Gameplay, Story and Value:
The Harvest Moon franchise is well-established today, but it all started with this late SNES title. The setup was simple: You’ve been given a farm and have about three years to become successful. That means making lots of money, utilizing your land, getting married, having kids, raising animals and digging up Power Berries.
After you’ve made your mandatory rounds of introducing yourself to the townsfolk and receiving your tools, days can be spent doing just about whatever you want. Time moves extremely quickly in this game, so you’ll need to plan accordingly. Early on you’ll spend a lot of your time clearing your field and tending to your crops. Unlike in future games, anything placed in the shipping bin after the pickup time will NOT count towards your next day’s shipping, meaning you’ll have to plan accordingly. Between this shipping mechanic and the short days, it’s actually really easy to overload yourself early in the game with too many crops to manage, a problem made even worse by your fairly low stamina level.
Luckily, there’s a major “feature” in this game that makes everything manageable, one that will be fixed for all future entries. Once the sun goes down and the shipping bin is checked, the day is effectively over. However, no amount of waiting or working will push you into the next day! In fact, the game will remain in this night state until you go to bed and tell it to advance. What this means is that you can schedule your days around time sensitive tasks like shipping goods or wooing ladies, and save everything else for the evening. You could, if you were so inclined, clear and til your entire field in a single night by making frequent trips to the mountain for stamina-restoring fruits.
When you’re not managing your crops you can spend your time gathering lumber to build fences and upgrade your house, tend to chickens and cows, attend festivals, or shower gifts onto one of five potential marriage candidates. You’ll most likely find the first two months of the game with entirely too much to do and not nearly enough time to do it all… and this is where Harvest Moon ultimately falters.
Spring and Summer will have you running around frantically trying to establish watering and harvesting cycles for your crops, gather enough money and materials to upgrade your home, save up for livestock, clear your fields, lay grass and maybe even squeeze in some time for the ladies. The pace can be frantic but isn’t overwhelming, and good time management is really rewarding. It’s unfortunate, then, that from the moment Summer ends until the day the snow melts… there’s nothing to do.
There are no crops to plant in the Fall and Winter, and you could even find yourself in some trouble as the seed shop stops selling grass during the Fall, even though you can still harvest it throughout the season. As a result you’ll spend your days feeding your animals and little else. It’s a good opportunity to upgrade your house and rope in a wife if you haven’t done those things already, but if you have you’re in for a very boring two months.
A similar problem awaits at the start of the game’s second year. As you’ve most likely completed all the major events thus far, year 2 and beyond is all about making money and little else. You’ll have a full set of golden tools at this point, as well as a mobile shipping bin in the form of a horse, but it all serves to do the same things you’ve been doing in the game up to this point more efficiently. The next two months will likely see you become a millionaire just in time for another boring Fall and Winter, with the game ending two months after that.
Unlike other games in the series, this one does have a firm ending. Once you’ve completed Summer of Year 3 you’ll be judged by your progress and achievements, and receive an ending based on said judging.
Presentation, Music and Sound:
The game looks great with some of the most adorable sprite-work you’ll see on the console. Characters are all distinct and the environment is detailed enough while still sticking to the game’s style. Scenery changes from season to season, various crop states are all easily distinguishable, and everything just feels really nice. Some work could be done on the UI, of which there isn’t one. Your remaining stamina has to be divined through occasional character animations, day, date, time and finances can only be seen through pausing the game, and the only way to see what tools you’re holding is to switch between them.
The music is extremely relaxing and easy on the ears, which is good as the game has a very limited number of tracks. The music will also act as a cue to season changes, as each season has its own track which helps to add another layer of distinction between each section of the game. There’s not much to be said for the game’s sound effects. There’s not actually a lot of them and what is there tends to be simple or muted, but there’s nothing here that really detracts from the game either.
I discovered Harvest Moon in an issue of Nintendo Power. I remember it grabbing my attention because it looked like another one of those JRPG’s I’d become so addicted to, but it was clear this was something different. The article was going over the best ways to lay out crops, how to win different girls’ affections, and taking care of livestock. Curious, I finally downloaded the ROM which I think I beat in about two days. Timing was good, as Harvest Moon 64 was just about to release, and the rest is history.
Harvest Moon (now known as Story of Seasons) is one of my favorite game franchises of all time, and this is the title that sparked it for me. Still, after nearly 20 years of improvements I was doubtful it could hold up. To this end I was pleasantly surprised as in spite of some issues, the first entry to the series is still immensely enjoyable. No, there’s not enough to do in the game to keep me interested past the first year and, yes, the characters are all hollow shells compared to their successors, but that incredible charm that captured my attention all those years ago is still in full effect.