Franchise Festival #13 Harvest Moon

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be building a relationship with Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons.

Note that all publication dates are for the first North American version of each game – they were typically released first in Japan, and sometimes re-released on other platforms. The primary source for this article is a fantastic overview of the series published on YouTube by DeltaShinyZeta.

Background

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was in the waning days of its lifespan in 1996. It had been the home of numerous fast-based sidescrollers, epic role-playing games, and cerebral puzzlers; what its library lacked – rather what every contemporary console library lacked – was a farming simulator. To fill this gap, Natsume published the first in a long series of popular farming titles originally developed in Japan under the name Bokujō Monogatari (“Farm Story“).

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Harvest Moon (1997)

Much of this series’ unique attributes and structure would be codified by its inaugural entry, developed by Amccus. Players take on the role of a young man who maintains a farm for his father. There are animals to buy and raise, land to be improved, and crops to be planted and harvested. Lest these rudimentary agricultural objectives become tedious, the player character balances his farm life against his social life in the nearby town. Marriage, friendships, and the marketplace all play a major role away from the player’s farm.

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Living the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in an agricultural era.

The game is played from a top-down perspective and the areas can be explored in a four-directional grid pattern like most RPGs of the SNES era. No combat is present, however. The colorful landscapes of 16-bit games is present here, though in a slightly muted tone. There are some rather amusing localization details, including the typical alteration of alcohol to juice in the North American release; this does not stop characters from becoming visibly drunk or extend to renaming the town bar, as was done in Earthbound (1994).

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Harvest Moon GB (1998)

Harvest Moon GB, published on the Game Boy in monochrome and months later on the GameBoy Color with a full color palette, is the first title in the series to be developed by Victor Interactive (a subsidiary of the very same Victor that produced classic LPs). It is also the first game to permit players a choice between a boy or girl protagonist. The plot and gameplay are functionally identical to the SNES console version, though this entry begins the trope of a deceased grandfather passing along his farm to the player.

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Harvest Moon 64 (1999)

The series made a jump from 16-bits to 64-bits and jettisoned its strict top-down visual design in the process; Harvest Moon 64 is played from an isometric raised perspective, though the player can still only move along an unseen grid. Sadly, the player is no longer able to choose between a boy or girl avatar. Happily, the game’s scope is expanded significantly to include many more festivals and time-sensitive events.

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Getting married in Harvest Moon 64.

A photo album and recipes are added to the player’s objectives as well. These would become staples of the series going forward, and give a bit more structure to the otherwise loose sense of progression. The game’s time system becomes something of an enemy in this iteration of the Harvest Moon series, as players can miss out on certain events or lose their love interest to a rival suitor depending upon how long they take to complete specific goals.

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Harvest Moon 2 GB (2000)

The second game portable entry in the series – this time exclusively on the Game Boy Color – narrows the focus from its predecessors. Marriage has been excised, though the player is again able to take on the role of a boy or girl. Sheep have been added, introducing a new wrinkle to the cow and chicken livestock simulation of earlier games. The framing structure, in which the player must raise enough money within three years to keep his or her farmland from being taken over by an amusement park developer, is introduced here for the first (but not the last) time.

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Harvest Moon: Back to Nature (2000)

Harvest Moon: Back to Nature is identical in visual design to Harvest Moon 64. Character roles have been dramatically altered, however, so familiar faces are now engaged in new tasks with new personalities. This is the first title in the series to allow the choice of boy or girl protagonist only through the purchase of an alternate version. Harvest Moon for Girl was not released outside of Japan, however, and that choice would only become available to Western audiences with the release of a 2007 PSP port titled Harvest Moon: Boy & Girl.

Despite its overwhelmingly similar presentation, the framing device of this game’s plot is different from Harvest Moon 64. Rather than inheriting the farm from the player character’s grandfather, the player character is instead known to villagers as a boy who had visited and explored the area during childhood summers. When he returns as a man following his grandfather’s death ten years later, the villagers agree to let him stay if he can restore the farm to its former grandeur.

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Harvest Moon 3 GB (2001)

The third portable Harvest Moon game, again published on the Game Boy Color, is a surprisingly unique experience. Its visually identical to its portable predecessors, but the option to choose a boy or girl character is much more significant in this iteration. This choice will lead to different cutscenes, as both characters have differing perspectives on the game’s events; each character is present in the other’s plot. The characters’ stats and experiences are distinct as well – the boy has more stamina and is better at fieldwork, while the girl is better at managing the farm’s livestock. In a painfully sexist decision, the developers opted to make the game end for the girl protagonist if she marries, while the game continues for the boy protagonist even after his wedding.

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Big Ketchup seems to be shaking down a farmer in Harvest Moon 3 GB.

Livestock options are largely identical to earlier titles, but there are two significant changes. At the start of the game, the player is now able to choose a dog, a cat, a pig, or a bird as their pet; former games either required the dog as a pet or only permitted the choice between a dog or cat. Horses are also now available for purchase, and open up a variety of activities – these include riding or being entered into official races (in which the player is unable to directly participate).

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Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland (2001)

Harvest Moon hit the PlayStation 2 with a dramatic upending of its visual design. Gone are the top-down sprite visuals of the Game Boy entries and the isometric sprite/polygon hybrid of the N64/PSX iterations. They are replaced here with a lovely cel-shaded polygon aesthetic. Thick lines separate the colorful characters from the at-times bland environments and offer a pleasant, engaging aesthetic to match the game’s tone.

The story takes center stage for the first time in the series. Two inciting events used earlier in the series give the narrative structure – the protagonist inherits his dead grandfather’s farm, and the land is going to be turned into an amusement park in a year if the player is unable to make the land profitable. Interestingly, the plot involves the interaction between the player character and a group of supernatural sprites, along with a local Harvest Goddess. Nine distinct endings are possible, hinging on the player’s interactions with local townspeople and the sidequests he has pursued. Once an ending has been achieved, the player can carry his or her accrued resources over to a new game and attempt an alternate conclusion.

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Harvest Moon took a hard left turn into the supernatural with its harvest sprites in Save the Homeland.

There are some drawbacks to this ambitious, narrative-oriented approach. The player can only take on the role of a boy, and no romance options are present. The game’s overall time to complete is relatively short as well – note that the player has only a year to make the farm profitable, rather than the three years in earlier Harvest Moon titles. Finally, the pets and livestock are scaled back: the player has a dog and horse, but is permitted no alternate pet options and has no opportunity to acquire sheep. Despite these shortcomings, the game is often regarded as one of the series’ best entries because of its charming visual design and unique narrative.

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Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town (2003)

The series’ first title to appear on the Game Boy Advance was also the first to be developed by Marvelous Interactive; this is more or less a technicality, as the team remained the same and was simply re-branded as a result of Marvelous Entertainment Inc. acquiring 55% of Victor Interactive. Yasuhiro Wada remained the series producer and primary creative voice, as he had been since 1996.

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An uncomfortable proposal in Friends of Mineral Town.

Like Save the Homeland, Friends of Mineral Town gives the player character a dog and horse through events rather than offering options of alternate pets; unlike that earlier game, the player must raise these animals and invest in them, rather than receiving them as fully grown creatures. The gameplay and plot are much more reminiscent of the N64 and PSX titles, featuring romance and numerous town festivals, though with a top-down perspective characteristic of earlier portable entries. More Friends of Mineral Town, an alternate version featuring a female protagonist with unique romance options and a variety of bug fixes, was released two years later in North America.

Friends of Mineral Town is often cited as the series’ peak, as it includes most of the franchise’s best features – character relationships, raising livestock, building a farm – but lacks some of the other entries’ drawbacks and keeps the pace up with frequent events. It also offers connectivity with the GameCube through a GBA adaptor, giving access to unique features and a character in the following game.

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Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life (2004)

The ninth game in the Harvest Moon series launched on the GameCube with a radical reinvention of the series’ mechanics. The visual design was updated from a relatively colorful palette to more convincingly rural earth tones. The camera can now be freely adjusted by the player. Most importantly, though, the game took an uncharacteristic turn towards realism in its mechanics.

Cows can no longer produce milk indefinitely; instead, they need to mate with a bull, have a calf, and only then do they produce milk for a period of time. The player character can have a child, as he or she could in previous series installments, but in A Wonderful Life the child ages to adulthood over the course of the story. While the child can grow up to be one of several professions, he or she will take over the farm at the game’s conclusion if the farmer career path was chosen.

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Farm tasks, like cow-milking, have been fleshed out in A Wonderful Life.

The game received varying reviews: some appreciated it making large changes to the series’ formula, while others that the new mechanics diluted the franchise’s identity. Others still simply took issue with the much longer time span of the game (ten years), since the events which characterize most Harvest Moon titles run out long before the credits roll; that being said, the longer time frame brings mortality to the fore in later chapters and actually includes a heaven chapter that occurs after the player character’s death! A version of the game featuring a female protagonist was released, changing little aside from the marriage options. A 2004 port for the PlayStation 2 updated a number of features but introduced lag and other technical problems – this was largely resolved in a surprising 2017 port to the PlayStation 4.

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Harvest Moon DS (2006)

As a series debut on the Nintendo DS hardware, Harvest Moon DS did little to set itself apart from previous entries aside from being the first title without much input from series creator Yasuhiro Wada. Much of the content remained similar to earlier portable entries, and the realism of the recent GameCube iteration was abandoned entirely. The one major overhaul was the game’s objective – rather than simply developing a profitable farm, players were expected to complete small goals in an attempt rescue 101 Harvest Sprites. A version featuring a female protagonist was published after the male-centered original game, though this alternate version actually featured some plot differences in addition to alternate romance options. Interestingly, the Japanese version of Harvest Moon DS Cute was the first in the series to include a peculiar implementation of same-sex marriage called the “best friend system”; this was sadly cut from the North American localization.

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Harvest Moon: Magical Melody (2006)

GameCube’s Harvest Moon: Magical Melody is something of a throwback after several years of comparatively innovative releases. No second version was released – players instead had the option of playing as a boy or girl as they had in the Game Boy titles. The visuals took their cues from the more cartoonish earlier entries rather than the muted tones and more realistically proportioned character designs of Save the Homeland and A Wonderful Life. The gameplay largely followed this throwback design choice, though the game’s overarching goal was again tied to the completion of various small tasks – in this case, the player needed to search the world and find at least fifty musical notes to transform the Harvest Goddess from a stone statue to her normal living state; at the game’s beginning, she had turned herself to stone in protest against the townspeople’s lack of interest. A poorly received Wii port that included motion controls, but limited the player to a male protagonist, was released in 2009 in North America (though it remains unreleased in Japan).

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Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness (2008)

The second Harvest Moon game on the Nintendo DS is an interesting update to the standard formula. In particular, it is set on a tropical island rather than a rural farm. The player character and his or her family is shipwrecked at the start of the story and must live off the land, building a makeshift farm in the process. While this seems like it would result in the loss of popular village events found in other series entries, new people eventually make their way to the player’s settlement and start a village there. It is also controlled exclusively by the touchscreen – this came under criticism, as implementation fell short of the tight control scheme in contemporary stylus-controlled games like The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (2007).

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Harvest Moon: Tree of Tranquility (2008)

Harvest Moon moved to the Wii console with an impressive visual overhaul. Gone were the chibi models of Magical Melody, replaced with realistically proportioned characters more akin to those in A Wonderful Life (though more richly detailed, of course). Sadly, the player-controlled camera of A Wonderful Life did not return. This is a bit surprising, since Japanese developers of the mid-2000s had largely avoided player-controlled cameras; Harvest Moon is the odd example of a series that integrated a player-controlled camera early in the 2000s and then abandoned it in later entries, just as other Japanese developers were getting used to the concept.

Animal options have finally been expanded, as ostriches and silkworms are introduced to the series for the first time. The plot is a peculiar combination of Island of Happiness and A Wonderful Life: the player chooses to play as a boy or girl who arrives at an island town and establishes a farm nearby. Players actually have the choice, this time around, of a hilltop, town-adjacent or seaside landscape for their farm; the choice has an impact on the farm’s layout and overall aesthetic. In keeping with the greater variety of choices, the game’s world is more sprawling than its predecessors’ play areas. Not surprisingly, the game was criticized for the lengthy load times needed to accomplish this expansion.

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Riding an ostrich into town, as you do.

The ability to raise a child and then start the game over as the child makes a return for the first time since A Wonderful Life too! Unfortunately, the multi-generational component is unevenly implemented – the plot starts anew with the child character, who has identical physical features to his or her player-controlled parent, and the same romance options exist in town, as no other characters have aged between generations. Very strange.

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Harvest Moon: Sunshine Islands (2009)

This Nintendo DS title was marketed as a sequel to Island of Happiness, and one area from that earlier game even makes an appearance in this entry. The player character (either a boy or girl) is tasked with finding magical stones to restore a ruined island chain to its former glory following a devastating earthquake. Fans’ most significant concern with Island of Happiness has been addressed, as the stylus now serves to complement standard button controls rather than being the sole input method. Consequently, Sunshine Islands is regarded as the best of the series’ DS iterations.

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Harvest Moon: Animal Parade (2009)

Animal Parade is a follow-up to the Wii’s earlier Harvest Moon game, Tree of Tranquility. It reuses many of that title’s assets, but puts them to use in service of a new world and plot. In this adventure, the player must build up his or her farm, form bonds with villagers, and succeed in ringing five bells to reawaken the Harvest King; this will prevent the land from losing its rapidly-disappearing animal life. The game is again set on an island, though its scale has been expanded still further from the already large Tree of Tranquility.

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Cooking and baking continue to play major roles in Animal Parade.

Given the name, the player’s primary attention this time is on the series’ animal companions and livestock. Four categories of creature exists – livestock, pets, poultry and circus – but include numerous variants within those divisions. Color customization exists for most animals, and all but chickens, ducks and silkworms can be ridden! This feature is helpful, given the game’s increased scope and travel time between island destinations.

Happily, much of the previous Wii game’s load time problem has been resolved. In-game time moves more slowly to accommodate movement between areas, and the game is an overall improvement on its direct console predecessor. This would be the last Harvest Moon game to feature contributions by the series founder, Yasuhiro Wada, so fans were happy to see him leave on a positive note.

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Harvest Moon: Grand Bazaar (2010)

Grand Bazaar, the fifth game in the series to appear on the Nintendo DS, does little to innovate on its portable antecedents. The emphasis in this entry is on revitalizing a town’s faded marketplace by bringing goods from the player character’s expanding farm. It’s mechanically indistinct from the hybrid stylus/button controls first featured in Sunshine Islands, and the visual assets appear to be largely imported from that game as well.

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Harvest Moon: Hero of Leaf Valley (2010)

In 2007, Marvelous Interactive, Inc. had been merged directly with its parent company, Marvelous Entertainment, though Hero of Leaf Valley is the first Harvest Moon game to reflect this change in production. With this update and the departure of Yasuhiro Wada from the franchise, the 2010s would be an era of change for the long-running farming series.

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Is there a market for gold milk?

Hero of Leaf Valley is a very safe entry after several years of the studio taking interesting chances with new mechanics. It functions as an enhanced remake of 2001’s Save the Homeland, given some new mechanics in its transition to the Sony PlayStation Portable hardware. In particular, it retains the overall plot structure of its 2001 predecessor while adding marriage opportunities and seven new potential endings. Given the strong foundation and numerous smart improvements, Hero of Leaf Valley was praised as one of the series’ best entries in years

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Harvest Moon: The Tale of Two Towns (2011)

This 2011 addition to the Harvest Moon franchise would be the sixth and last entry on the Nintendo DS. The player character, suffering from amnesia, is forced to choose between two villages as his or her perceived hometown. One town (Bluebell) is similar to previous ones from the series, appearing as a European-influenced setting, while the other (Konahana) is East Asian in appearance. Gameplay emphasizes cooking mechanics and casts the protagonist as peacemaker between its two antagonistic settlements. Several animals have been added to the series for the first time too, as alpacas and honey bees make their debut. Two months after its initial DS release, the game was published on the Nintendo 3DS.

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Harvest Moon 3D: A New Beginning (2012)

Ironically, A New Beginning is the final game in the Japanese franchise Bokujō Monogatari to be released under the Harvest Moon series title in the West. As the series’ first entry developed exclusively for the 3DS platform, it introduces a host of new features, including the ability to slowly build an entire town rather than simply building a farm next to an already-existing settlement. Multiplayer is integrated into the series for the first time, and permits players to have their characters meet other players’ characters remotely via wireless connection. Character customization, like town and farm customization, is extensive, and the game quickly became one of the series’ most popular portable installments. In general, it seems that Harvest Moon 3D: A New Beginning was heavily influenced by Nintendo’s Animal Crossing franchise.

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Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley (2014)

In 2014, Natsume published the first Harvest Moon game that had not originally been developed in Japan. Though the series’ first title on SNES had been developed by Amccus, all others had been made by the same Japanese studio under different names (Victor Interactive, then Marvelous Interactive, then Marvelous Entertainment). A difference in opinion over the series’ future direction, however, led Natsume to have a new studio develop future games published under the Harvest Moon name.

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Everyone’s favorite classic Harvest Moon activity – breaking cube rocks.

The Lost Valley, developed by Tabot Inc., features a decidedly new approach to gameplay. It appears to have been highly influenced by the popularity of Minecraft, as the player is now able to alter the landscape by destroying or building new land tiles. Overall, the game feels unlike any Harvest Moon game that had come before it. Unsurprisingly, this led to fierce criticism from fans – the game was panned upon release, and players began searching for a new farming simulator. It has never been released in Japan.

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Story of Seasons (2015)

While Natsume had hired Tabot Inc. to develop Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley, Marvelous Inc. turned to its subsidiary XSEED to continue publishing Bokujō Monogatari games in North America after their initial publication in Japan. Since the name Harvest Moon was owned by Natsume, a new name needed to be given to this old series – XSEED opted for Story of Seasons, a much closer translation of the original Japanese series title (literally “Farm Story“).

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A prosperous, if alarmingly angular, farm in Story of Seasons.

The next 3DS game in this old – but newly re-branded – series had much in common with its predecessors. Players choose between a male and female avatar to take on on the role of a new farm owner. Like 2010’s Grand Bazaar, the title’s primary emphasis is on commerce. Through raising crops and livestock, the player character is able to revitalize the marketplace of a town that has fallen on hard times. Like A New Beginning, visiting other players through a wireless connection is possible; unlike that game, however, 3DS StreetPass elements let the player trade farm data with others too. This multiplayer is region-locked, so adoption rates compare unfavorably to its predecessor.

In contrast to the poor reception of Harvest Moon: Lost Valley, XSEED’s Story of Seasons was very popular. By July 2015 it had become that publisher’s best-selling game. Brand identity would remain an issue facing the franchise going forward, but the legacy of Yasuhiro Wada’s creation seemed secure.

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Harvest Moon: Seeds of Memories (2016)

Natsume clearly took criticism of Lost Valley to heart, as its next entry in the franchise excised the Minecraft influences and looked to older Harvest Moon games for inspiration. Seeds of Memories was the first game in the core Harvest Moon series published on iOS and Android platforms, and has much in common with earlier portable games in the series. The visuals are simple, crisp, and viewed from a top-down perspective. Players are tasked with taking over an abandoned farm and bringing back villagers’ lost memories of the farm by completing 150 quests. Unfortunately, the game’s visual and mechanical simplicity jettisoned much of the identity that Harvest Moon had developed between 2000 and 2016 in favor of a return to its roots. This did not go over well with players, and the game’s anticipated Wii U port was cancelled in the face of critical disappointment.

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Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns (2017)

Trio of Towns, as earlier portable entries had done, derives much of its visual assets from the preceding game in the franchise. It is a fairly conservative sequel, expanding on the customization options of Story of Seasons (2016) without introducing any dramatic changes. Rather than being limited to a single town, the player now has access to three towns in the area surrounding his or her farm; unlike 2011’s The Tales of Two Towns, though, these towns are not locked in conflict with one another. Pets now include twenty-five varieties of cats and dogs, along with the ability to raise a capybara! Players can also now take on part time jobs in town – these function as a way to earn extra money to supplement one’s farm income.

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Spin-Offs

Beginning in the mid-2000s, Harvest Moon was the source for a variety of peculiar spin-offs. One early attempt at this was 2007’s Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon, published first on the PSP and then the PS2. Its art style reflect science fiction influences and the game focuses more on narrative and combat elements, excising romance mechanics entirely. This approach proved unsuccessful, and no future iterations were developed.

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Battling sheep in Rune Factory 4.

Around the same time, Neverland Co.’s Rune Factory franchise began production under publisher Marvelous Entertainment. This series, which centered on a protagonist who built up a farm but also explored dungeons in a fantasy milieu, rapidly gained popularity alongside its parent franchise. Harvest Moon veterans might object to its inclusion of sword combat, but its entries on the Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS, Wii, and PlayStation 3 introduced farming simulator gameplay to many new fans.

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These characters are reacting appropriately to a wizard delivering a dragon’s egg in Little Dragons Cafe.

My Little Shop, a 2009 WiiWare title, and Yasuhiro Wada’s own Hometown Story, published in 2013 on the 3DS, focus their gameplay squarely on running a shop. These sub-series are derived from the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons franchise but have little in common with its farming gameplay. Critical reception to both was fairly muted, and Wada moved on to new projects like the upcoming Little Dragons Cafe.


What do you think? What are your favorite or least favorite entries in this long-running franchise? Do you prefer the farming or dating sim elements? Who is your favorite bachelor or bachelorette? Let’s discuss in the comments below!