Sunday, October 25, 2009

Closer Look at Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town

Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town for Gameboy Advance

One of the best things about writing these Closer Looks is that I often get to play the living crap out of games that I, and maybe you, would otherwise shun, usually with good reason. Doing this forces me outside my comfort zone and makes me see video games from entirely other perspectives. This go-round is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The game of choice this time is Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town, because the friends that were originally in Mineral Town grew insufficient, perhaps? Either way, the Harvest Moon series is one of my wife’s video game passions (Circus Atari, Eggomania, and Sims are few of the others if that means anything to you). I think she has played nearly all of the games in the series and by virtue of proximity the games’ many jaunty theme songs have been drilled into my memory for all time. During one marathon session of Harvest Moon, we’ll say N64 for kicks, I asked her what about the game appealed to her, because to me it looked like a whole lot of work with no pay off. I’m sure she gave an answer that was somewhat insightful, but to be honest I cannot remember it. However, that set off a chain of events the end result of which you are about to read.

I was looking for a new game to spotlight with Closer Look, when my wife suggested that this would be a perfect time to introduce me to the Harvest Moon series. Intrigued, but highly skeptical, I agreed and asked her to pick out the game she felt would be best for a complete novice who had minimal interest in the series. Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town was the answer, but being the curious lad that I am, I suggested the girl version instead (Harvest Moon: MORE Friends of Mineral Town). Hey, I’m not afraid to play as a girl, I kicked Belle’s Quest’s ass, remember! Thus, I embarked on my first venture into the land of farm simulation as a scrappy young blonde…

The game starts simply enough: you are a modern girl dissatisfied with big city livin’ and looking to shake thing up a bit in your life. One day, a television ad catches your eye glorifying the fantastic lifestyle that is to be had in Mineral Town, a small community that has recently found itself with a vacant farm property. Just the change you’ve been looking for! However, once you get there, you find out the quaint farm land is really a run-down derelict and the Mayor (Thomas) has pulled the old “bait and switch” on you. To make matters worse, the check cleared the bank and you are stuck here with only your newly acquired dog and a field full of weeds. If life is going to be worth living, you’re going to have to make the most of it here in Mineral Town.
From there, the game is pretty wide open. What you choose to do with your farm is entirely up to you and your future is literally in your hands. You can go all green-thumby and sow the entire field in turnips, pumpkins, and pineapples (what a climate this place has!). You can raise a herd of cattle and live off of milk and cheese. From sheep and chickens to mines full of gems, the possibilities are endless. Maybe a little too endless, but more on that later. Harvest Moon:MFoMT is a big farming/social simulation game that is made up of three basic phases: shipping things for money, interacting with the local townsfolk, and personal character growth. These three phases are completely intertwined and how you conduct yourself in one area usually has a direct impact on what goes on with the other two.

The most fundamental, day-to-day aspect of the game is shipping things for money. Predominately this means farming in some capacity, although there are other ways to get rich, and early on those ways are vital to getting your farm up and running. The crops you grow, the products your livestock creates (eggs, milk, wool), even things you just find laying around in the forest can all be shipped off and exchanged for money. Your basic task every day is to do something to generate sufficient revenue to maintain your land. You’ll need to buy seeds for growing crops; you’ll need to buy chickens, cows, and/or sheep to reap the benefits of livestock. And all of these things cost money. The simplest way to make money early on is to harvest ores and gems from the local mine. These gems and ore can be sold straight away and will bring consistent profits until your plants and animals start to produce. Once that gets going, trips to the mine will become less important and more supplemental in nature and you’ll be able to spend more time on your farm and in town.

While you’re busy mining, and hoeing (not the other kind…), and chopping, and brushing cattle, you also need to make an occasional appearance in town to let people know that you’re not just some creepy recluse who never leaves her farm and brushes cows all day. Interacting with the townsfolk is an important way to advance the minimal plot of the game and is also beneficial for increasing your ability to turn a profit. The most important interactions in the game, I am told, are the interactions you have with the majority of the single males in Mineral Town. Apparently, there is a narrow boy:girl ratio in Mineral Town and everyone has the fever to get married. If you are to join in the fun you’re going to have to do some serious wooing of the local male populace and maybe start a few catfights with the stunningly attractive ladies of the town. One of the main story elements in the game is getting married: when you finally do, the game credits roll (again, I am told), so those looking to “beat” the game are going to want to spend a lot of time paying attention to the boy of your choice (and the choices ain’t exactly George Clooney or Johnny Depp here in Mineral Town, good luck!). Other interactions in Mineral Town include making friends and enlisting the help of various people primarily through a long and elaborate gift-giving game. Participating in this can be as time-consuming as farming itself, so you’ll have to manage your time wisely.

The game does feature annual events to keep your daily life from getting too tedious. Every 25th day of the Winter season, the Mayor of Mineral Town will break into your house between 9pm and midnight, while you are sleeping and leave you a gift if you hang your sock on the wall. You think I’m kidding, but in Mineral Town this is a close as you are going to get to Christmas. There are more normal events, called Festivals that you can partake in. You can enter your best cow or sheep in the various livestock festivals, or you can watch fireworks from the beach with your sweetheart during the aptly named Fireworks Festival. These events provide various opportunities for advancing character subplots, winning rare items and awards, or just creating a general sense of community. Participation appears to be optional, unless you are pursuing a particular angle, but there are lots of things to be gained from taking in a festival. Just be sure you have done all of the things you need to do on the day of the festival, because most times activating the festival will consume the remaining time in the day. Don’t leave your chickens out in the rain just because you want to enter the Cooking Contest!

Finally, as you play, you’ll be constantly gaining a reputation with the locals and developing your “character.” Whether or not you show up for festivals, who you make friends with, who you marry, all of these things and more develop your character throughout the course of the game. How you chose to develop your character gives you the ultimate customization of your game experience and thus, no two Harvest Moon games need be exactly the same (maybe this is why my wife plays it so much!?). You can always try wooing a new male suitor, you can be Little Miss About Town and get all up in people’s business, you can forgo the agricultural bent and mine your life away trying to see just how deep the mines really go (they go deep, trust me). Whatever you chose to do, the choice is available and that may be one of the most appealing aspects of Harvest Moon. You may not get a Magic Hat of +5 Endurance, and you may never be asked to slay the Giant Spider that is blocking the pass to New Haven, but Harvest Moon really encompasses and represents the fundamental Role Playing Game experience.

But is it fun? I mean, the basis of the game is working a farm, and you really honestly have to work the farm. Want to plant cucumbers? Great! First you’ll have to clear the land of debris. Then you’ll want to till the soil. After that you need to buy some seeds and plant them. Once planted they’ll need to be watered daily until they bear fruit. Once they put on cucumbers, you’ll want to pick them, and ship them for money. Repeat. And that is just one minor aspect of the game as a whole. Make no mistake, this game is a time-sink. A big time-sink. So if you are going to invest hours and hours and hours into this game, it had damn well better be fun.

Well relax, because somehow, it is. I can’t really explain it, and every fiber in my being wants to deny it, but the stupid game is fun. Sure, there are aspects that are tedious and monotonous. Until you get your farm really going, you are going to spend a large number of days in the mines crushing rocks and collecting ores. That gets really repetitive fast. The flip-side of that, however, is that you can keep yourself entertained by getting to know the people of town and working on your social standing. What keeps the game fun is the development of your farm and the little milestones that keep you coming back for more. Once you get the planting down to a science, you’ll probably want to try some livestock, so you get a cow. But pretty soon the cow isn’t enough and you’ll be curious what raising chickens is all about. So you get a chicken. By this time you are making some serious money and the Cooking Contest is coming up. If you want to enter, you’ll need a kitchen, but that means building an addition to your house (don’t ask me why the house doesn’t start with a kitchen, there is no lavatory either…). If you’re going to add-on you’ll need lumber, so you’d better improve your axe…and on and on.

I find myself constantly planning new things for my farm. As of writing this, I am into my second year in the game and I am working hard to expand the size of my barn so that I can have the blacksmith make a machine so that I can convert my wool into yarn (so that I can get a local townswoman to knit me a sock so that next Winter 25 when the mayor breaks into my house he’ll leave that present!). If I am to do that, I’m going to need sheep, and right now I only have a cow and a chicken. As you can see, there is plenty to keep this game going well into the hundreds of gameplay hours. I cannot really explain it beyond that, but it is a lot of fun.

I don’t think I’ll ever be rabid about the game the way my wife is. I cannot see ever really needing to play any other version of Harvest Moon; mainly because there is so much to do in this game, I cannot really imagine that I will run out of things to work toward. But I have to admit, I now understand why this series has so much appeal and why it can be rather addictive.
That is not to say that Harvest Moon: MFoMT is without its problems and foibles. As mentioned above there is a level of repetition and monotony that can set in, particularly early when you lack the funds to really do all of the things with your farm you want to do. Going to the mine every day and mining ore, or collecting herbs on the mountain can become tedious. Fortunately, this phase of the game doesn’t last too long and there are diversions in the social life aspect of the game to keep you from getting completely bogged down.

In addition to the occasional doldrums, the game lacks an appreciation for fundamental casual logic. For instance, one character you meet, Cliff, comments to you that he will be forced to leave town soon because he is running out of money. The game doesn’t allow you to carry “money,” so giving him a loan is out of the question. However, in the mines you can dig up copious amounts of gold chunks, which can in turn, be shipped away for money. Thus, logically, gold = money. Therefore all we have to do is give Cliff a gold nugget and he can exchange it for money; problem solved, right? Not so fast, my friend. Harvest Moon logic doesn’t work that way. Instead of the obvious solution, the game wants you to find ol’ Cliff a job instead. Of course, makes perfect sense (read: sarcasm). Luckily, the local winery needs a hand and you can get Cliff a job there, if you are so inclined, however knowing this is the proper course of action requires some video game ESP. You would think when you try to give Cliff the gold, rather than acting like you have an extra head, the old boy would say “Thanks, I appreciate the gift, but I’d rather have a JOB.” But, no, you are left to divine this course of action via Santeria or some other Voodoo. Good luck.

That points to another slight problem with the game: certain events and things you need to do aren’t entirely obvious and aren’t easily accessed without a deep understanding of how the game works. A good example of this is how you obtain the fishing pole, a fundamental tool in the game. Most of your tools are granted by virtue of purchasing the farm, however if you want to become a master angler, you need to obtain the fishing pole. How do you go about that exactly? No one really knows. But, if you happen to wander into Zack’s house between 11am-4pm with an empty tool slot during the Spring season of Year 1, he will give you the rod for free. While chances are good this will happen, it could also very easily not happen and you could miss out on a very basic aspect of the game. This means that a lot of the time you are going to have to luck into some of the game’s key events (there is a whole long thing with Basil’s wife and a rare white flower I won’t even try to elaborate upon) by being in the right place at the right time. That would be well enough, if you had nothing but free time to run about every day just to see what being in the Winery at 4pm during the Summer might yield. But you don’t.

And that leads me to my final quibble with Harvest Moon: MFoMT, time. Once you get your farm up and running there literally aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything you are going to want to do. Time in Harvest Moon is broken down into 10 min. increments that last roughly 5 seconds. This means you get 1 hour of gameplay for every 30 seconds of realtime. (yeah, I timed it, that is how far I go for you) Do the math. You get up at 6 am each morning (trust me, do not overwork/stay up too late or you will oversleep and miss out on 2 hours) and can reasonably work until around 9pm, when you should be winding down your day (see my note about oversleeping). That gives you a solid 15 hour day of doing everything you need to do; seven and a half minutes realtime. Not too shabby, right. But now factor in all of the various restrictions and time-sensitive elements. Shops in town are only open between the hours of 9am and 6pm (some hours vary but this is the main window). Any work you do after dark (8pm) will cause extra fatigue. Walking from your farm to town or the mine takes at least 1 hour. Walking back takes another. It takes about a half an hour to harvest one 9x9 square of crops. (and you better hope it isn’t going to rain the next day, or you can factor in another hour or two to get your animals back in the barn before dark) Do the math. You are going to get about 5 good minutes of constructive game time to get your stuff done. If you are doing something in town, get your crops and animals taken care of between 6 and 10am. Get your town stuff done as fast as possible, because you’ll probably want to do more farm work/forage/visit the mine before 9pm. It is very, very easy to run out of daylight and be nowhere near done with all of the things you need to do.

In part, I think the game is aware of this. In a hut behind the church, live the Harvest Sprites. Play your cards right, and give them a boat-load of gifts, and they will do the work for you. You can even make them better at it by playing mini-games with them related to the various tasks they will perform. These little gnomes can be a real life-saver since they can help take some of the pressure off of getting everything done. However, they also take some of the fun out of the game, since part of the experience is tending your farm. Generally I assign them to a task that is fairly repetitive and uninteresting, like watering plants, and do the rest myself. Personally, I’d rather have the time to do it all. If only you could hire the Harvest Sprites to go to the mine everyday and unearth ore…

All in all, though, these issues are relatively minor and do not significantly impact the overall fun of the game. You still have complete control of your destiny and while you may have to figure some things out the hard way, or by sheer luck, your game won’t collapse if you make a mistake or miss the chance to give your beau chocolate on Thanksgiving…

The Final Look
I hate to admit it, but I like Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town. This stupid little game is fun. There is so much to do and the game is so wide open that you really can tailor-make the game into whatever you want it to be. If you hate micro-management games or the idea of farming, then maybe you should give this one a miss, but outside of that, I think there is something here for everyone. And you manly men don’t have to be caught playing a “girl game,” the original Friends of Mineral Town is the “boy version” where you can farm, drink, and womanize, to your manly heart’s content. I can’t say that I’m going to devote the remainder of my life to Harvest Moon, but I can promise that from time to time you will find me planting pumpkins, brushing cows, and desperately trying to get that sock on the wall in time for Winter 25…

Come right back next week for a special edition of Closer Look featuring an exclusive not seen since I dropped those Private Eye maps on you people awhile back! See you then!

Stan’s Note: I am eschewing the Tips and Tricks section this time around because the game is really wide open and while there are little tidbits I could pass along that would make the game somewhat easier, I think part of the fun of this game is doing it yourself. So get out there and get to work! And if you get stuck or just don’t know how to proceed, there are some really good FAQ’s and strategy guides out there that will be of great assistance.

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