SSPA – Harvest Moon 64

Between the time when bad sales drowned the Dreamcast, and the rise of the virtual reality console wars, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Solid Pawn, destined to wear the crown of a pretty well decked out retro games collection upon a troubled brow. It is I, the man himself, who alone can tell thee of this saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

To a small boy, the prospect of a game centered around something other than action, adventure, fighting, or even sports is tiring. Why float through the air in Flower, when you can zoom through a zombie thrashed city in Sunset Overdrive? Who wants to go around catching bugs and fishing in Animal Crossing when you could rip and tear demons from hell in Doom? Generally speaking, most kids would be more excited about games with constant action, than games with mild activities. But everyone’s tastes are different and those tastes change with time, and at a point in my life when action defined my gaming experience, an unexpected chill pill came to my home.

When I was a lad we had an N64, and even though there were tons of wild and crazy titles on that system, we only had a few to play. We had the mainstays like Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64, and some lesser games like Pokémon Snap and Lode Runner 3D. More often than not we would rent games, and damned be the brother who would rent something boring like Virtual Pool, when exciting titles like Rayman 2 or Rampage were begging to be checked out (It was me… I did that… and my older brother wouldn’t talk to me for the rest of the week for wasting the opportunity). In any case, getting a game to permanently own was always a big event.

I don’t recall any preamble to the arrival of this game, but one day my older brother came back from an outing with Harvest Moon 64, a simulation game about running a virtual farm. This game was puzzling to me at first because of how dull it appeared to be. Watching my brother spend his turns at the N64 painstakingly till a field, tending a garden, and generally repeating the same actions over and over was mind numbing. When he got on the TV it meant it was time to play elsewhere. Regardless of my lack of enthusiasm, he seemed to be enjoying himself, and one day, while being indecisive on what to play on my turn, I gave it a go.

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Story:

In your youth you loved staying at your grandfather’s farm. As time went by, the old man became more and more infirm, and as the farm fell into disrepair, your father stopped taking you to visit. Years go by and your grandfather passes away. The funeral service is respectful, but travelling to the village rekindles your love of the countryside. Before leaving you tell your father of your plans. Rather than just sell the land, you hope to restore the farm and make your home out here. Both of you argue your case, but finally you reach a compromise. If you can bring the farm up to speed within three years, you can keep the land, otherwise your father will go through with his desire to sell the property. With the rundown farm yours for the time being, you must revive this once thriving land and make an impression among the people in this town to fulfill your dream.

After this preamble, the game lets you explore the small country town you’re now a part of and run your farm as you see fit. You could just run the farm, focusing only on your crops and livestock, however just making the farm run again is not the only goal. If after the three year period you’re Father finds a booming farm, but resentment or apathy from the townsfolk, you’ll have failed to live up to your end of the bargain, and he’ll sell the farm. At this point it becomes apparent that the story of Harvest Moon 64 is tied directly to the gameplay. It behooves you then to get involved in the events around the village and build relationships with the citizens.

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You can make friends with the people in town, explore the village, or visit the bar, all while balancing your maintenance of the farm. You’ll also find that events will play out even if you are not present. Festivals will happen, characters will have birthdays, fall in love and get married, and their lives will move along their set paths, but if you are an active member of the community, you can change the course of the townspeople’s lives while keeping pretty tight control of how your in-game life proceeds.

A great example of this early on is the character Cliff. In your first year, you’ll wake up to find a stranger slumped on your doorstep groaning for food. This is the wanderer Cliff, a closed, shy young man who doesn’t feel he has a home and so moves ever onward through the wilderness. If you just ignore him, he’ll disappear the next day and you’ll never see him again, but if you give him food, his strength will return and he’ll stay in town for a while. From here Cliff will take part in festivals, and events, you can see him around town, and if you stay friends he’ll remain in town and marry a young woman from the neighboring ranch. However if you choose to court this woman as well and get married to her, Cliff will either stay or go depending on your relationship with him.

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Ultimately the story in Harvest Moon is in your hands. The people you meet, the woman you marry, and the friendships you build add as much variety to the game as how you build your farm. Almost every character in the game has their own unique interactions and scenes like Cliff, and all of their stories help to make the game world feel all the more real and personal.

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Gameplay:

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The principal gameplay is farming. Every day you’ll have to attend to the chores of the farm: watering your plants, tilling the land, and feeding your animals. You have three in-game years to revive the farm and establish yourself in the town. Each year is split into four thirty day months, covering all four seasons. Each season has different pressures and conditions and only allow certain crops to be grown or allow certain animals to be outside. On top of the seasons you’ll have the option to take part in certain local festivities and events that reward you in different ways than just cash.

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When you start, the farm is in a bad way. Much of your first few days playing will be spent clearing the farm, and here is where you encounter the RPG elements of the game. Your primary farming equipment is given to you at the start. Your Grandpa’s old hoe, mallet, sickle, and watering can start out cumbersome and slow to use. As you use them these tools will level up, making them much more effective and efficient. Unfortunately you cannot simply swing away with these tools with reckless abandon. You have an unseen health bar that regenerates with sleep and food. If you work yourself to exhaustion, or stay up all night working, you will get sick and miss a whole day’s work. This can be disastrous in many ways. Your plants will go unwatered and possibly die. Your livestock and poultry will go unfed and may also get sick or starve. You might miss important events and lose friends or sabotage your romance. If you want to stay healthy, don’t go out in the rain too long, don’t over work yourself, and take part in events to find power nuts, the key items that will make you stronger, or give you immunity from the rain.

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There are a lot of plot points and key gameplay features that will pass you by early on. For example, if you do not visit the Green Ranch next door to you on the first day, you will not receive their gift to you, a young horse. As such, you won’t be able to compete in the races throughout the year, and you’ll lose the benefit of a handy helper around the farm. Other less vital features will come up over the course of your play, but all of them offer interesting avenues to spend your time outside of just farming crops.

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Many of the festivals will reward you with a power nut. If you have a cow you can compete in the Cow Festival for a unique reward. Gathering enough lumber over the years will let you upgrade your farm equipment and home and even build a large greenhouse, in which you can grow all forms of crops regardless of the time of year. There are five young women who you may pursue all of whom have their own unique stories and events.

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After the three year span is complete, your father will visit and assess what you’ve made of your time and if he approves, then you have won the game. This is not truly the end however. Once the credits pass you’ll be free to continue playing, exploring and finding all the other minor events, interesting stories and scenes, some of them very well hidden, taking years to appear. This breadth of content, plus the myriad ways to play the same core scenes offer an exceptional amount of replay value for those patient enough to give this game the chance it deserves.

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Presentation:

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Despite being on the N64, Harvest Moon makes little use of the potential of the system as far as 3D graphics are concerned The vast majority of the game is set at an isometric view, offering the illusion of 3D, while all the assets are 2D. The character models may have been originally rendered in 3D, but much like Donkey Kong Country, the in-game townsfolk are just digitized sprites of the characters. With that in mind, it’s still a pleasant game to look at. The whole town has a homey countryside appeal that, combined with the stories and plot threads of the characters who inhabit the town, add up to more than the sum if its parts.

I must admit though, that the town seems a little small, and although there is a lot of content crammed into these few areas in terms of plot, it’s not as expansive or impressive as it could have been with more effort. I believe the only truly 3D environment in the game is the farm. At any point you can press the L button on the controller and the camera will swing 45 degrees. The house, doghouse and farm are all 3D models, but all the plants are just 2D images. What is more, this trick cannot be done at any other screen in the game, making it a bit odd and pointless. Every other screen is pretty flat and most characters just stand still with only a few unique animations.

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The soundtrack was composed by Tsuyoshi Tanaka. There are few songs in the game: a tune for each season, one for the countryside, the tavern and shops, as well as a couple of unique tracks for the festivals and events. The music can be repetitive, and your tolerance for these short tunes may vary, but when you are immersed in the game, you hardly notice. It fits the mood of the game just fine and it’s pretty catchy to boot.

Conclusion:

Harvest Moon is a very long running series, and after this title, they only got more and more complex. Some involved more realistic passage of time, others more involved farm maintenance, and while they have their fans, this will always be the Harvest Moon game for me. It’s just complex enough to warrant several replays and still manages to be more engrossing than the original game. If you’re looking for something to pass the time in a chill and relaxing way, you would do well to pick up Harvest Moon 64.

—So, did Solid Pawn give an account of a small but beloved part of his youth, and having no further concern, he sought adventure among other classic games consoles. Many games and series did Solid Pawn review. Honor and fear tended to pass his name by as he spent an unwarranted amount of time playing old video games and, in time, he completed his collection by his own hand………..

And this story shall also be told.

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