I have been fascinated by Harvest Moon ever since reading about it in Nintendo Power magazine, but that fascination surprises me even today. I was busy trying out my first RPGs and trying to finish The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past before Zelda 64 was due to release; still, the game about getting married, owning a cow, and planting corn was the one on my mind. I read the magazine guides repeatedly and had planned out everything I wanted to do, but I never owned Harvest Moon.
I finally had my chance to own a virtual farm when I received Harvest Moon 64 as a gift a few years later. It wasn’t the game I had memorized all the guides for, but it hooked me all the same. I still hoped that someday I would get to try the original game, but I would have to wait until adulthood for my chance. My first opportunity arrived when Harvest Moon released as part of the Virtual Console for Nintendo Wii. I excitedly purchased it and started playing, and then almost immediately quit. The game felt old. The farming simulation genre had moved on and improved on the formula, so why go backward when I had already played multiple more modern Harvest Moon games?
More than a decade later, I feel a bit frustrated by the farming simulation genre. My favorite part of the genre is growing tons of crops and raising a modest number of animals. Many modern farming games do not focus on the simple parts I enjoy the most but instead focus on telling a story and fighting monsters. So, when Harvest Moon arrived as part of the Nintendo Switch Online service, I decided it was time to give it another chance.
Armed with my new “less is more” mindset, Harvest Moon began to shine from the very beginning and reinvigorated my love for the genre. Unfortunately, that shine faded before the game officially ended.
As you would expect from the game that spawned a series followed by an entire genre, Harvest Moon contains all of the foundational aspects of a farming sim. You inherit a run-down farm and are expected to fix it up within two and a half years, and you are only provided with a handful of basic tools: a sickle, a hoe, a hammer, and an axe. Nearby, there is a mountain trail where you can collect materials and a town where you can buy seeds and animals. The town is also home to the five women you can marry; you can win their hearts by giving them gifts.
You spend the first few days or weeks of the game clearing your land of weeds, rocks, and stumps to begin planting the classic three-by-three grids of turnips and potatoes and perhaps buying a chicken to get you started on the path to farming greatness. As I played through the game’s early stages, a comforting nostalgia kept me going. This was the simple farming game I had been looking for, and the mechanics mostly aged well.
The game continued to impress me as I learned all its quirks. In an unexpected twist, the clock stops at 6 pm every day and you are not required to sleep, so you can keep working as much as you want. When you run out of stamina, a quick run up the mountain to the hot springs will give it all back. All you have to do is jump in and out of the hot springs five times to replenish your stamina and then get back to work. On the other hand, everything you want to sell has to be in the shipping bin by 5 pm, and placing it in the bin at night will only waste it (it spoils overnight and won’t sell). Animals must also be fed during the day to keep them healthy, and all of the townsfolk go to sleep at 6 pm.
Together, these quirks caused a reversal of my typical farming routine. Instead of waking up and watering the crops, I was waking up, taking care of the animals, running any errands in town, and then harvesting as many crops as possible before 5 pm. Watering crops could happen at night. It was an odd routine, but it meant that the speedy clock was never a burden; I had as much time as I needed to get extra chores done.
I had a good routine in place by the time I reached my first Summer. I had chosen my future wife, Ellen, and had a routine of going to town every day to give her a gift, and I had a field of corn and tomatoes ready to tend every day. The game exceeded all of my expectations, and then I reached Fall.
There are no crops to grow in Fall. I expected this to happen in the Winter, and I was not looking forward to it, but I figured I could handle 30 days of a less exciting routine. But no, Fall was barely more interesting than Winter. It was 60 days of a less exciting routine. The game became much more tedious, but I managed to keep it interesting by getting married, finishing my house upgrades, expanding the number of cows and chickens I had to take care of, attending the more frequent holiday events, and preparing for the birth of my first child. I knew the second Spring was right around the corner, and I now had the land cleared and was ready to hit the ground running with a huge field of crops.
It all worked according to plan. I greatly expanded the farm in the second year. I never managed to make use of all of the land — it’s an ample space — but I was satisfied. The second Summer was the highlight of the entire game. I maximized the number of animals I could keep and kept growing as many crops as possible. I was earning thousands of gold every day, managing to save 100,000 gold so that I could finally…say that I did it?
At the end of the second Summer, I realized the game was basically over. I had already accomplished almost everything possible. I was still waiting for the birth of my second child, but that happens automatically if you get married early enough. There were no more house upgrades (there are only two), the farm could not expand, there were no new crops to try, and there were no new animals to take care of. The final 180 days of gameplay would just be a routine: earning money to say you did it.
And that’s when the whole game sort of fell apart for me.
A significant difference between this game and many, but not all, future Harvest Moon games is that the game runs on a strict time limit. This isn’t a situation where you get evaluated after two and a half years and see the credits, but then you get to keep building your farm. No. Two and a half years is the end, and then your farm is gone and you start over. This has not aged well. This is the first entry in the series, and after playing to the end, I understand why future games often have big goals that seem initially unachievable. Harvest Moon lacks those goals, and, as a result, you run out of meaningful objectives very quickly. I managed to stay excited longer because I wanted to see the farm fully operational in year two, but I had seen almost everything there was to see by the end of the first year.
I can see how the game would have worked differently when it was new. I began the game with extensive knowledge about how these types of games work, but a new player in 1997 would have never experienced anything like this before. As a result, I could expand the farm faster and earn more money than a typical player would have. Knowing that the game has a strict ending, you could approach the game more like an arcade game or a roguelike where you try to see how well you can do on each run. However, the time commitment does not seem worth it to me.
Ideally, I think the game should have ended at the end of the second year instead of the middle of the third year. I was ready for the game to be over after six of the ten seasons, but some players may enjoy caring for large flocks of animals more than I do, and giving those extra two seasons would be beneficial.
The game’s final stretch became so tedious that the lack of modern quality-of-life features finally began to show. There is no inventory system. You can carry two tools at a time and swap between them with a button press, but you must run back to your shed to pick up different tools. When you are harvesting crops or collecting items on the mountain, you can only carry one item at a time and you have to return to the shipping bin (even from the mountain) to sell the item you pick up. Your horse has a portable shipping bin on its saddle, but the game has no extra memory for where the horse is left. So, if you run back to the shed to pick up a tool, the horse will reset to its stable every time. Even riding the horse around the farm is slightly difficult since it won’t stay outside the buildings you enter.
Harvest Moon also has translation and performance problems. The translation is pretty rough at times, with some sentences missing words, and the dialogue is fairly uninteresting across the board except for the occasional unintended laugh from a broken sentence. There’s no reason to talk to anyone other than the five marriage candidates, so you cannot add meaningful gameplay in the later seasons by talking to villagers.
I began selling my cows and chickens during the second Fall and Winter because of performance problems. It’s not unusual for an NES or Super NES game to have some slowdown when the screen gets busy. I can handle that. But Harvest Moon encourages you to have more animals than the game can reasonably load. A full stable of 12 cows runs in constant slowdown; your run is now the speed of your walk. The full chicken coop is not as bad, but the combination of occasional slowdown and the tediousness of feeding them all without any other meaningful gameplay to break up each feeding made it easy to justify reducing the number. Unfortunately, that also meant that I got a lower score at the end because I didn’t have enough animals.
The game does have some secrets to uncover. There are hidden stamina upgrades (Power Berries), rewards to earn at festivals, upgraded golden tools, and some other secrets you can miss. I truly enjoyed this part of the game, and I’m glad they expanded these features in future entries. But, like the house upgrades, there aren’t enough of them to keep interesting things happening for ten seasons.
When the game finally ended, I was tired and past ready for it to be over. I had unlocked many of the secret ending scenes (which are not challenging to earn), but I still got a neutral or bad ending because I had not followed the criteria the game wanted me to. I later learned that the game has some number glitches that essentially mean that trying too hard can be the same as not doing it at all (e.g. when you max out a score, it then rolls back over to zero).
My entire experience with this game has left me torn. Harvest Moon was exactly what I wanted it to be at first, but it overstayed its welcome because it lacks sufficient long-term goals. The simplicity was nostalgic and fun for the first half of the game, and then the same simplicity made the second half one of the most boring gaming experiences I have had in recent memory. If you enjoy farming games, Harvest Moon is worth playing, but it’s not worth finishing. Play Harvest Moon to experience the beginnings of what may still be one of the most unlikely video game genres ever to exist, but quit as soon as your new farm smell wears off.