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Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life

Review By:  Siou Choy

Developer:  Marvelous Entertainment
Publisher:  Natsume
# of Players:  1
Genre:  RPG/Simulation
ESRB:  Everyone
Online:  No
Accessories:  Memory Card, GBA/GCN Link Cable
Date Posted:  4-20-04

The Harvest Moon series may seem strange, to say the least, to gamers accustomed to gory survival horror, violent shooter, and vaguely “realistic” action/adventure games.  Why would any sane person want to blow several hours, even days doing something so mundane as farming, taking care of animals and building relationships with people in your village?  Surely, a more eventful and exciting time could be had fulfilling some exotic adventure fantasy, some chilling nightmare, a deep-seated inner need to beat on and murder people under government sanction?  Who wants to relax to a quiet game where no one (absolutely no one, no matter how hard you might try) dies a bloody death?   Thankfully, the folks at Natsume and Marvelous Entertainment were able to see beyond the standards of the supposedly typical gaming audience.  Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life marks both the latest installment of the Harvest Moon series and its first on the GameCube.

Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life continues the standard plot for the series: you take on the role of a young man who has been brought to your father’s farm by his former partner (a yat-chan tattooed dead ringer for Japanese yakuza film legend Ken Takakura, cleverly named…well, Takakura).  It’s up to you to build your farm, befriend the people in your village, get married and (God help us) raise a child.  The timeline of HM: AWL carries you through a 30-year life span.  In a vague approximation of the real world, neighbors grow old, move in and out, and even check out permanently (as in the halo and wings option).  You can even, by taking certain actions and befriending particular villagers, shape your child to become the adult you want it to be, be it someone to take over your farm, an artist, musician, or even a scholar (ooh, just what the world needed, training for the next generation to become a fresh batch of overachieving soccer mom/stage mother types).

Those familiar with the Harvest Moon series should notice a number of changes, none of them particularly good, from the standard formula that made the series a cult hit.  First off, harvesting of crops will not be your primary source of income this time around.  In fact, you’ll barely pull in any income whatsoever from that department. Gone are the bags of seeds, large fields of vegetables and attention to crop rotation techniques.  Instead, each seed (and I mean literally, one seed – can you picture charging by the seed? A boardroom full of blue suited morons are working on it right now, I’d hazard…) produces one crop (as in one single tomato, potato, watermelon, whatever.  Get the picture now?), and as mentioned, the end profit doesn’t justify the time and effort taken to harvest it.  Livestock, at least in the more humane version the series provides (no selling them off to the slaughterhouse for beef and veal – it’s strictly milk and eggs for you, you faux farmer), will supply you with most of your financial support.  This lasts only until you acquire a “seed maker”, a strange machine that somehow converts fruit into seeds, which can then be sold off for a huge profit (go figure).  As in the newly revised HMs true progenitor, the execrable (but still somehow more appealing) Animal Crossing, fishing becomes one of the better ways to supplement your meager income.

Those are hardly the only big changes in store, my pretties, no indeed.  In point of fact, nearly everything that made a Harvest Moon game what it was has been revamped, diminished, and/or replaced.  Remember how you were saving up all that cash from your large crop fields to renovate and increase the size of your house, barn, and chicken coop?  That was so you could fit more animals, equipment, and eventually a wife in your former bachelor hovel.  Not anymore, kiddos.  In fact, you don’t touch so much as a lick of your property – it’s all ready-made for your lazy ass.  And it would be pointless anyway, for several reasons.  First of all, one of the goals of polishing up your place was to accommodate productive livestock, right?  Well, surprise.  While the cattle raising hasn’t been overhauled to the degree the whole harvesting issue has, this one merits a “vitally diminished” rating, given the extreme priciness of purchasing said cattle (particularly given your decidedly low income this time around).  Even should you purchase a few, their productivity is severely curtailed in comparison to previous HM entries: sheep can only be sheared for wool once a season, cows produce only after becoming pregnant and have a baby, goats produce for a short time then just take up space for the rest of your game (and can’t be sold off!).  Dreams of stocking up on cattle?  Forget it – you only get space enough for 8 animals, period.  This includes, mind you, any cows, any goats, any sheep and your horse, all lumped together in that rather meager total.

And how about the secondary purpose of all that remodeling?  Yes, besides trying to turn a decent profit, you had to spend a good portion of your valuable time courting a girl to be your blushing bride.  Surprise again: this time you only get 3 choices (and no real prizes among ‘em).  Not only do you get…shall we say, less than the cream of the crop and hardly your pick of the litter, but these relatively faceless bimbos have no real distinct personality types like last time – no “hottie”, no “fun loving type”, no “shy librarian type”, no “dizzy flake”, you get the picture.  Even stranger, they seem to have no pointed likes and dislikes, i.e. how you had to ply the cute one with gallons and gallons of liquor in Back To Nature, while the librarian preferred stuff like flowers and eggs.  And remember how you just had to keep plugging away till you got enough hearts from the girl of your dreams?  Dream on, sucker, it’s time to settle and be fascistically pragmatic.  This time around, you simply have to be married inside of a year, and once you do get hitched, you find your mate instantly pregnant (there goes your sex life, just like that – and don’t even think about getting a piece on the side, because the other girls won’t take your damn gifts anymore, and one even leaves town if you don’t bag her!).  Hello, Uncle Adolf, the breeding plan is going just fine, thanks.

On the plus side, a few new animals have been added to compensate for all the (generally awkward and unpalatable) changes to the HM paradigm.  As hinted at previously, in addition to the usual chicken, cow, and sheep, you get to raise ducks and goats, with the weird eugenic sensation of mating roosters to hens and bulls to cows taking the place of earlier entries’ generically sexless egg-laying, milk producing livestock.  In addition to the usual mangy dog with a bandana, you also can get yourself a cute cat (who obligingly eats the dog’s food).

Another weird change: a lot of the festivals of previous Harvest Moon entries (not to mention Animal Crossing, which this entry is clearly designed to emulate), with their little quirks, cutscenes, mini-games and contests, have been removed, to the point of nigh-total exclusion.  Even if there is a festival per se going down (which consist solely of non-participative cutscenes), no villager or calendar will let you know, much less where to go to attend it - you literally have to stumble across it by accident.

In another Animal Crossing-influenced cheap marketing scam, you have to run out and buy a GBA and link cable, plus the GBA’s redux of the PlayStation’s HM entry, Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town, in order to unlock some tauntingly mysterious “extras”.  Want to hear something worse? If you were obsessive (or easily influenced by marketers) enough to go out and blow your hard earned dollar so foolishly, all you get is the P.T. Barnum award of the month, because the link-up between the two games don’t add as much of an impact to the game as you might expect.  At the risk of exposing the scam, the much vaunted extras, which in Animal Crossing at least included that whole cute “island” mini-game, don’t offer much more than a few new recipes and some more records to play in your phonograph.  That said, if you’re inclined to blow all that cash for something so banal, those two records they supply you with in HM: AWL can get fairly tiresome, real fast.

The controls are a bit too sensitive and the slightest touch (or the merest camera rotation) can leave you milking your bull instead of talking to it (however, you can’t vent your frustration by hitting them with an axe or hoe, as you could in the original PlayStation’s far superior HM: Back To Nature, so go figure).

While HM: AWL may be one of the better-looking Harvest Moon games, graphically speaking, it just doesn’t compare to most stuff out there at the moment.  Worse, Natsume seem to have abandoned the cuteness of HM: AWL’s 2D forebears for a clunky sub-Animal Crossing 3D modeling paradigm.  You almost expect them to stand there spinning drunkenly every time you stand still.  Some may still find this sort of I can almost see the spheres and cones you modeled this on look “cute” and appealing, but to more sophisticated eyes, accustomed to the sort of graphical mastery the better Next Gen systems can provide, these guys just look weird and ugly.  Of course, some people actually find circus clowns amusing, as opposed to sad and creepy, so to each his own.

So, you ask, given the obvious downplaying of the whole farming angle, since harvesting crops, renovating your farm and accumulating productive livestock (not to mention the whole courting bit) have all been diminished to the point of near insignificance; what exactly is the point of this supposed farming RPG?  Once again, think Animal Crossing.  Think big hit, lots of cash inflow in the coffers.  Think, “what else can we make into an Animal Crossing clone?” “Well, there’s this farming game…” Yep, that’s right, banal, mindless interaction with characters that have absolutely nothing to say (and in fact, tend to repeat their two or three individual catch phrases to the point where you can predict exactly which one they’ll spout) has taken the place of managing your farm.  But, as the game continually assures us, these “villagers are very interesting!”  At least in Animal Crossing, you got a lot of mildly sarcastic grade school humor thrown at you.  These cardboard-personality drips might very well have been taken from the set of The Stepford Wives.

If you were tired of the tried and true Harvest Moon paradigm, Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life is the game for you.  There have been so many changes; in fact, you’ll hardly recognize the place…unless you just finished playing Animal Crossing, that is.  Those who liked the whole farming, courting, and aggrandizement of wealth and property through little more than the hard work and sweat of your own two hands, forget it – it’s gone from the Protestant work ethic to the hippie commune as filtered through Disney and the religious right.  Or to sum it up in one word: bland.

Highs:

  • Umm…it’s completely different from any Harvest Moon games you’ve ever played…
  • More types of animals.  I particularly enjoyed having ducks and a cat this time around.

Lows:

  • It’s a bad Animal Crossing clone, without any of that game’s pluses.

  • The “very interesting” dialogue of the villagers

  • The mediocre graphics and horrible character modeling

  • Somewhat dodgy, imprecise controls

  • Look, guys, it’s supposed to be a farming game.  Farming, get it?  Not raising a damn kid, not talking over and over again to a bunch of soulless zombie types, farming!!!

Final Verdict:

Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life, despite its many imperfections and unwelcome changes, still remains a perfect game for anyone who wants to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  A wise philosopher once wrote that the small things are what make life worthwhile, and the Harvest Moon series can always be counted on to deliver just that.  While life in postmillennial America (particularly under a reactionary, fascistic regime [Her thoughts are her own! – Ed.]) can seem pretty dismal and bleak, it’s nice to know that we can escape to our own little fantasy world for a few hours, where a “wonderful life” awaits.

Overall Score: 7.5

 



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