox.
Like Tree of Tranquility, I don’t remember many of the character’s names, Taro being the exception due to his portrait. Once I hit mid-winter I heard of the next HM title coming later that year and all will to play just…went away. Even today I have trouble playing more than five minutes before going “eh” and dropping the game again. Luckily I didn’t have long to wait, as I had preordered the latest game in the series at that point, but I wouldn’t learn until later that I made what I still consider to be a $10 mistake…
Part 11: Two Towns Fighting More than Each Other
Squishy. That’s the name I gave my stuffed alpaca bonus for preordering the game. I wanted to support Natsume’s decision to port the last DS Harvest Moon title to the 3DS by getting the 3DS port. I really wanted another native running 3DS game for my system. What did I get with this? Well aside from spending an extra 10 dollars, I got “Harvest Moon: Tale of Two Towns 3D.”
The biggest gameplay change this time is right in the title, two towns fighting over who has the best cooking on the mountain. So much so that four….FOUR cooking festivals are held every season. One town, Bluebell, is a western themed village based around animals and their produce. The other, Konohana, is an eastern themed town with a focus on plant farming. The player gets to choose which town to start in, and can even move to the other town every season.
Presentation is ok, the backgrounds are well drawn and the menus clean. The fault lies again in the sprites. To me it looks like they modeled the characters, animated them, and took screenshots in the animation and turned them into sprites. It doesn’t look that fantastic in realization unfortunately. Music wise the game was pretty good, each town having a set of their own themes, as well as the standard themes for the seasons and such.
The Two Towns had an interesting bunch of characters. Friendly people even with the fact that their feud seemed to be a “just there” thing, since they can easily talk nice to each other, but when competition comes around, it’s a warzone. The two farms were also a neat feature, overall the setting was fine, and the game is fun, but it’s the technical issues that ultimately ruin this game for me. See I bought the 3DS version as stated, and there are four reasons I feel like I made a mistake. First, it cost 10 dollars more, which wouldn’t have been such a big deal if it weren’t for the other 3 reasons. Second, the 3DS version came out about 2 MONTHS after the original DS version, so now we have the more expensive game taking longer to get out even though the games are 99% the same. Thirdly, the game has TERRIBLE lagging on the players farm, and it isn’t framerate drop, it’s total game slowdown, and it brings the game to a crawl. The last issue is the random chance of having the game freeze completely while in the mountain, meaning a complete restart of the system to resume. These issues just made the game hard for me to keep playing. Soon enough however, Natsume announced that for once, they were releasing a translated version of the next game in the same year it came to Japan, and it promised to be A New Beginning to the series…
Part 12 (Final): Beginning Anew…
Natsume announced the 15th Anniversary edition on their website, and while the yak was cute, the cow plushy, which is huge, is basically the face of Harvest Moon. So when I got the cow (named Super Moo), I then got what could easily be my favorite game in the series to date…
Harvest Moon: A New Beginning is exactly as the name says. It’s a Harvest Moon game that does so much it can only be considered as a new beginning for the series, of which every game from this point on should be compared to. Allowing the player to customize everything to some degree opens up brand new possibilities of growth, both for the characters and the player.
Graphics are overall really good. The character models are great looking, with a nice amount of detail. The animations are also pretty good (even if the sitting animation is stupid with how they sway back and forth). The changes in the season aesthetically are quite nice, with winter being just flat out pretty, especially in 3D. Music wise I have yet to have any complaints for the default music, each being upbeat, catchy and just make the player feel happy the whole time.
Echo village may start small, at only 4 people including you, but the characters that move in are new and well made. Even the almost pointless dating system is a nice touch overall, making the game more fun by having the player commit to a marriage candidate before the blue feather can be purchased. A few minor technical issues aside, A New Beginning raises the bar for Harvest Moon. Feeling fresh and nostalgic at the same time.
Thank you Natsume, for 15 years of Harvest Moon fun, and here’s to many more fantastic games in the future. And thank you as well Natsume community, to reading this 12 part personal and heavily biased retrospective.
As a bonus, here's some pics from the internet of the plushies I have gotten from the series.