When we think of the farming genre of video games, one title immediately comes to mind: Stardew Valley. It’s a game that’s won the hearts of hundreds of thousands of players worldwide with its charming pixilated art-style, addictive open ended gameplay and a wealth of things to see and do.
And this game obviously isn’t the only one of its type to come out in the past few years either, but it is nonetheless among the most successful and popular games the genre has seen to date, having sold over 3.5 million copies as of the beginning of this year.
To some, this might not seem all that surprising, especially in light of how lacking this subgenre of simulation games is, particularly in regards to those titles with mainstream appeal.
But Stardew Valley also loosely shares this space with massively popular series such as Farming Simulator and Animal Crossing, the latter of which might not exactly classify as farming games, but still exist within the whole Rancher/ Explorer simulation archetype of games, and more unique examples such as developer Monomi Park’s Slime rancher which is focused mostly on, well, ranching, with a very slight emphasis on gardening.
So yes, I think it’s safe to say that Stardew Valley has succeeded despite some very serious competition. But you could also attribute that to its own unique style of gameplay.
And as you might have already guessed from the title, this article isn’t here to brag about how good of a game Stardew Valley is, it’s to talk about the game series that came before, Harvest Moon (now known as Story of Seasons).
I love Harvest Moon, and I know that there are thousands of other fans who feel the very same way about the series. And that’s because the Harvest Moon games are special, not just in terms of simulation games either, but in terms of the medium of video games in general. These games have always spoken to fans in a way that most other genres are unable to do so.
Not everyone who plays these titles has an innate desire to start a farm and grow crops or raise livestock, yet something about them pulls you in and cultivates a desire to build and create, and not just inside the game worlds either.
Every fan has that one game from the early years of the franchise that resonated with them the most, and for me that was Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town (not pictured above).
Friends of Mineral Town was released for the Game Boy Advance in 2003, the same year in which we also saw other hit titles such as Manhunt, Beyond Good & Evil and Tales of Symphonia. Yet what stood out the most for me was still a casual game about farming.
Now let me be very upfront about this, I have absolutely no qualms with the display of violence in video games, even very disturbing violence like what you see in Manhunt.
But a game series like Harvest Moon, with absolutely no combat, that existed alongside these other games with conflict at their core and still managed to attract and retain a large adult audience is still extremely impressive.
To me personally, these games seemed to be taking a stance. A stance that said that they were satisfied with being fun, casual experiences that could appeal to everyone, regardless of their age or gender. That they were happy to exist within a bubble of their own creation and did not feel the need to bog down their own unique experiences with features that would broaden the appeal of what were essentially simple games about managing farms and getting married.
You get up every day and work your field: plant seeds, water the crops, harvest those that have already grown, feed the animals, perform other minor everyday tasks and run into town to grab more seeds, items or those upgrades for your farm or tools that you need to perform your daily tasks better and faster.
And if you want something more from the games, why not pursue one of the multiple different eligible bachelors or bachelorettes that inhabit the game worlds.
It’s not really that hard. Just find the characters with the conspicuous beating hearts next to their avatars. Give them enough boiled eggs to increase their affection for you, and eventually they’ll be down to bone when you flash a feather in front of them. It’s simple math really.
And yes, the franchise did eventually branch out into a separate series of titles called Rune Factory, which incorporated combat and deeper narratives into the games. And no, the Rune Factory games were not in any way bad because of these variations, far from it in fact.
They were fun, quirky and had just enough RPG elements that they kept the experience fresh both for returning fans, and for those who were just getting into the series.
They also provided fans with a much needed twist on a game series that was slowly losing its way. A series that was deviating further and further away from what made it special.
I could go on and on about what started to go wrong with Harvest Moon games starting from Harvest Moon DS in 2005, but that would take up way too much writing space. Long story short, the games got ‘slower’, took a lot of control away from the hands of the players, the art direction changed and the series just generally started to make unwelcome changes to better appeal to a younger and more mainstream audience. Which, I might add, is a completely acceptable direction for a company to want to take.
But when you alter your games so much that you start to alienate your own fans, you may be doing mainstreaming right, but you’re also losing the people who have stuck with you for a long time. In some ways its fitting that the series has been re-branded as the Story of Seasons, because this isn’t the same series that the fans remember.
Eric Barone, sole designer of Stardew Valley, has himself stated in an interview with GQ Magazine that part of what inspired him to create his indie hit was to bring about “a renaissance for Harvest Moon”, a series he felt had lost its way.
Stardew Valley exists because of the influence of Harvest Moon, and it brings me a great deal of satisfaction to know that a series that I hold so dear to my heart has inspired someone else to create a game that pays homage to it.
Yet I also feel kind of sad, knowing that the franchise has lost its way to such a degree that the very game that was inspired by it, should now be used as a benchmark for the series to at least attempt to better itself.
Stardew Valley is a masterpiece, one that I have played through multiple times over. It builds on the foundation laid out by classic Harvest Moon games and improves upon it tremendously, both in terms of the features that held those games back and what even what occasionally made them repetitive. It is a game that everyone should play at least once.
But I also feel like players should give the older Harvest Moon games a chance as well. A lot of the features are not as streamlined in them as they seem in Stardew Valley, but they still hold up surprisingly well till this day. If nothing else, you can see firsthand the titles that inspired one of the greatest games of this generation.
My recommendations: Try my personal favorite Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town or Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town for the Game Boy Advance, or Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland on the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3.