Why a Return to Basics is Exactly What Harvest Moon Needs

Why a Return to Basics is Exactly What Harvest Moon Needs

Natsume promises a new “retro style” for the upcoming installment of their long-running farming sim. Bob explains why this approach could give new life to a floundering franchise.

We journalists are often accused of making mountains out of molehills for the sake of clicks. In this case, it’s at least partially true.

Full disclosure: I had plans to write about Other Things today until a certain press release hit my inbox. Now, these PR missives normally aren't cause for celebration, and typically go unread until the end of the day, but just a few phrases from Natsume’s announcement of Harvest Moon: Seeds of Memories filled my brain with wonderful ideas. “Retro-Style Harvest Moon Comes to Town This Winter," it exclaims proudly, via the power of italics. "[T]he feeling of a classic Harvest Moon game with modern twists," adds Natsume CEO Hiro Maekawa, also proudly (I can only assume). While press releases typically aren’t known for their substance, in the words of Close Encounters’ Richard Dreyfuss: “This means something."

The pre-rendered joys of Harvest Moon: Back to Nature.

I’ve been covering the Harvest Moon series since I entered this industry full-time close to four years ago, and while I love their heartwarming, prosocial intent, the final products never end up grabbing me like Harvest Moons of old. (And if you’re interested, I’ve provided links to my prior USgamer Harvest Moon coverage at the bottom of this article.) I’ve had plenty of chances to talk with the people behind this series, and they seem legitimately committed to innovating within their unique little corner of the market—which has led to some interesting decisions. Unlike your modern sequels—Assassin’s Creed, the Batman Arkham games—Harvest Moon operates more like the 16 and 32-bit Final Fantasies, where each game feels like an entirely new interpretation of a central premise, rather than a gradual evolution. This kind of approach cuts down on sequel fatigue, but at the same time, it feels like the developers aren’t very thoughtful about what works and what doesn’t. Ideas that seem brilliant and a long time coming end up being dropped in subsequent games, while elements they dialed back on for the sake of playability end up resurfacing several sequels down the line.

If I had to pinpoint the ideal Harvest Moon experience, I’d turn back clock to the early 2000s, when Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town released on the Game Boy Advance. Just as the PlayStation’s Harvest Moon: Back to Nature refines the pretty good Harvest Moon 64, FoMT feels like the logical conclusion of the series. Not that I thought Harvest Moon should have ended at this point, mind you, but it’s been disappointing to see the series back away from a style I thought suited Harvest Moon best. When I interviewed series creator Yasuhiro Wada several GDCs ago, I was actually surprised to hear he prefers the more story-based installments—games that mostly left me feeling ambivalent. I have distinct memories of being super-excited about Save the Homeland, the first Harvest Moon on the PS2, only to see the game completely lose its focus on farming for the sake of narrative. Sequels to follow struck a better balance, but in the passing years, nothing has really offered the same amount of freedom as Friends of Mineral Town and its predecessors.

Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley was a step in the right direction, but it didn't go far enough.

If you start up any of these older Harvest Moon games, you should immediately notice how they give you complete control of your destiny from minute one; once the premise is established, you’re free to basically do whatever you want with the resources provided. Sure, certain items and events are gated via the changing of seasons, but these older entries still offer a staggering amount of freedom—you can even choose to completely ignore the social aspect entirely and spend your days as a solitary turnip farmer—if you want to live the life of a celibate root vegetable enthusiast, that is. The amount of control over every tile of land on your property gives FoMT and earlier games a meditative quality, almost like trimming a bonsai tree. Conversely, Modern Harvest Moons typically provide prescribed plots of land to till, which cuts down on the fun of designing your own dream farm. (Keep in mind this is coming from the guy who thinks the best part of The Sims is building houses.)

I’ve dutifully covered every recent Harvest Moon since 2011, and while I never believed this series was strictly meant for adults, its most recent approach to game design seems (wrongfully) designed for small children. Typically, the first season—31 in-game days—of every new Harvest Moon game consists of a gauntlet of tutorials, most of which are old hat if you’ve ever touched the series before. Still, even if you’re new to this brand of sim, I don’t think these games give players nearly enough credit: The older Harvest Moons I’ve praised throughout this article had the confidence to drop you into the high-stakes world of competitive farming, and if you needed help, you could always turn to the in-game tutorial TV channel for advice. Even when the most recent sequel, The Lost Valley, did its best to ape Minecraft—a legitimately smart idea—the developers failed to realize what made their inspiration such a colossal hit. From the outset, Mojang’s billion-dollar creation sets you free into its world of infinite LEGOs, and the real fun comes in poking and prodding at its many blocky assets to figure out how things work.

That said, I realize press releases come with their share of asterisks attached, and I’m curbing my enthusiasm until I see if Natsume’s promise of a retro Harvest Moon comes into being as intended. Still, I do have hope for the future, since all of these attempts to “modernize” Harvest Moon have done a great job of cutting into just how amazingly addictive this series used to be—I remember pulling the “just one more day” thing, along the lines of how “just one more turn” keeps Civilization players up until four-o-clock in the morning. Regrettably, I’ll be working from home at this year’s E3, so I’ll miss out on Natsume’s oasis of adorable farm animals amid the typically shrill, aggressive offerings of the L.A. Convention Center show floor, but I’ll definitely be keeping a close watch on this series that once grabbed hold of my attention span and wouldn’t let go.

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