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Old 03-28-2012, 08:11 PM   #1 (permalink)
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The Ineffable Charm of Harvest Moon: Back to Nature



A 1UP-owned Vita recently fell into my lap, so in the last few weeks, I've been taking it with me on my daily mass transit trips -- in lieu of one of the many books I should probably be reading instead. And my choice of games should really tell you something about my priorities; instead of jumping into one of the system's many graphically impressive experiences, I've invested most of my time thus far into a 2007 PSP port of a 1999 PlayStation game: Harvest Moon: Boy and Girl, which collects the original Back to Nature and pairs it with the (formerly) Japanese-only re-release which changes the main character's sex and courtship options.

Mind you, this sudden interest in farming didn't just hit me out of the blue; my recent GDC chat with Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada inspired me to re-visit a series I haven't really paid attention to in close to a decade. Wada's admission that Harvest Moon 64 is the definitive installment in the series really stuck with me, as the PSX port of this game made for one of my most extended and enjoyable stays in the extremely mellow world of simulated agriculture and animal husbandry. And returning to it some 13 years later, I couldn't help but get sucked in all over again.

The types of games I enjoy most plop players down in a relatively modest (but dense) chunk of real estate, and essentially leave them to their own devices as NPCs move along at their own pace, regardless of player interaction; titles like Deadly Premonition and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask pull off this sort of design extremely effectively. Though the Back to Nature offers intuitive changes that make the original SNES game somewhat irrelevant, its fairly independent game world builds on the strong foundation of the original. Later Harvest Moons would graft the series' traditional farming mechanics on a fairly skeletal plot, but Back to Nature doesn't really bother itself with anything beyond "make this wasteland profitable in three years or go back from whence you came." Along with these basic instructions, players find themselves responsible for accessing as much (or as little) of the story as they want -- I've never tried it, but it's entirely possible to play the game as a complete agoraphobic, ignoring male and female NPCs alike in a desperate effort for pure profit. Call it Wall Street 3: The Farm Report. Just be prepared to watch the town's few eligible bachelorettes married off before your lonely, girl-starved eyes.



Back to Nature paints its characters somewhat broadly, but important information about their lives is entirely up to the players to discover. The winery owner, Duke, may seem like your average shopkeeper, but a bit of poking and prodding reveals a dark past replete with a runaway daughter, a lonely wife, and a severe drinking problem. None of the other Mineral Town citizens are quite so ready for their very own episode of Intervention, but watching their (admittedly limited) schedules play out teaches you about their lives, what they value, and what they don't. This implicit method of storytelling adds to the game's atmosphere, but it can also help players figure out how to worm their way into the hearts of available ladies. And the game rarely forces this material on the player; since it's possible to miss some facet of a character's life -- you can only be in one place at one time, after all -- getting a rare peek at a typically unseen citizen visiting the mountains or hot springs (or any atypical location) is far more interesting than it sounds.

The game's sim elements offer the same level of freedom, and don't require players to investigate them fully -- though, obviously, rewards lie in wait for those willing to experiment. Farming, fishing, mining, and raising sheep, chickens, and cows; all of these offers paths to profits, though none of them are necessary. This version of Harvest Moon even expands the role of the harvest sprites to be much more functional, as these little guys basically act as beasts of burden who only require the most negligible of gifts for motivation. Though these little dudes require a bit of time before learning the ropes of indentured servitude, their improved function allows the game to play out without requiring the intense and repetitive micromanagement of the original; later seasons of the SNES original would require the player to personally interact with every single animal on their farm on a daily basis, which didn't make for the most exciting game play experience. Putting the game on some variation of auto-pilot gives players a bit more breathing room, and the chance to explore the many work and social options without having to worry if each individual cabbage has been properly watered.

Admittedly, my interest in the series waned a bit after the PS2's Save the Homeland, which mostly stripped the sim features out of the game and replaced them with some fairly shallow series. Checking back in again during the GameCube era, I encountered the same issues; the freedom I loved about Harvest Moon had been replaced with a much more on-rails experience. Still, diving back into Back to Nature did an effective job of rekindling my love of this series, and making me wonder what I've missed in most of the near-annual installments I haven't played. I decided to remedy this issue by ordered the most recent slew of Harvest Moons for the Wii and DS (which I plan to report on somewhere within 1UP), and I'd definitely appreciate if any of you informed readers could point out the series' highlights I might have missed. Even an age where social games like FarmVille have consumed the lives of our friends and loved ones, there's just something about Harvest Moon that manages to sink its adorable talons into you.



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Old 03-28-2012, 08:48 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: The Ineffable Charm of Harvest Moon: Back to Nature

Harvest moon is one of my favorite series. I bought my neighbors playstation back in the day just so I could go buy the used copy of this I seen at the store.
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Old 03-28-2012, 09:45 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: The Ineffable Charm of Harvest Moon: Back to Nature

Harvest Moon is great. Not so great is the spinoff Rune Factory series.
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Old 03-28-2012, 11:36 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: The Ineffable Charm of Harvest Moon: Back to Nature

I'm not a huge fan, and I actually preffered the Rune Factory that I played. I just found it gets boring quick.
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