Sunday, January 20, 2008


Beating Harvest Moon GB

I was in a grocery store one evening in 1998, flipping through a copy of EGM that I had no intention of buying, as I was wont to do in my pre-internet years. As I drank in pages of precious video game information as rapidly as I could, an ad caught my eye. The publisher was Natsume, and they were promoting their two latest Game Boy games: Harvest Moon GB and Legend of the River King. I can't remember the wording, but I still remember the hook that caught me -- they were RPGs about normal life.

I remember the circumstances perfectly. I had just received a promotional video from Nintendo/Toys R Us about a game that was coming out soon called Pokemon. It seemed like a pretty neat idea for a game, but it was still well over a month away. These games seemed like a pretty cool way to to pass the time until it came out. (Ah, the days when I had the time and disposable income to buy stopgap games!)

Legend of the River King struck me as being a hopeless, inscrutable mess of a game. I gave it a second chance with Legend of the River King 2, but I just never got into it. But Harvest Moon! Now that was fun.

My love of Harvest Moon grew and faded over the years. I ended up getting all three Game Boy versions (not to mention doubling up on the first game for the Game Boy Color version), Harvest Moon 64, Friends of Mineral Town, A Wonderful Life, and Magical Melody. Much to my dismay, however, I found that the series was beginning to favor an ever more realistic and complicated simulation of farming. I didn't want to go mining for materials to improve my tools, I didn't want to monitor my cows' pregancy cycles, I didn't want to mill my own chicken feed -- I just wanted to pick vegetables, throw them at a box, and watch it bounce as it magically turned my produce into real cash money. After Magcial Melody, I made a vow to never again buy another Harvest Moon product, and so far, it's stuck.

Going Back to My Plow

Recently, I've had a craving to play Harvest Moon again, so I figured it would be a good starting point for my resolution to replay my old video games this year. I went back to the one that started it all, for me anyway: Harvest Moon GB. The black & white version.

I went through most of the spring just enjoying myself and getting back into the game's quirks. From the music to the underground mushrooms to the menu-based town to the secret stash of money in the drawer next to your bed, everything was instantly comfortable and familiar.

As I neared the end of spring, I started to wonder if anyone had discovered any new or interesting secrets in the nearly ten years since it first came out. A quick browse of GameFAQs turned up at least one tidbit that I'd never encountered on my own -- praying to the Harvest Goddess has a chance of rewarding you with a Blessed Cow -- but the thing that caught my interest was a list of conditions for making Ranch Master.

See, I've never played the original SNES version of Harvest Moon. I wasn't aware that the game was originally designed with a finite narrative in mind. I've always approached Harvest Moon games the way I would approach traditional Sim games, just an open-ended sandbox where you could farm as you saw fit. Sure, I've read that little story in the instruction book, but I've played this game several times in the past, and I've never had the game end after the first year, so I never really took it seriously.

But it makes sense. After all, most of the challenge of a Harvest Moon game is concentrated into the first year -- clearing the land, earning enough money to buy livestock, that sort of thing. The game actually gets easier the further you get into it.

It was a challenge. Specifically, it was a challenge that I was completely capable of meeting. So when Summer rolled around, I rolled up my sleeves and dug into it. I was going to be Ranch Master.

The game was suddenly a lot more interesting. Normally, the Fall and Winter are dull because I've already earned 99,999 gold and gotten all of the upgrades I need, thanks to printing money all summer with my tomato crops, but now I had a purpose: I needed to get 4500 units of produce shipped! And after slacking for a good deal of the Spring, well, I had my work cut out for me.

It forced me to realize new things about the game. For example, you can stay up very, very late with little penalty. Time stands still when you're underground. When you're completely exhausted, you can hop in the hot springs ten times in a row to boost yourself back up to 100%. I developed a new plowing pattern that filled up the entire southern half of the farm, yet was very easy to water with the sprinkler. And, most importantly, I discovered that you could plow nearly 100% of your farm without making it look bad.

As the end of the winter rolled around, I went for broke. My last day was spent plowing the twenty or so squares that were left, then running into town to fill my pantry to the top.

The spirit from the beginning returned to tally things up. I got the same ending I always did -- I was short by about 50 happiness points, no doubt due to missing a special event and not raising a cow.

I enjoyed the experience, and I plan to make the attempt again sometime with slightly better planning. But for now, I'm starting to rekindle my love for Puzzle Quest.


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