While I am always discussing retro games and streaming them on Twitch, its not often I get to actually review retro games here on Marooners’ Rock. That’s the main reason I jumped at the offer to cover this classic Harvest Moon game that has just been made available on PS4 not too long ago. How does Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life Special Edition hold up in the modern era?
Now, as a bit of a preface, I will have to admit that I’ve never gotten into the Harvest Moon series. Honestly, I’ve always wanted to, but as a kid I didn’t quite understand the appeal and as an adult I’m not sure where to start in this long running franchise. Farming crops, raising animals, and making relationships is what this legacy was built on and it has stemmed a big following, as well as a few other games that were inspired by it.
A Wonderful Life, from what I’ve gathered around the net and by talking to friends, is probably in the top five most beloved games in the series. Originally on the Gamecube, A Wonderful Life was later ported to the PS2 with some extra content and game enhancements. Most notably, this includes a new wife possibility and the ability to have a son or daughter. The PS2 version also suffered from performance issues that resulted in much lower scores from critics than the Gamecube release, but we’ll touch more on that later.
While there isn’t much of a story driving A Wonderful Life, there is a solid setup and drive to play. Our hero moves into Forget-Me-Not Valley, where he inherits an old farm from the passing of his father. Its up to the player to bring the farm back into shape, turn profits by selling crops and other products, and live out their adult life. It’s not long before the player is given a blue feather, the Harvest Moon equivalent of an engagement ring, and the need to marry becomes clear. Not meeting this goal actually results in an early game over after the first year passes. Each year, characters in the town will age, giving the player six years and a bonus year to do what they like. This encapsulates the life of the character and its up to the player on how that life is lived.
Really at the centerpoint of A Wonderful Life is its characters. Players will meet many fun folks, their stories becoming more clear as connections are made by giving gifts. Making connections leads to gifts and even certain events, as well as marriage with one of four lucky ladies. During my time with the game, I spent most of my time feeling sorry for the little homeless fella Murrey. Even though I didn’t get far in his story, it was my hope that looking after him selflessly would lead to some better luck for my farm. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case, but I still found Murrey to be a fun character. Although, I came to found out later that he returns to his old village only to come back after drinking all his money away. Well, he had fun I guess and its a harsh, realistic lesson about alcoholism for the audience.
That’s what I enjoyed most about this game, its people and their stories. Living out the life of a farmer may not be glamorous, often times its downright boring, but the connections made and the joy of making friends or raising a child is substantial. It’s also worth noting that getting into a rhythm can make the game downright addictive, but I feel like A Wonderful Life isn’t nearly as so as the other games in the series. However, this fulfilling aspect in the game’s characters isn’t carried so well in the actual gameplay.
Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life Special Edition struggles from the trappings of its original release on the PS2. Sure the PS4 version brings it up to a higher resolution and adds trophy support, but the framerate issues, general slowdown, and long loading screens between everything really hold it back. Gotta look in your inventory or check the map? Loading screen. Going to another building? Loading screen. They’re just too plentiful, even for a game on a console that had plenty of loading screens. I’m not real familiar with the inner workings of bringing these PS2 classics to the PS4, but I wish there could’ve been more enhancements to the game’s performance. At the end of the day this is emulation it seems, meaning it has all the issues of the original.
It also doesn’t help that the general pacing of A Wonderful Life is slower than most Harvest Moon games. Growing crops takes quite a long time and I was never sure the state of my tomatoes or carrots until they had died. I actually spent like three hours with the goal of just successfully growing one plant, only getting a watermelon to grow well into the Summer of the game’s time. This coupled with the game’s performance left me frustrated more often than not, longing for the ease of modern design.
However, once I started to get a groove on a schedule and looked up on how the game’s more vague mechanics actually work, I found myself enjoying this little slice of life simulator. I loved pulling out fish in the ponds, to then trade them to the shops or give them to Daryl in hopes he rewards me with a new tool. I enjoyed making up little stories and reasons for what I was doing, focusing most of my efforts on selling milk from my cow. Never did get the hang of cooking, leaving my character to survive on simple Mogwort plants and fresh milk, but there are a ton of possibilities to learn and plenty of items to experiment with.
If I were to have played Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life when it launched, I would have had to keep a journal. Noting down where characters are, what sort of items they like, and how much effort I had put into them would have been a unique experience. It’s the sort of game that isn’t typical of other games, carving out its own flavor of play. Harvest Moon has always been a niche game at its core, sparking a whole genre that has some truly excellent titles. I can definitely see the appeal to this series, but it’s a series that will likely ever achieve the widespread appeal of other games. That’s what makes Harvest Moon special, that design with a particular audience in mind, an audience that isn’t afraid to put in a little work.
While I may never finish this particular version of Harvest Moon, I’m actually more curious about the series because of it. I’ve been told by friends that A Wonderful Life is perhaps the worst starting point for new players, as many of this game’s mechanics are more “realistic” in a way. I know it sure felt easier to grow tomatoes in Harvest Moon 64 when I tried it at a friend’s house years ago. A Wonderful Life is not for everyone, but there are some great characters that many players will find themselves enjoying. Personally, I think I’d like to check out the more sprite-based games, maybe one for the GBA.
Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life Special Edition on PS4 may not be the best way to play this classic entry in the series, but for fans looking to jump back into a favorite, this version is awfully convenient. The added trophy support is also awesome for those wanting to complete the game in a more rewarding way.
As a side note, Harvest Moon is celebrating its 20th Anniversary, which is why Natsume brought this game to the PS4’s market. We’ve also gotten other Harvest Moon games added like Harvest Moon 64 on Wii U. Fans can expect similar happenings as the year develops, making Natsume a company to watch closely over the next few months. Harvest Moon creator, Yasuhiro Wada, is also on the verge of releasing his new project Birthdays: The Beginning, which is being published by NIS America. Of course, I also have to mention the phenomenal Stardew Valley, which was heavily inspired by Harvest Moon.
At the least, this PS4 release of Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life Special Edition is another way to get the game into the hands of players. Tracking down a working copy isn’t necessary for those just wanting to play. This also helps preserve the game’s history, something I would love to see more and more companies embrace as our older games become more susceptible to time.
Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life Special Edition is available now for download on PS4 for $14.99 USD. Check out Natsume’s website for official news and more information.