Harvest Moon’s power to enthral and entrap gamers is often underestimated by those who have yet to experience the unbridled thrill of growing a crop of healthy tomatoes, but nearly 15 years after the original Super NES Harvest Moon the series continues to sell well to experienced farmers and newcomers alike. Now Harvest Moon: Sunshine Islands has reached Europe, and it brings with it a few tweaks and changes that freshen the formula slightly while keeping it familiar for veterans.
Sunshine Islands will be particularly familiar to anyone who has dabbled in the series’ previous portable release, Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness, as it shares many of the same characters and the same graphical and gameplay style as its predecessor. There’s a different plot this time around, however: your farmer must raise the sunken islands to return prosperity to the world, and this is accomplished through the usual hard work and exploration as well as befriending villagers, meeting a spouse and settling down with a kid. Marvelous is never going to change the overarching formula of the series, and this is a good thing.
Controlled with buttons or the touchscreen – you can change between them at any time – you start off with the usual unimpressive piece of land and build it into a farming empire. Seeds are sown in 3x3 squares and require a certain level of water and sunshine in order to prosper, meaning the weather can have a serious effect on their success: if it’s too sunny or too wet for too long then they wither, but leaving crops on the vine when the conditions are perfect results in higher quality yields. These may be only slight tweaks to the usual fare but they bring a little welcome variety to the farming side of things.
You can also upgrade your tools as usual through a range of items called Wonderfuls, which can improve your tools’ range, power and capacity, and increase your stamina through crafting accessories at the local blacksmith. However, unlike in some titles these options aren’t necessarily available at the start: you can only create accessories through mining ore, and you can’t do this until you’ve raised the correct island using Sunstones.
These mythical stones can be earned through a range of activities: some are found in hidden places, others are given as rewards for winning competitions or befriending villagers and generally being a pillar of small town society. Each island requires a certain number of stones in order to be raised, but brings with it new opportunities for mining, exploration and raising more interesting crops and animals. It’s a decent way of keeping the game world expanding, though even before any islands are raised it’s still significantly bigger than Harvest Moon: Grand Bazaar and it keeps growing.
The problem with recovering the solar stones is that you’re not always sure when they’re given out. Occasionally a harvest sprite will give you a clue, but for the most part you’re in the dark, though they are generally meted out at certain milestones in your normal farming life. If you want to burst ahead and raise the islands quickly, you’d be well advised to use a walkthrough to find out the locations of those stones.
The game’s graphical style is very similar to Island of Happiness, sharing the same display, character models and animation style, and it all has a pleasingly bright and big-eyed charm to it. The music is equally jovial and often fits the mood perfectly, although hearing the same tune on your farm for 30 in-game days might just send you mad.
By now you should know what you’re getting with a Harvest Moon game, and the island-raising mechanic is really the only major change to previous releases: unlike Island of Happiness and Grand Bazaar there are no multiplayer options, and everything is pretty standard franchise fare. Happily, unlike Grand Bazaar you’re able to save anywhere and at any time you want, so you needn’t worry about having to finish a day just to save your game.
The inclusion of regular button controls over Island of Happiness’s touchscreen-only commands helps to elevate this above its predecessor, but even with its neat island-raising idea to expand the game world it feels a little unambitious. It rarely puts a foot wrong, controlling well and teasing you with enough new items and areas to convince you to play through just one more day, and it’s one of the strongest titles in the series on the DS, but don’t expect much to shake up the farming formula.