In August of 1996, the same year that Spice Girls released their debut single and The English Patient swept awards season, a little game called Bokujō Monogatari came out in Japan on the Super Famicom. All signs pointed to it being a flop: its development had been plagued by bankruptcy and downsizing; it came out on a last-generation console just after the release of the Nintendo 64; and worst of all, it was a game about... farming. This was an era where kids wanted to fly spaceships and save princesses, not till soil and pull weeds.
But something about Bokujō Monogatari captured the imagination of Japan's gamers, and although its sales weren't stellar — just 20,000 sales at launch — it was popular enough to make it over to North America a year later, and Europe six months after that, rebranded as "Harvest Moon".
Capturing the imagination
I will never forget the moment I saw that on screen. It was pretty amazing, and I knew we could do this
Harvest Moon was inspired by producer Yasuhiro Wada's childhood in the countryside, contrasted with his life in the busy city of Tokyo. A game based around farming seemed like a terrible idea in an age of action-packed releases, but Wada knew they were on to something. "Once you worked on the land, you wanted to go back and see," he said in a GDC postmortem in 2012. "We saw the first sprout appeared... It may sound simple right now, but I will never forget the moment I saw that on screen. It was pretty amazing, and I knew we could do this."
Harvest Moon on the SNES met with moderate success — over 100,000 copies sold, which wasn't bad for a game about animal husbandry and agriculture — but the Game Boy sequel indicated a vast swell in interest, with 300,000 copies sold. Harvest Moon had captured something in the imagination of gamers — and had unknowingly lit a spark in the chest of a young boy named Eric Barone.
An idea bears fruit
Eric Barone was born in 1984 on the west coast of America. Like many kids born in the late '80s and early '90s, he was perfectly aged for the golden age of gaming in the dying years of the 20th century: Earthbound, Final Fantasy III, and Chrono Trigger all came out around the time he turned ten, but Harvest Moon was his favourite.
In a GQ profile, Barone spoke about how Harvest Moon earned pride of place in his heart. "I liked that you could have relationships with the townsfolk," he recalled. "That was something you couldn't do in most games I played as a kid, and it made the experience much more personal. That you were living in a world that felt alive, time moved forward with or without your input. It was easy to imagine that the world was very much alive."
Like around 300,000 other kids, Barone adored the Harvest Moon series for what it did differently, and like a lot of those kids, he eventually became disillusioned with the series for refusing to... well, to do things differently. Harvest Moon became stuck in its ways, and eventually — following the release of Friends of Mineral Town and A Wonderful Life in 2003 — the series began to decline. No Harvest Moon game has managed to crack a Metacritic 80 since the GameCube's Magical Melody in 2005.
Barone would place the decline even earlier, saying that the series had become "progressively worse after Harvest Moon: Back to Nature," a game released on the PlayStation in 1999. But his own take — because, yes, you know this is gradually building towards the development of Stardew Valley, the most successful farming game of all time — would come about largely through a series of accidents.
The germination of Sprout Valley
Barone graduated from the University of Washington Tacoma in 2011, with a degree in computer science, and tried to get a normal job to fund a normal life with his partner. That normal job never quite seemed to materialise, and he instead channelled his free time into learning to make video games. His frustration with the Harvest Moon oeuvre manifested in a game called Sprout Valley — made under his developer pseudonym ConcernedApe — which he intended to be the Harvest Moon he had always wanted, but never got.
The gameplay in Harvest Moon was usually fun, but I felt like no title in the series ever brought it all together in a perfect way
"The gameplay in Harvest Moon was usually fun, but I felt like no title in the series ever brought it all together in a perfect way," said Barone in an interview with Game Developer (then Gamasutra). "My idea with Stardew Valley was to address the problems I had with Harvest Moon, as well as create more 'purpose' with tried-and-true gameplay elements such as crafting and quests."
Over four years of development, Sprout Valley became Stardew Valley. And Stardew Valley became a hit that no one could have predicted.
Reaping what others have sown
Obviously, Barone's work in revitalising the farm sim paid off. You know that. Stardew Valley has sold over 20 million copies, far more than any Harvest Moon game ever did. It captured the hearts of people who had played Harvest Moon on the SNES, Game Boy, N64, and GameCube, but it did more than just that — it awoke something in people who didn't even know about Harvest Moon in the first place.
As Barone had noticed, Harvest Moon had been in decline for some time. It's difficult to know why, or when — but looking at what Stardew Valley brought to the table, it's a little easier to see where the flaws were. The most glaring one, for many players, was the lack of same-sex marriage.
Harvest Moon games have always been a little behind the times, which is perhaps not wholly surprising in a series set in rural towns with just a handful of characters. Harvest Moon DS Cute — a spin-off of the original DS game with the twist that it allowed the player to play the same game, but as a woman — was the first Harvest Moon game that allowed players to marry another woman, but the game called this marriage the "Best Friends" system, which for many is worse than just leaving out same-sex marriage altogether.
Furthermore, same-sex marriage was actually removed from the North American release, and it wouldn't be until Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town, a 2019 remake of the GBA game, that same-sex marriage would return — and in Japan, it was still known as the "Best Friends" system.
Stardew Valley had no such qualms, and included same-sex marriage from the start. There are even a few dialogue changes to acknowledge it, with one bachelorette's cutscenes changing the gender of her ex to match yours, and some characters stating that they've "never felt this way" about someone of the same gender before. It's not hard to assume that Stardew's more progressive attitudes may have impacted the Harvest Moon games in turn, since the Friends of Mineral Town remake (the one that brought back same-sex marriage) would come out three years after the release (and massive success) of Stardew Valley.
Modern society is complicated, and people turn to simplicity and artisanry to escape it all and gain a sense of control. What gives you more control than growing your own food?
Another innovation that Barone added to Stardew Valley was an anti-capitalist storyline, in which the player can choose to dismantle the ominously monolithic Joja Corp, a supermarket chain that seems to be Facebook, Amazon, and Google all rolled into one, with a bonus helping of local pollution and thinly-veiled evil. Perhaps this just hit at the right time, since... well, 2016 was a tough year for many. But it also tied neatly in with the pastorality of the genre.
Modern society is complicated, and people turn to simplicity and artisanry to escape it all and gain a sense of control. What gives you more control than growing your own food? Joja's intrusion into this sedate, peaceful life represented the complicated modern world trying to claw its way back in and sell you a new variety of Coke. Players generally weren't interested, and the game allowed you to fulfil the fantasy of kicking corporations to the curb.
A field left fallow
But the Harvest Moon series — which is now called Story of Seasons, following a somewhat messy schism between developer and publisher in 2014 — has yet to really come close to Stardew Valley's heights, or even to grasp what it was that Stardew did differently. It seems strange, that one game can inspire another game, yet fail to understand what it is that was inspiring about themselves in the first place, but that's the situation we find ourselves in. Story of Seasons developer Marvelous XSEED's latest release, Pioneers of Olive Town, tried to do something new and failed pretty miserably — here's a quote from our review:
How does Story of Seasons continue to innovate when Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing have done so much to develop the 25-year-old formula? Well, with Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town, the answer is twofold: one - borrow the ideas of Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, and two - change things for the sake of changing them, and see if it works.
Spoilers: It didn't work.
The current state of affairs is that, if we assume that only half of people who bought Stardew Valley actually played and enjoyed it, there are at least 10 million people who really like farm sims. Many developers have attempted to make a grab for Stardew's crown (which was itself pilfered from Harvest Moon years ago, who dropped it and didn't even notice) — My Time at Portia, Coral Island, Monster Harvest, Littlewood, Rune Factory, and more — but none have captured the imagination and the zeitgeist like Stardew did.
Maybe the zeitgeist has passed. Maybe people just aren't as farm-crazy as they were in 2016. But I doubt that, partly because I'm still farm-crazy (and because there's still a barn-full of upcoming farm sims on the way). I'm still chasing that dragon, trying to find something that hits as good as Stardew, or even as good as the Friends of Mineral Town remake on Switch, and I have yet to find something that's easy to sink 200 hours into. But in an ever-changing world, there is always something compelling about farming games, whether it's pure escapism, or something deeper, like the need to imagine a world in which you have a modicum of control over your own happiness.
Magical haunted ghost chocolate
Eric Barone, or ConcernedApe, is currently working on his next game, Haunted Chocolatier. After devoting ten years of his life to a farm sim that was born from his love of — and disappointment with — Harvest Moon, Haunted Chocolatier promises to carry much of the same DNA, but with a twist or two up its sleeve. He described his new game in a news post on his site as a break from the "more humble" approach of Stardew Valley. "I wanted to explore more fantastical possibilities… experiences that take you beyond the ordinary. That’s where magical haunted ghost chocolate comes in."
"With Stardew Valley," Barone added, "I felt somewhat constrained, because I was working within an established tradition." He said that he was working on the "meat and potatoes" of the game — the mechanics, the basics — but "what really brings a game to life is the spice, the sauce. And I haven’t really gotten to the sauce yet."
Perhaps that's what the Story of Seasons series also needs — to step back from its myopic view on what a farm sim "should be", and make something that's a little more unusual. Something with spice. Stardew Valley was born from someone loving something so much that they set out to make a version that was everything they wanted, and no developer is better placed to do that with their own body of work than Marvelous XSEED, who also develop and publish the Rune Factory games. If they want a slice of the Stardew pie, then they have the ingredients already. They invented the ingredients.
If [Marvelous XSEED] want a slice of the Stardew pie, then they have the ingredients already. They invented the ingredients.
I think it's telling that Barone hasn't just retired with his multi-million dollar Stardew fortune. He could just never work a day in his life again, if he wanted. But he's still sitting at a desk, making games. Because he loves making games. That's part of the secret sauce that Barone talked about (the sauce that also goes on the Stardew pie, presumably; yes, it's a confusing metaphor) — loving what you do, and making what you love.
At the end of the day, it's not about scrabbling for a slice, or trying to reverse-engineer the recipe; it's about making a pie because you love pie, and you want to make a really, really good pie. It's making a pie that you want to eat.
Barone gets it. "One of the things that's special about indie is that it's kind of a personal connection between the creator of something and the audience," he told PC Gamer shortly after Stardew Valley came out in 2016. "It’s this raw connection... I think maybe people are ready for that sort of thing."