Harvest Moon 64
Alcohol takes on an almost spiritual quality in Harvest Moon 64 — Image: Natsume

Update: Of course, three months after this article went live, Nintendo expanded its roster of N64 games on Nintendo Switch Online to include this one. Cheers!

Nintendo games are usually all-ages affairs, but every once in a while a game breaks the family-friendly mold the company's consoles are known for. One example, Natsume's Harvest Moon 64 (Bokujō Monogatari 2 in Japan,) is set to be released on Japan’s Nintendo Switch Online service sometime this year, and we’re feverously awaiting announcement of a Western release (seriously— it’s the best one of these kinds of games that isn’t called Stardew Valley.) However, even though it was re-released on Wii U’s Virtual Console, its absence from Nintendo's Switch subscription service in the West may be due to one of the game's central mechanics.

Nintendo has a history of censorship in the West, especially in the '90s. Around the creation of the ESRB, when there was more outrage about how video games were affecting our youths, Nintendo had a strict policy calling for certain alterations to licensed games on its platforms during the localization process. The company would routinely require the removal or replacement of any instances of suggestive content, gore, and religious iconography in order to make its library more family-friendly and palatable in the West. One of the most common practices to appease this policy was stripping out any reference to alcohol and replacing it with something more 'wholesome.'

Harvest Moon 64
Just one of the many examples of Nintendo’s content policy at work in EarthboundImage: Legends of Localization

In the original Japanese release of Pokémon Red / Blue / Green / Yellow, a drunk old man in Viridian City briefly blocks your path before sobering up. In the American release, however, he’s simply grumpy and in need of his morning coffee first. The changes don’t stop there. Buildings clearly labeled 'BAR' in Japan’s Mother 2 are all renamed to read 'CAFE' in America’s EarthBound. In Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, Vodka Drunkenski becomes Soda Popinski. Wario becoming dizzy and belching after being hit with a ball in Wario Land II suddenly makes much more sense when you realize he was originally being hit with a mug of frothy beer. This censorship was also required of third-party games, with Tecmo’s Secret of the Stars replacing an entire alcohol-related town named 'Drunkards' with the coffee-dependent 'Sleepers.'

You’re able to challenge every person to a drink-off, winning handily if you’ve spent the year honing your alcohol consumption. Some are impressed. Others are dejected. All are drunk.

It’s surprising then, that not only did Harvest Moon 64 survive this localization change, but alcohol actually plays a uniquely deep role in the game. Its influence can truly be seen all over, in everything from its story to its mechanics. Take, for instance, the only building in town open during the second half of your day: the bar. At this local tavern you’re able to spend your hard-earned money on a glass of wine, liquor, or beer while surrounded by a fluctuating number of townsfolk. Sometimes lively and boisterous, with numerous residents crowded around wooden tables, other times lonely and barren, with only the bartender there for comfort.

It is here where, already a few drinks in, you uncover the deepest worries and desires of these residents. Harris, the lonely postman, wonders if he’s good enough for Marie, the librarian and mayor’s daughter. The baker, Jeff, ponders if he’s too young to already be waxing nostalgic. Zack, the town shipper, prays he’s capable of raising his young daughter after his wife’s death. All of these people are only able to come out of their shell with the help of this 'magic liquid.'

Harvest Moon 64
Flowerbud Village’s residents share their deepest thoughts at the bar each night — Image: Natsume

The connection between Harvest Moon 64 and alcohol permeates through to the game’s mechanics. A hidden 'tolerance' stat determines your ability to outdrink the village residents at the New Year’s Eve celebration. You’re able to challenge every person there to a drink-off, winning handily if you’ve spent the year honing your alcohol consumption. Some are impressed. Others are dejected. All are drunk. Regardless of their reaction, each townsperson you’ve bested stumbles out of the festival with a higher affection stat for you. Drink is a central component of this community, and you’ve proven yourself capable of being a part of it.

Nowhere is this relationship with alcohol more prevalent than in the player's attempt to restore the vineyard—the game’s longest, most opaque side quest. In the far back corner of Flowerbud Village’s vineyard rests a large, dead tree. It’s been years since the vineyard has produced quality grapes, and the family who runs it has suffered, unable to see the twisted, sickly, barren branches of this tree as anything other than a sign of their own failure.

Karen, the moody and abrasive daughter who works part-time at the bar, dreams of saving up enough money to run away to the city (and away from her family) for good. Gotz, the grumpy father who inherited the vineyard, drinks alone each night, turning down your every attempt to socialize. Sasha, the meek, withdrawn mother, worries heavily about her daughter’s unhappiness. None of them can understand why the quality of their wine isn’t what it used to be, and why that barren tree no longer blooms. Legend has it, however, that in this tree sleeps a spirit. A Goddess of Wine capable of restoring the vineyard—and its family—to former glory. Harvest Moon 64’s very own Dionysus.

It's by completing this side quest that you’re able to awaken the long-dormant spirit. Through a series of events that include befriending the local bartender, a harvest sprite, and a specific prayer, you’re able to restore the vineyard back to its former glory, its wine becoming sweet and profitable once again. Karen and the rest of her family are overjoyed. One of the workers, Kai, brings by a bottle of the new batch to your farm and drinks with you to celebrate. What were the most standoffish NPCs in the game are suddenly reborn, and, if just for a moment, full of ebullient hope.

Harvest Moon 64
With the help of the Harvest Goddess, the vineyard is restored to its former glory — Image: Natsume

It is worth noting that the game tends to celebrate alcohol consumption in a way you wouldn’t likely see today. It’s not blind glorification — the bartender cautions you not to drink too much, and a scene of Karen stumbling drunk on the job is certainly not portrayed as a good thing — but overall Harvest Moon 64 tends to fall short of showcasing more nuanced, negative aspects of drinking. However, for an almost 25-year-old game on a Nintendo console, it’s impressive that it was present at all.

Who knows why Harvest Moon 64 was spared Nintendo of America's strict censorship policy back in 1999. It’s not as if the game came over from Japan completely unchanged, as a fourth television station and farm completion screen are among the features not brought over from the Japanese version. Probably it was simply too integral to lose or adapt in this case. After all, what would this small country town be without the joys and sorrows of alcohol? How would they celebrate their success? How would they mourn their loss? It’s drinking that brings out these residents’ rich, complicated interior lives, turning would-be stock characters into blooming three-dimensional ones you can truly empathize with.

So next time you’re in Flowerbud Village, take a moment to have a glass of wine and appreciate just how undiluted the English language version of this game was. Cheers!