Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.
Growing up, when most children my age wanted to be astronauts, I wanted to be a farmer. While they dreamed of the stars, I dreamed of owning a chunk of land and a few livestock and spending my evenings at village festivals, chatting up my neighbors as fireworks burst in the sky. This fantasy, as overly romanticized as I now know it to be, was ignited by my love for one video game: Harvest Moon.
Video games are dominated by the extreme—overly sexualized characters toting overly technologized weapons fighting wars, saving planets or just getting some bloody revenge. But Harvest Moon is different. It strays from the dramatic blockbuster action and attempts to capture the quieter, more meaningful moments of our lives. While so many video games deal with death and destruction, Harvest Moon is unequivocally focused on discovering the joy in life and watching it grow.
Finding a similar game to compare Harvest Moon to isn’t easy, but that only serves to highlight the unique combination of elements that it comprises. Even the normal terms we use to define genres always seem to only scratch the surface of what Harvest Moon really is. Sure, you could call it a farming simulator, but that would sterilize the beating heart of charm and socializing that brings the series to life. Likewise, calling it a social or dating simulator seems to draw parallels to Japanese anime-style games, which bear a surface resemblance the same way that whole milk and skim milk do. But the truth is that Harvest Moon is wholly its own thing, a melodious concoction of entrepreneurial spirit firmly planted in a simpler, more charming time.
When a series spans over 25 games on 11 different consoles, knowing where to begin can be tricky—especially because, as much as I love Harvest Moon, more than a few of its past entries into the series have been duds. Fortunately, starting from the latest game, Story of Seasons for the Nintendo 3DS, is probably the safest bet if only because the older versions would require an older console to play them. It’s also worth mentioning that due to a dispute between those who make the game and those who publish it, the original creators could no longer use the name Harvest Moon, which led them to rebrand it as Story of Seasons. It’s confusing, I know.
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
Even though the series spans almost two decades, Harvest Moon has never really changed at heart. At the end of the day, it is all about a voyage into the mundane yet intensely rich lives of a group of villagers far from the hustle of city life. Though it might lack dragons and magical swords, Harvest Moon is nothing but pure fantasy. And that’s why I love it.
Despite how boring Harvest Moon might look on the outside, if you’re willing to embrace its relaxed pace and explore this second life, it will latch on and never let you go. When all is said and done, nothing is more rewarding than a hard day’s work—and Harvest Moon is the living embodiment of that ideal.
Your days will be spent in the fields, clearing debris and planting and harvesting crops. You’ll tend to your livestock and forage in the woods. And when your chores are finally complete, you’ll relish the moments you get to spend in the village, chatting with your neighbors and getting to know them until the sun sets and you head to bed to do it all over again. It is in that repetition that Harvest Moon begins to plant its own subtle seeds.
I have never felt as strong of an attachment to a group of characters in a video game as I did with the villagers of my very first Harvest Moon game, Harvest Moon 64 for the Nintendo 64. Even to this day, they come alive in my mind as if they were real people, and in many ways, they are. Many games treat their characters as nothing more than a means to an end. They are targets moving within your crosshairs, or vendors for which to unload your bags full of loot after delving into a dungeon, but in Harvest Moon, each and every character has a life apart from your influence. And, despite how characters in a game like Skyrim might work, they aren’t eager to spill all of their deepest secrets just so that you can have your grand adventure.
THE DATING GAME
Never is this more perfectly clear than in the relationships you will have with the village bachelor(ettes), the characters who, with enough care and attention, you can eventually marry. Each of these characters—and by extension the rest of the villagers—has their own unique likes and dislikes. They have personalities that you’ll need to understand, ambitions and goals that you’ll have to reconcile with your own. But getting to the point where they reveal all of this to you isn’t easy. Just like real relationships, you’ll need to invest time and effort.
What I love is the organic way that Harvest Moon treats these relationships. Unlike other romantically minded games, the relationships you build in Harvest Moon aren’t a means to an end. There is no erotic love scene to entice you forward, no major alterations to the formula of the game to inspire you to dedicate time each day to bringing that special person their favorite gifts. Instead, the relationships you build with characters as seasons pass are no different than the crops you grow. With care and attention, they begin to bloom into rewards less tangible (and more meaningful) than money. You begin to peel back the layers of their lives, learning their dreams, their motives, and, perhaps most importantly, their insecurities.
This slow building of relationships often comes to a head during the many town festivals scattered throughout the year. Each one offers a chance for some light hearted competition, like horse racing, while opening up special moments to spend with the characters you’ve already begun to build a relationship with. Like in real life, the festivals become breaks from the tedium of day-to-day life that you spend all month looking forward too. And in that, and so many other ways, Harvest Moon uses its disarming country charms to parallel the way we live our lives.
SEEDS OF WISDOM
As the years tick by and your life on the farm evolves, you’ll slowly begin to reap the rewards of your continued investment in the lives of the other villagers. While each game in the series offers its own unique cast of characters, a running theme is that they exist independent of your actions. Some characters will get hitched, others might pass away, and some might leave the village in pursuit of a different life altogether. While you can certainly work to alter the course of their lives, there is always a feeling that you cannot control everything. And your job isn’t to even try. Instead, Harvest Moon attempts to teach the wisdom in learning to embrace change and growth, rather than trying to control it.
As a young, impressionable boy, these lessons were invaluable to me. Many of them didn’t take shape until over a decade later, when I fondly remembered the weekends spent watering flowers and shearing sheep. And, as I thought back, a seed would suddenly sprout and I’d receive a kernel of wisdom from the game that I had never before considered.
These ideas are central to everything that Harvest Moon is, and while other video games have borrowed them over the years, few have ever managed to combine them as wonderfully as this long running slice of romanticized rural life. Harvest Moon is easily one of the stranger games you could ever play, if only due to its insistence that slow and steady wins the race. Yet it also stands as a testament that not all video games need to be propelled by violence and drama. Sometimes the reward isn’t found in a chest at the bottom of a dungeon but rather in the quiet, mundane moments we share with those around us.
Steven Messner is a freelance writer with a zealous passion for good beer and good video games. He also enjoys taco night, games about space, and forgetting to take out the garbage. You can find his work at GamesRadar, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and Paste Magazine. Alternatively, you could just add him on Twitter @stevenmessner and say hello. He likes that.
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