Game Changers: Volume 17 – Harvest Moon

These days it’s not altogether uncommon to see strange genre mashups. In 2007 Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords managed to successfully combine RPG elements and puzzle games in what is perhaps the most unusual combination out there. However, it was by no means the first. As early as the SNES era you could find games that defied genre boundaries, with Harvest Moon being not the earliest, but the most successful example.

I wonder how the pitch for this game went... 'So you have a farm and you get to hoe and plant crops and get married...'
I wonder how the pitch for this game went… ‘So you have a farm and you get to hoe and plant crops and get married…’

Harvest Moon is a household name now with dozens of games spanning nearly every game system available and Natsume has become nearly synonymous with the series. But ’twas not always so! It was a very different story in the NES era back when Natsume was responsible for games such as Abadox, a side- and top-scrolling shooter wherein you get to fly inside a huge space monster and fend off its virulent immune system to rescue (of course) the princess… whom the space monster has swallowed. I am entirely serious. Check it out on YouTube if you think I’m making this up. So space monsters to… farming? By 1996 in Japan (’97 in North America) Natsume had made that very odd leap and published a quirky “farming sim.”

In Harvest Moon you take charge of a derelict ranch. You’re tasked with fixing up the ranch and making a life for yourself in the community there. The game involves growing crops, raising animals, mining, fishing, and courting and marrying one of the local village girls. Here’s the funny thing: it worked. The game was well received. In fact, it was just plain fun to play and went on to spawn a slew of sequels and influence such games as Animal Crossing.

Turnips, the amateur farmer's best friend.
Turnips, the amateur farmer’s best friend.

It’s interesting to note that at this juncture Harvest Moon wasn’t by any means the first game to try an odd combination of genres. In 1990, Enix put out Actraiser, an unusual game for the SNES, which combined elements of RPG, platformer, and city-builder. Actraiser had moderate success, receiving positive reviews and selling 620,000 units worldwide (though only 180,000 of those in the U.S.), but the sequel was a straight platformer and marked the end of the series. Harvest Moon, however, managed to go onto have a few Game Boy/Game Boy Color sequels, a Nintendo 64 version, a PlayStation sequel, and from there simply continued to have an iteration on every Nintendo and Sony console and portable system to date. In 2006 the series spawned a spinoff franchise called Rune Factory which brings in a more pronounced RPG element as it has characters fighting monsters in dungeons and levelling up, as well as farming and raising a family.

There are currently about two dozen Harvest Moon games as well as four Rune Factory games and Natsume and Marvellous always have a few more in the works. For Natsume, Harvest Moon has been a cash cow, one they’re not afraid to milk for all it’s worth (much like I’m doing with this pun), but there’s no doubt that the series has taken bold steps in blurring the lines of genre and has managed to do so with long-lasting appeal.

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