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By Kat Bailey 1
Stardew Valley, Chucklefish's Harvest Moon-inspired farming game, is the most downloaded game on the Nintendo Switch. That's because they're a perfect fit for one another. Best buds. Soul mates.
Stardew Valley's success on the Switch is good news, but it's also not very surprising. "Stardew Valley, but portable" isn't a hard sell. In fact, I found myself pining for a portable version of the game almost exactly a year ago. I caught a terrible flu, and my fever was just high enough to make me feel miserable without losing my grip on reality. I wasn't allowed to slip into a vague haze of delirium; I was lucid, and I was bored. So I downloaded Stardew Valley for the PlayStation 4 and played it through my idiot tears of pain.
I really should have been in bed. With my Switch. Alas, the Switch and its port of Stardew Valley was miles away. But looking back, it strikes me the Switch is a "cozy" system and Stardew Valley is a very "cozy" game that is perfectly suited for handhelds, even though it was born on Steam.
Portable Stardew Valley is a dream many fans nursed as far back as when the Nintendo Switch was still the mysterious "NX." I remember Kat and I tossing around the possibility of a Nintendo 3DS port during some segment of Axe of the Blood God; no doubt the handheld could've handled the game. But Chucklefish is a small publisher, and its effort was evidently spent porting Stardew Valley to Nintendo's versatile system. Stardew Valley is a visually busy game, and a high-def interface is preferable to a 400 x 240 display.
It was a long journey, but Stardew Valley is exactly where it belongs. And even though the game's very nearly two years old, people have yet to tire of it. Its Switch launch has even blessed it with an incredible spike in popularity. Why?
Again: Cozy game, cozy system. As I relayed above, when I was sick last year, I would've summoned a pagan agriculture demon to my living room if I thought doing so would give me a chance to play Stardew Valley in bed. But the meat of the game itself is packed with easy wish-fulfillment that makes you feel warm and good. That's important in a world filled with Millennials who are uncertain about their future, and for good reason.
You start off as a corporate schlub who's gifted with their dead grandfather's farm. There it is from the start: The rare chance to abandon our immediate responsibilities and "leave it all behind." Sure, the farm is overgrown, but it's nothing a little elbow-grease can't cure-and what feels better than a breaking good sweat (even a digital sweat?).
Once you've cleared a nice bit of land, you can tend to a patch of vegetables and add your income to selling whatever you find on the beach. Then you can use your first profits to build your way up to growing better crops and animals that provide wool and milk. There's a satisfying sense of progression in Stardew Valley that's coveted in a society where young people who pour hours of their lives into tasks, but don't always get to behold the fruits of their labors. They're regarded as cogs, and treated as such.
The Harvest Moon series has always commanded a dedicated fanbase because it's also a comforting game, but if Harvest Moon is a warm sweater, Stardew Valley is a great big gentle hug from a bear. Stardew Valley feels looser and freer than most Harvest Moon games because there are so many ways to make a living beyond raising crops, chickens, and cows. You can grow fruit, and make jams and wines.
You can become a foraging expert. You can raise different milk-bearing animals to make different kinds of cheeses. You can become a master fisherperson. You can arm yourself and plumb the depths of a deadly dungeon for rich rewards. You can own property, a faraway dream for most Millennials if there ever was one.
From hour one, Stardew Valley makes you feel like you're doing something that matters. And once you get sucked into the potential relationship-building, you're a goner. Your potential mates draw you in with harmless facades that make them easy to like unconditionally ("Ohh I'm gonna marry the sad goth boy!"), then unload their problems and stories on you as you become closer. Alex has major abandonment issues; Harvey's forced to walk every day on the shards of his shattered dreams; Leah's being stalked by her crazy ex; Shane struggles with alcoholism; and even though it's his lifelong ambition, Elliot can't write a book to save his life.
Sure, the narrative behind most of Stardew Valley's relationships wouldn't support a 90-minute Lifetime movie, but there's just enough there to let you believe finding and living with a lifelong companion is as easy as helping them overcome a hurdle they keep stumbling over. Finding a spouse in Stardew Valley is as simple and satisfying as making land fertile by swinging your hoe once, or as making cheese by throwing some milk into a cheese-making machine.
The world demands hard work, often for little reward. Stardew Valley continues to dole out big rewards for small tasks. Now that it's portable and multiplayer is coming, I expect we're going to continue pumping hundreds of carefree hours into our cool little farms. My farm is named "Efrafa." I expect great things from it.
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