[Editor's note: nintendoll tells us how Harvest Moon started the affair for her as part of June's Monthly Musings. -- CTZ]
As a kid of divorced parents, my beginning relationship with videogames was a pretty casual one. My dad bought my sister and I the Super Nintendo, but we only were able to play it when we visited him on weekends. My mom refused to let us have a game system in the house.
Harvest Moon 64 is the start of my true love for videogames. Weirdly enough, I can't actually remember why I pulled this game off the shelf. I didn't know anyone else who had played it; and I hadn't read any reviews of it at all. But was the first game I chose for myself, and also the first game I can remember playing in serious, 6-8 hour chunks of time. It was the game responsible for my first gaming all-nighter. Harvest Moon has a type of quirk and charm all its own that really captivated me and drew me in to the gaming world.
What makes this game unique is that unlike most games, how well you do is based on long term goals. One could argue that standard RPGs have long term goals as well, but I would disagree. There is one long term goal in RPGs: Beat the final boss. Everything else is pretty much short term (mini-bosses, side quests, etc). Harvest Moon forces you to focus on your own long term goals: When should I buy my first cow if I want it to have full hearts by the Cow Festival? Should I marry Popuri or Elli because it's easy, or try for Karen? How can I set up and plant my crops for the maximum profit? You have three years and you are given complete freedom to decide your own goals: what to grow, what animals to own, who to marry (if you even want to), and who to be friends with.
The game breaks up the monotony of farming with festivals and character cut scenes. The festivals often provide mini-games and chances to raise the heart level of the girl you're after. I remember when I was playing as a kid I would throw hours into the game repeating in my head, "I'll just play until the next festival...just until the next event...I just need to raise her heart one more level." I was a woman obsessed. I also needed to win every competitive festival, or else I restarted the game. How else could I get the Pig Statue or the Turtle Figure?! And if I didn't get those, how was I supposed to protect my expensive greenhouse from being destroyed in a hurricane?? Also, Harvest Moon 64 has the wonderful New Year's Eve at the bar mini game, where you have to out-drink everyone in the entire bar. To do this, you need to actually build up your alcohol tolerance by ordering wine from the bar during the year (or stealing it from the vineyard's cellar). If you win this mini-game, Karen the crazy alcoholic will like you more.
The characters are another part of this game that makes it so charming to play. Every character has a different personality. They go places and visit other villagers. They have relationships with other people in town that YOU can have an effect on. For example, if you don't become good friends with the other single men, they won't get married to the other eligible girls. Since each character has a distinct personality, it is pretty easy to get attached. I remember my first time playing how upsetting it was when Elli's grandmother dies, feeling like I needed to save Karen from her self and her family's alcoholic history, trying so hard to be friends with Cliff so that he wouldn't leave town. It sounds stupid but all of the characters were realistic in their relationships with each other and their personal flaws. Becoming good friends with all of the villagers gives you new cut scenes, and also allows you to complete your recipe book (even if you can't cook, which was fixed in the PS1 version).
There were also lots of complicated (and secret) goals to achieve in this game. Completing the photo album is something I still haven't been able to do. Collecting all ten power berries was time consuming but necessary if you wanted to work long hours on your farm without passing out. Reviving the old vineyard was a ridiculously long process, and you have to do it in order to get the photo with Karen (and also to keep her from leaving town). It takes some strategy to get all of the special items in the game like the music box, and all of the birthday presents from the girls.
However, one of the things that makes this game (and the series in general) so much fun is the silly glitches. In the 64 game, you could place 99 bets on any horse without spending any money, you could steal wine from the cellar of the vineyard, and you could get Karen's heart level up to the max in one day by showing her your dog 200 times. Also, no matter how many times you hit your cow with an ax, it only gets mad at you. A little disappointing if you were planning on making hamburgers.
The PS1 version continued this trend of lovable glitches with the multiplying dog ball trick, and other weird glitches such as being able to put your dog into the village's Harvest Festival hot pot (apparently, he doesn't taste very good). At this same festival, you can whip out your fishing pole and GO FISHING in the hot pot...and you'll end up fishing out mostly tin cans and other garbage. This village is whack.
This game started me into gaming because it drew me in with it's quirky characters, freedom of choice and addictive game play. I have been a fan of the series ever since, and I own two Gameboy version of the game, Harvest Moon: Back To Nature (PS1 and arguably the best version ever made), HM: More Friends of Mineral Town (GBA), and HM: Another Wonderful Life. I've played the SNES ROM version, however, I don't own it.
What is truly unfortunate is the recent failure of this series. This can actually be traced back to the transition from Harvest Moon 64 to HM: BtN. While the game play was much better, the first thing I noticed was how much the characters and been dumbed down. Karen had gone from being a feisty alcoholic bitch to slightly disagreeable, Ann went from an all-out tomboy to a girl who just kind of sucks at cooking, Rick, Gray, and Cliff all became really mopey, and the old couple living at the top of the mountain disappeared completely. Some of the characters got weirder (Popuri likes when you give her weeds and May likes garbage?). The characters were still pretty interesting but not unique anymore; there was no real feeling of attachment to any of them. However, there were enough new characters and gameplay elements (legendary fish, cooking, more cut scenes, and the ability to marry the Harvest Goddess) that I didn't really mind too much.
Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town (or More Friends of Mineral Town) took the PlayStation version and expanded it. One of the things I really liked is that the game was not money-focused. You could easily gain millions of gold by playing Won's apple-switching game to get the lottery tickets. Winning the lottery gave you records, which sold for 100-300k. They did however add levels to the mine, give special extra houses for 50+ years of gameplay, and added all sorts of elements that took the focus off of earning money. The goals were also more long term: growing 100 of each crop in each season to get the special crop, becoming friends with the Harvest Sprites so they'd do work for you, etc.
By the time the series made it to A Wonderful Life (which I owned before trading for Another Wonderful Life) I knew I had bought the last HM game I cared to play. The system of interbreeding plants was ridiculously complicated, raising livestock had become realistic to the point that it wasn't profitable or fun, and all of the eligible girls had become the same. Yes, it's pretty cool to raise your kid, but since when was that ever the point of a Harvest Moon game? It felt to me like the gameplay had become watered down over the various versions of the game. Murrey the crazy homeless weirdo was the most interesting character in the game, because you know that guy had to have some sort of crazy back story.
I will always love the Harvest Moon games that I own. In fact, I still pick them up and play them about once week (mainly the PS1 and GBA versions). It makes me sad that I can't feel excited when a new HM game is released, because it's pretty much guaranteed to be a pile of crap. However I will never forget that first experience with HM 64 that drew me into the wide world of gaming.