Harvest Moon makes us all wish we could marry a hick girl

harvest moon snes logo

Harvest Moon (SNES) (1998)

I’ve gone on before about how the farming life isn’t exactly one that appeals to me. You will have driven past fields full of cows and sheep, and smelt the fresh mess coming in through your closed car windows. Well, farmers are quite accustomed to that smell. Some of them even live for it, except they dress it up as “the fresh country air”. Can you believe that? I’d take carbon monoxide every time. Better than that, I’d rather stay as close to electricity as possible and keep my farming fantasies restricted to gaming-based pipe dreams. It’s in this way that I discovered Harvest Moon SNES, and I began tingling in my wellies.

First of all, something that should probably be rather obvious – I never had this game as a child. Nobody did. Well, probably zillions of people in Japan had it, and six or seven players in North America. But it came out in Europe in 1998, for God’s sake. And what are you going to choose, a twee farming game for the Super Nintendo, or Metal Gear Solid?!

Even a UK PAL version of the game was thought near mythical until recently, when we learned that only 5,000 or so copies were made for here – and if any ever made it to Ireland, I’d love to know. You can pick up the Australian version of the game, with its half-English text and much more appealing green box-art. But that’ll cost you a few hundred Euro, or eight-thousand Aussie dollary-doos when converted.

I say ‘half-English text’ because the translation is a travesty as well. But at least it goes past “incompetent” and indeed even slaloms in and out of “mentally disturbed”, before ending up at the bottom of the valley at “hilarious”. I’m sure more than one person in publisher Natsume’s office recognised that the game, released as late in the SNES’s life cycle as it was, was going to sell precisely zero copies. So naturally they did the localisation as cheaply as they could, employing the most basic, old-fashioned, online Babelfish Japanese to English translation available at the time. That’s understandable.

What isn’t understandable is when your character examines a pot and suddenly bellows “Confirm the origin of fire!” Equally you’re left having to nervously smile and nod, the same kind of treatment you might give to some of the less mentally fortunate in society, when it’s the middle of a profound scene and one of the love interests looks you dead in the eye before softly speaking the line, “I want to do garden forever”.

Ahh, yes, the girls. That’s what we’re really here for. Again, heavens knows if these fillies are really of age, so perhaps best if I measure my words here. All the same, they’re all marriageable in this isolated, tiny, vaguely French and definitely inbred village, and that makes them fair game, right? Let’s meet our unlucky ladies:

You’ve got Anne, the flame-haired inventor. Pretty much every Harvest Moon game comes with an Anne, or even an Ann. This one sits around hammering doohickeys in her father’s shop all day, which inevitably blow up in everyone’s faces.

Ellen is more tomboyish, and her father is a terrible drunkard. On the plus-side however, she’ll give you a little yellow dog to keep you company on your farm, although she never bothered to name the doggy herself. A farmer probably doesn’t need a lazy wife, so I’m sorry, but she’s out.

Nina is a pink-haired, wild-eyed nutter who talks about flowers and, I don’t know, discarding and consuming men like a Black Widow spider. I’m going off sprites and artwork here, but you can just tell that Nina is the minxy sort, with cheeky smirks and that look in her eyes. You’ll have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen anytime you’re left alone with her, put it that way.

And then contrasting her is Maria – blue-haired, demure, church-going… but most desirably of all, she’s the Mayor’s daughter. Her being an only child, this is a no-brainer: get in with her, and the Mayor’s massive pad will one day be yours. He lives in this Uncle Monty stately home the size of a cathedral, while other folks not two minutes down the road live in log cabins, eating dirt. Which would you prefer?

I tended to end up with the fifth and final girl, Eve, for three reasons. Firstly, she’s that potent mix of sultry and blonde, and she looks knock-out in that red dress. Of course, I’m talking about a tiny 16-bit sprite, but let’s use our imaginations here. The other four bachelorettes are girls, but Eevee here is a woman.

Secondly, she works in the bar, which means that she likes to dabble in a drink or six, and she can drink you under the table any day of the week. The characters in this bar drink ‘juice’ by the way, which is odd considering how often the drinking characters hiccup, and how your little farmboy suddenly turns red and staggers about the place after a mere mouthful. But there you are.

The third sneaky advantage of courting Eve is that, curiously, night never ends in this game until you go to bed. The days are dreadfully short, but once it hits a depressing sundown at 6PM and the music switches off, that’s it. Even Father Time goes home. This means that you can keep running to the nearby mountaintops, grab some respawning flowers and throw them at Eve as often as you like.

She never seems to get suspicious of this tactic, and in fact she seems rather enamoured by it, which means you can have her ready to produce nine of your glorious children by Day 2 of your agricultural prison sentence. And you’ll know if you’re having the desired effect on her by busting into her room and reading her diary.

Is that a terrible example to set or what? You literally go up to their beds, sniff them (well, ‘examine’ them, but it’s left ambiguous), and seemingly the only thing she’s written in the diary is a row of hearts. One heart means that you’re shoe excrement, five hearts means you’re on your way.

Ten hearts and you can give her the Blue Feather. No euphemism here, it’s simply an odd but strangely heartwarming method of proposal that’s become a Harvest Moon series staple. I’ve even heard of real life couples proposing with a Blue Feather. Whether these relationships matured into the marriage stage because the groom threw eggs and small bottles of milk at the bride-to-be each and every single day, I don’t know. But it’s quite possible, and indeed likely, that he melted her heart by showing her his dog all the time. If that isn’t life imitating art imitating life, I don’t know what is.

What’s disappointing is that, when you marry these women, they lose almost all of their personality and become samey, even down to them all wearing the same naff frock and having their hair the same way, only differently coloured. A pre-modern comment on the futile monotony of married life and being an eternal housewife? Perhaps.

But it almost makes you want to throw stones and weeds at your better half every day in order to get some sort of non-robotic reaction from them. They can pack up and leave for their mother’s, you know, if you treat them too terribly. They can even take your little bald baby with them too, as you single-handedly set fathers’ rights back a few more years.

I seem to have forgotten that this is a farming game and not a dating sim, so let’s get back to basics. Your beaming father and tearful mother wordlessly leave you on a farm that’s in a horrendous state of disrepair, and that’s the last you see of them. Quite a tragic fate, really, but might as well make the most of it: it’s up to you to clean up the farm; integrate yourself into the local community; plant crops and grass; raise cows and chickens; and make a minter from the fat of the land.

After two-and-a-half years, your parents suddenly remember that they have a son and fight their way back to the farm in a pompous panic, Home Alone style. Unlike future games in the series, there’s no way to keep on playing, so you’d better make those years count. If your farm is a wretched, barren wasteland with your horse fit only for the knacker’s yard, then your dad will kick up stink and your mother will cry.

Ship zillions of turnips and make a fortune, however, and suddenly you’re the man and you get to retire early, with a big fat high score to boot. Presumably this was a gap year gone on for far too long, and it’s back to urban living and big business for you, while the hick girls miss you terribly.

There’s even an ending where you can be a ladies’ man, desired by all but taken by nobody. In this scenario, the five girls and possibly the wrinkly old fortuneteller serve as your personal concubines. After all, you have the most land out of anybody in the community, and that includes a hefty amount of road frontage. And any rural girl I’ve ever spoken to regards road frontage as being next to Godliness in the desirability stakes.

As the first of its series, Harvest Moon SNES feels very much like an experimental game. Several quality of life improvements benefited the series as the years went on, before the sequels became far too numerous to count. Something that really grates in this game is the noise of the scrolling text – it’s nails on a chalkboard stuff. Some of the music doesn’t fare much better. Also, there’s hardly any text tutorial (and of course, any text that does exist is mangled horribly by the simpleton translating it) so you’ll probably spend half your time on the farm cutting up your own crops, ploughing your dog (oo er) and watering your horse.

These days, the game seems ever more quaint, ever more quirky. But it’s a wonderful example of a successful gaming experiment. By all rights, it should have been cancelled or brought to a different system or destroyed early on. But no, some madman in Japan decided that the Super Nintendo needed a farming sim in 1996, and more madmen thought the USA and Europe/Australia needed one in ‘97 and ‘98 respectively. And from there, the series grew into a frightfully large golden turnip – even if there have been a few cowpats along the way.

21 June 2019

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