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Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life Package Art
GENRE
RPG
DEVELOPER
Magnificent Interactive
PUBLISHER
Natsume
NUMBER OF PLAYERS
1
CONNECTIVITY
yes
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Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life

The concept behind the Harvest Moon series probably stands out as the most unlikely, yet significant basis for a quirky game to have ever really broken through in the states. Seriously, what other RPG featuring shovels in lieu of swords has ever topped every other console title the week of its release? With A Wonderful Life, developer Marvelous Interactive decided to go a little crazy and experiment with their tried-and-true game formula.

One thing any Harvest Moon fan should know going into A Wondeful Life is that it?s a surprisingly different experience than any before it, which means it both lacks polish in some areas but offers a much needed breath of fresh air in others (after a near unrelenting string of routine sequels). Some of you are going to absolutely love this game, and others?yes, even the ones who had no problem dropping 140 hours into the N64 game?are going to want to curl into a ball, sucking your thumb, crying out to anyone who will listen for a return to the good ole days, where you only had to water your crops once a day.

But I?m getting ahead of myself a bit. Read on to see if A Wondeful Life should be the next game you buy.

visuals

Harvest Moon and Nintendo?s philosophy on graphics technology seem to go pretty much hand-in-hand. A Wondeful Life shows that it?s no exception to the rule that in Harvest Moon, graphics are a means to an ends. The aesthetic value is really quite incredible, but the technology powering the graphics engine is designed only far enough to immerse you in the game and involve you in the goings on of the farm and the town across the street from the farm; beyond that, you?re mostly out of luck if you intend to impress your friends with the game's visual element.

Still, a few bells and whistles were thrown into the mix, which, if nothing else, make the player wish the rest of the game had been realized in such magnificent clarity. The shading and lighting effects are superb for any console title, and certainly show off the generally underutilized lighting capabilities of GameCube?s Flipper chip. All of the character models you come across feature some very impressive shading. The downside is that the nifty effect is usually wasted on low-polygon, muddily-textured surfaces.

It?s pretty apparent, however, that the game?s simple, elegant anime/manga theme holds up well in spite of the mediocre graphics.

audio

Few developers could pull off a game that takes 120 hours to see to conclusion and keep the music and sound effects catchy and thrilling all the way through. In A Wondeful Life?s case, the music is simple and melodic enough to avoid getting annoying for maybe half the experience, at which point you?ll probably prefer to hit mute and play your own music.

The sound effects are definitely less impressive. Sometimes tinny and often poorly timed, the effects really don?t add much to the experience. The simple ones work well enough, but any of the game's sounds could just as well not be there and no one would complain.

gameplay

The real question is how Magnificent and Natsume managed to make the daily grind of watering, feeding, and cutting grass an even remotely interesting videogame. The answer to that question in previous Harvest Moon titles has been a very fine balance among different activities, challenging long-term goals, and the fresh, innovative idea of a ?life-sim? RPG. With A Wondeful Life, the developers faced several unique challenges. Their now extremely well-balanced game had become terribly repetitive and left too little room for innovating upon. Additionally, the series? own success coupled with the Sims? ungodly takeover of PC gaming had assured that just about every hardcore game player was already well familiar with the burgeoning Dollhouse Simulator genre.

The answer the developer offers in A Wondeful Life is a fundamentally different experience than the games before it. One bag of seeds only buys you one potential plant (as opposed to nine), sometimes offering as slim a profit margin as 5g for a 30g bag. Also new is a clear emphasis on raising livestock early on in the game, set in motion by the cow you receive on day one. Unfortunately for series? veterans used to milking their cash cows for years, AWL?s only give for forty days after a pregnancy.

And those are the minor changes.

The game is set up in six chapters, which lead your character (and his little family) through an entire lifespan. Each chapter lasts between a single year and several, and between the current chapter and the next, several years pass for the town to progress, people to get older, and your farmhouse to get a little roomier. The thing that I never understood, is that a cow pregnant at the end of the first chapter will still be pregnant the day you wake up ?several years later? in the next chapter. Obviously, this is a design issue that should have been dealt with early on, but it?s really only frustrating when you have to deal with a uselessly pregnant cow. It almost negates all of the effort put into the new chapter system, by drawing a clear line between your business and your social life (in that people change with the chapters, but if you have any sick chickens, they'll still be sick after a supposed half-decade of rest.

Also new to the game are the shortened seasons, which number 10 days as opposed to the (already abbreviated from reality) 30. In exchange for the shorter seasons, the average day can typically last twice as long as it would have in previous games. In terms of gameplay, this decision makes the days longer and more fulfilling, but they definitely cross into a dangerous territory of becoming too fulfilling. In past games, the days were so short that the player was rarely able to accomplish everything they set out to do before bedtime. The side effect of this aspect of the design was a ?just one-more-day? game hook that could keep just about anyone playing for hours. In A Wondeful Life, the days are so long that (especially early on) there is hardly ever enough to do to get through an entire day. And rather than give players more interesting things to do than were available in previous games, there seems to be notably fewer things to keep you busy. So to keep the doubly long days busy enough, plants have to be watered and livestock have to be fed twice daily.

While the longer days and shorter seasons never ceased to irk the veteran Harvest Moon player inside of me, A Wondeful Life is not without its more welcome breaths of fresh air. Instead of having a completely static world that only changes with the seasons, the game?s chapter system features characters that grow up, grow old, and die. New buildings crop up, others find new occupants, and some things seem to never really change in the Valley. But, even if the progression of time feels disjointed, too slow in coming, and uncontrollably linear, it at least keeps things interesting.

Time?s inevitable progression also give the game the long-term goals needed to keep gamers thinking about Harvest Moon when they aren?t playing. By making friends with the (certainly creative) cast of characters in town, chugging through the often dull routine is made easier by imagining who will change and how in the next chapter. Sure, your friends will no doubt remind you that you?re willing to spend forty hours of giving flowers to an old lady just to see if she?ll leave you one of her cats in her will after she kicks the bucket at the end of the chapter, but the game does its job tricking you into thinking that something as silly as a pet cat is well worth the effort. In fact, playing with your son everyday hoping he grows up to be a sharp young man is enough to keep you going most of the time.

A definite downside of the new system is that there are very few opportunities to build up your farm and house yourself, as nearly every cosmetic change made to the game world is left to the chapter transitions. What upgrades can be purchased are all ordered through your farmhand, and strictly a matter of having enough money (gone are the days of chopping lumber in one?s spare time to make enough wood for an indoor bathroom). In fact, just about everything that isn?t a seed or an oddball item is ordered through the catalog, which takes some of the fun out of shopping.

Also gone are most of the interesting and varied scheduled events. With fewer days a season, there are fewer festivities to plan your date book around. The events that are available are usually seasonal and not announced in your calendar or on TV (but rather, you?re only told about them if you?re friends with the event?s host). Even once you make it to the party, however, the get togethers feel significantly less eventful than they were in the other games.

One great gameplay bonus that makes up for all of the annoying things they did to the crop system is a seed making device you can purchase toward the end of your first year. With it, you can use high-grade produce to create new seeds. Better yet, you can combine different produce to splice all new hybrid crops. Down the road, you?re even able to cross hybrid plants to make third-generation crops worth much, much more than their worthless grandparents. [However, one interesting game balance problem came out of this during normal gameplay: By taking the fruit from trees I?d planted (you can plant trees from considerably expensive seeds), I could create seeds worth twenty times the fruit itself and sell them for a disgustingly large profit. It was indeed a disappointing oversight on the part of the developer, but hey, I?m not one to complain about easy money.]

All in all, the gameplay experience feels like it was more of a grand experiment than a distinctive realization of what the original title was all about. It's not nececssarily a bad thing, established fans of the series will probably be turned off by at least a couple of the changes. This would have been completely fine if the new emphasis on story and family were developed more fully, but nothing from the presentation to the soundtrack do enough to aid the gameplay department in enveloping the player in the game world. However, in spite of those (arguable) gripes, you're not going to find a better console farming RPG on the market.

multiplayer

If you have a copy of Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town for the GBA, you can link them together to make a few special items available at the traveling salesman?s shop. The effects of linking each chapter are initially transparent, so it?s definitely not an instantly gratifying experience. (Or it might end up being a completely ungratifying experience if you fall for a translation error asking if you?d like to ?stop? communication must be answered ?yes? to commence with the link.)

overall

If a friend of mine called me up and asked me to recommend them a really good farming RPG, I'd probably tell them to buy the nearly flawless Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town on the GBA. But on the other hand, if that person were already familiar with Harvest Moon and interested in a title that mixed things up considerably, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend A Wonderful Life. The game lacks the polish, cohesiveness, and balance of its recent Game Boy counterpart, but the experimental design changes they made with A Wondeful Life are admirable. For every thing the game did to upset me, whether or not it was because I preferred how all the other Harvest Moon games did it, the new features and gameplay elements really got me excited to think of where the boys at Magnificent Interactive and Natsume will take the game next time around.

If you?re a fan of the series, do yourself a favor and give A Wondeful Life a fair chance. Just know that it?s very different from every Harvest Moon before it; It?s less busy and paced moanre slowly, it emphasizes the livestock business more than the crop-growing one, and it's not about accumulating a fortune so much as it's about building a family and watching it grow.

Final verdict: This game?s a definite love-it or leave-it title. If you?re still interested enough to be reading this, you should probably go buy the game.

final score 7.8/10





WRITER INFORMATION
Staff Avatar Justin Searls
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"The thing about twinkies is, you can't eat just eight."


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