“I want to go to the Yard Work Simulator.”
“But when I ask you to do yard work…”
I may not watch The Simpsons anymore, but nowhere is the truth of the above quote more apparent in the Japanese farm simulation game series Harvest Moon. There is no question that the last thing I would ever want to dedicate my life to is a hellish cycle of caring for crops and livestock whilst attempting to make a profit, but nonetheless, the thought of simulating such an experience seemed oddly attractive to me.
Before settling on the PSOne ‘Back to Nature’ instalment of the series as my game of choice, my experience with the Harvest Moon franchise had been limited, but none the less traumatic for it. My attempt to get into ‘Friends of Mineral Town’ on GBA had been terminated after an information dump about all the things I had to do to keep my farm in working order quite simply overloaded my brain. Nonetheless, it seemed to me that something that was being sold as a game surely did not require a genius-level intellect just to play it, and therefore I resolved to give the series another go.
Unfortunately, it was not going to be an easy ride, and indeed, I ended my first three sessions resolving never to touch the game again. Where most other games can be played independently until you get stuck and need to refer to a FAQ, Harvest Moon turned out to be the sort of game where you cannot even begin without a detailed walkthrough. At the start of the game, your poor unwitting player character inherits his grandfather’s run down old farm in Mineral Town, and is cruelly left alone to get it back into working order within three game years (the penalty for not doing so is to have ‘Game Over’ stamped on your face). With merely a dog, some untended fields and a farmhouse in your possession, you must master the mechanics of the game and make some effort towards becoming the owner of a profitable farmstead.
To be fair, the game does try to help you by including a tutorial on the farmhouse TV, but your best bet for actually progressing with the game is to find a more detailed FAQ that can give you an idea of what you should be achieving from day to day. Just knowing what to do isn’t the end of it, however, for once you have an idea of when to buy seeds and how long it’s going to be before you can even hope to purchase a chicken, the actual work begins.
Just like real farming, Harvest Moon’s game play is a repetitive cycle of the same monotonous tasks; every day you must till the land, plant, water or harvest crops, tend to your animals, and- if time allows- dig in the mines, chat to villagers and try to woo your prospective wife. If you’re the kind of person who likes simulations or the village-building aspect of real time strategy games, then you’ll be right at home, but if you lack that all-important masochistic streak, then this is not the game for you.
Even if you find this sort of this oddly addictive, however, the game has been designed to ensure that all odds are stacked against you. Your worst enemy in this endeavour is time, which runs at the rate of about ten minutes every five seconds. You may rise at 6am, but by the time you have taken care of the morning chores, it will be midday. Although time does thankfully freeze indoors, going outside is a nightmare- just getting from one point in the village to the another can take upwards of thirty minutes, and heaven help you if you take a wrong turn and end up wasting precious time pointlessly wandering around. Worse yet, certain shops and events are only available at specific times of day, putting even more pressure on you to keep an eye on the ever ticking clock.
Whilst time is certainly the greatest enemy in the game, other factors have been thrown in to ensure that no player will have an easy time of it. At the beginning of the game, your character is a puny weakling who not only tires easily, but has a tiny rucksack which can only carry two items and tools at a time (you can at least carry one more of each in your hands). Whilst the situation does improve the more you play, the constant recharging breaks in the hot springs and walking back and forth to collect items only help to further erode your precious time.
Visually, the game uses an isometric layout, which can make it hard to hoe and water the fields until you get used to the isometric axes. Sprite designs are simplistic chibis, which suit the tone of the series whilst simultaneously disguising how difficult Harvest Moon is to get to grips with.
Beneath its childish looking exterior, Harvest Moon is a game that is simultaneously tediously repetitive yet strangely addictive. For all the difficulties you can and will have in mastering it, there is an odd satisfaction in raising chickens and harvesting crops that simply cannot be found in other games.
Starting next Sunday: Harvest Moon Anton’s Diary, the tale of one man’s three year stint in Back to Nature’s farming hell.