Early wake ups, extensive hours, back-breaking labour and ever-vulnerable to unpredictable weather patterns – farming doesn't sound like the most tantalising profession on paper. Way back when, however, developer Natsume clearly caught a glimpse of the positive aspects of the job and was inspired to create one of gaming's most beloved series, Harvest Moon.
The original SNES version of Harvest Moon is the seed that sprouted the crop of adorable and addictive farming simulators. It plants the groundwork for all future entries, setting up many of the essential elements that the series is known for. Years of sequels later, it still stands up strongly to this day.
You have inherited the family ranch, and it's up to you to restore it to its former glory. Starting with naught but a dismal patch of mud, some fences and disused buildings, you must put in the effort to rebuild the farm's fortunes and make it a success once more. The road ahead is long, but it's tough not to get hooked in, in part due to the cute art style that masks the hardships that lie ahead.
Harvest Moon is a game about hard work, perseverance and bettering yourself. In its early stages it's a slog; you must clear out all the rubbish and weeds that have built up on your land, then plant a few seeds and hope for the best. Pay attention to them, carefully watering them each day, and you can begin to grow tasty vegetables to sell via a handy shipping container. Continue to put in the effort to build more capital and you can purchase more seeds to grow larger and larger harvests. Earn enough money to buy livestock – cows and chickens – and take care of them and you can sell further produce such as eggs and milk. But beware — disasters like hurricanes can strike, and crops can only be grown in certain seasons.
Success doesn't come overnight in Harvest Moon, and there are moments where you might wonder just why you're spending so much time tending to virtual crops with no immediate benefits. Somehow, though, the process is compelling, relaxing and utterly addictive – seeing those first leaves poking up from the ground, your initial batch of plants finally reaching their potential, is one of the most rewarding things in gaming, because you've actually worked for it. Item management is a little clunky, as you can only carry two things at once — so if you want to till the land, plant some seeds and then water them, you have to pop back to the tool shed mid-task.
Though farming makes up the bulk of Harvest Moon, there are a couple of other areas to explore. The SNES version boasts a fair-sized town to investigate, which is far more satisfying than the menu towns of entries such as Harvest Moon GBC. Here you can buy essential equipment, seeds and food to keep your stamina up during those long, sweaty days. There are mountains to clamber up, too, with caves to poke about in and friendly folk who can expand your paltry homestead to make it fit for a farming king.
You can also get to know the locals by attending church, the bar and taking part in events that pop up on special days, from flower festivals to New Year celebrations. The real hook to going into town, though, is the opportunity to meet several lovely ladies and woo the one you want to marry. By chatting them up every day, bringing them presents and — strangely — breaking into their houses to sneak a peek inside their diaries, you can eventually build up their affection to the point that they join you in holy matrimony. Keep them happy during married life and you might be rewarded with a bundle or two of screaming baby joy.
Wii U Virtual Console's save states don't add too much to Harvest Moon, as you can save at the end of every fairly short in-game day anyhow, though it could come in quite handy if you need to switch off quickly without skipping to the end of a day. On the other hand, Off-TV Play is perfect for this sort of game; it lends itself well to idle sessions while the television is otherwise occupied, and quick pre-sleep harvests are always fun.
Harvest Moon's brand of wholesome fun is uniquely appealing, and for the most part it's a well-constructed, addictive simulation with spadefuls of charm. The SNES edition is a superb starting point for Natsume's series, and it's still one of the stronger entries in the franchise even today.