25 Years Later, This Cozy N64 Classic Finally Gets The Recognition It Deserves
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If you’ve been alive and gaming in the past eight years, you’d be hard pressed to have not played at least one indie farming sim. Since Stardew Valley launched in 2016 and sold some 20 million copies, similarly cozy titles like My Time at Sandrock, Fae Farm, Coral Island, and Roots of Pacha have tried to repeat its success.
Each took at least some inspiration from Stardew Valley, which, while influential, was hardly the first. The spiritual predecessor of the current boom belongs squarely to Harvest Moon, the series that created the farm sim genre and ruled it for 20 years. The franchise began on the Super Nintendo, but it was 1999’s Harvest Moon 64 that proved just how beguiling farm life could be.
Harvest Moon was born from developer Yasuhiro Wada’s memories of his rural childhood, and his desire to create a combat-free title completely unlike the platformers, RPGs, and fighting games that dominated mid-’90s consoles. Given Wada’s tiny development team, and their endless technical and financial difficulties, it was a minor miracle they even got Harvest Moon out the door in 1996, let alone managed to sell 100,000 copies. While its influence is undeniable, it shows its age. The paleolithic inventory system alone is enough to scare off all but the most determined retro gamers.
Harvest Moon 64, the debugged and much upgraded follow-up that came out three years later, however, is more obviously rewarding. The goal remains the same: to restore your grandfather’s ailing farm by raising crops and animals, all while exploring the countryside, getting to know the townsfolk, participating in festivals, and maybe even starting a family. All of this will sound familiar if you’ve ever so much as glanced at a roommate playing Stardew Valley.
From mining to fleshed-out NPCs and romantic relationships to the ability to store items in cabinets and refrigerators, many of the genre’s staples were introduced in Harvest Moon 64. The core gameplay loop of planting your crops and using the profits to expand your farm, all while exploring, socializing, and uncovering secrets, is immediately recognizable, and addictive.
While the 2.5D graphics never pushed the envelope — and were generally critiqued even at the time for not taking full advantage of the Nintendo 64’s power — they have aged with a certain cartoonish grace. It’s immediately obvious you’re playing an older game, but it’s delightful to see your rotund, almost clay-like little avatar attend to his cows or soak in his steamy bathtub after a hard day’s work. In lieu of raw graphical power, the feeling of being out in the country is captured by clever details, like the music cutting out at sundown to leave you alone with the chirping of cicadas.
It’s also intriguing to look back on what ideas didn’t become genre tropes. One character passes away in the second year, another struggles with alcohol and their relationship with their father. The bachelorettes you don’t pursue find partners, and one of their marriages struggles. It’s not exactly Ibsen, but compared to sickeningly saccharine games like Fae Farm, these darker details make the world feel real. Sure, some stabs at realism, like hurricanes randomly wiping out your expensive greenhouse, are more frustrating than fun and Stardew takes note, replicating these little human moments without tipping into melodrama.
Harvest Moon soon abandoned those touches and its sense of passion was eventually lost too. The franchise began churning out cookie-cutter titles with soulless settings and few new ideas. That the series was floundering in 2016 was one of the reasons Stardew Valley proved so successful; Eric Barone would later say no Harvest Moon game had been able to synthesize all the good concepts scattered throughout the franchise, so he took a crack at it himself.
The original series — now known as Story of Seasons due to a rights issue — continues to chug along, but its obscure releases are stuck in the past. Stardew Valley is how players are introduced to the genre today; as charming as Harvest Moon 64 can still be, Stardew’s many innovations make it difficult to revisit without some thick nostalgia goggles. Yasuhiro Wada, who moved on from Harvest Moon in 2009, has praised Barone for carrying on his creation’s legacy, and it feels like the indie scene has firmly supplanted the corporatization that dragged Harvest Moon into mediocrity.
Still, the farm sim’s evolution from a quirky change of pace to an arguably oversaturated genre wouldn’t have unfolded without Harvest Moon 64. IGN’s 1999 review, after declaring, “It’s easier to land the hottest girl in town when you serve her some of that special soup recipe in the kitchen of your giant mansion,” concluded with a note on the gameplay’s addictiveness. We’ve come a long way since, but games like Stardew Valley continue to provide the cozy stimulant Wada introduced to the world.