Like Animal Crossing, Natsume’s Harvest Moon didn’t reach its full potential until a handheld version was released. The series’ renown gameplay loop is perfectly suited to on-the-go play, with a typical day lasting around fifteen minutes. Tend to crops, feed the cattle, talk to the townsfolk, and fish ‘n’ forage in the wilderness before tucking in for the night. And then? Then you do it all again, all in the name of restoring an unkempt farmstead to its former glory.
For the Harvest Moon series – now known as Story of Seasons – it was 2003’s GBA-only Friends of Mineral Town which saw the franchise hit its stride. This is a full-on, Zelda: Link’s Awakening style, 3D remake of that fan favourite entry. The pacing, map, seasonal events, potential spouses, and even some of the dialogue between the humble cast are kept intact, only now it resembles a contemporary release.
Character portraits have been redrawn with modern-day flare, and the 3D world is peppered with subtle effects including distance blurring. A tweakable camera helps to stop objects being obscured by foliage, while the music retains the original’s recognisable melodies.
Although a remake, or possibly because it uses a game from 2003 as a template, it has a slight grassroots ‘back to basics’ feel. Perhaps it was hoped Animal Crossing fans would take an interest, riding on the coattails of Nintendo’s runaway success. The biggest giveaway is the presence of a new ‘simple mode’ for newcomers and younger players, granting a bag of bonus cash and a bumper crop of turnips from the outset.
Equally welcome are the dozens of quality of life enhancements such as clearer tutorials, a well-implemented control scheme – which uses the d-pad to cycle through tools and the analogue stick to flick through the always-on-screen inventory – and tile guides to prevent farming fubars. Now you only have yourself to blame for accidentally sowing seeds in the wrong location.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing newcomers will discover is the ability to progress at your own pace. The day-to-night cycle isn’t in real-time – going to bed brings on the next day. It’s entirely possible to simply tend to the farm before jumping back into bed, ignoring the world around you. Doing so speeds the game along rapidly, but you’ll miss out on the town’s love triangles and other set-pieces. The wilderness has numerous items to forage for daily too, all of which can be thrown into your shipping container – emptied at 5pm each day – and turned into cash.
A slightly bothersome stamina meter governs the amount of progress per day, with every action taking its toll. Accumulating the money to buy crops is easy – almost effortless – but chances are you won’t have enough energy per day to tend to them all. Finding the perfect work/life balance takes time and a bit of experimentation.
Consuming food fights off fatigue for a while, as does a trip to the mountain spring. A more permanent solution is to seek meter-extending power berries, some of which are hidden. Others are prizes for competing in seasonal mini-game style events. Frustratingly, the majority of events are, well, non-events during the first year due to requiring a kitchen and other things initially unattainable.
In this regard, it certainly knows how to keep you playing. The map is small by modern standards – and some locations oddly sterile – but there’s just enough to keep you invested, fuelled by the desire to see what challenges the next season brings. During summer rain is scarce and storms frequent, while in winter nothing grows at all. Winter does, however, cause the rivers to freeze which reveals new areas. Crops also vary from one season to the next, growing at different rates and worth different amounts. As soon as a new season begins, it’s back to square one – no crops survive the transition between seasons.
To make life easier, tools can be upgraded by finding precious materials in the nearby mine, allowing you to plough or water larger areas at once. Tree stumps and boulders can’t be cleared until better tools are forged, and some boulders block paths leading to new areas. This graft isn’t for nothing – house and barn upgrades require raw materials.
Also to seemingly to ‘hook’ you in early, the fishing rod isn’t unlocked until summer. From the calming sea to the town’s pond, there are plenty of different areas to fish. It’s a shame, however, that the fishing mechanics haven’t been refreshed – it’s a simple case of casting out and waiting a few seconds before bashing buttons. The mining aspect hasn’t been expanded upon either, being equally simplistic, while the rock-filled mine itself isn’t much to look at.
Indeed, Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town has a lot of elements still trapped in 2003. Adding to these woes, the dialogue isn’t particularly snappy – minor townsfolk don’t have much to say, and when examining items the descriptions are pointlessly and painfully literal. It’s a missed opportunity to expand on Mineral Town’s history. There is still some intrigue here though, thankfully, mostly due to the fantasy elements such as the Harvest Goddess and the helper sprites.
By sticking to the original as closely as it does, this remake successfully provides a whimsical trip down memory lane. It mirrors the original so closely that I was even able to use a guide for the GBA version, written in 2003, to locate a few hidden items. For newcomers, this is a decent entry point too, although perhaps not quite worthy of being full price. The biggest crime committed here is that it’s faithful to a fault. Authenticity (which is different from preservation, we should note) is all well and good, but chances are long-time fans would have gladly welcomed more modernisations.