I'm Nickadimoose. I'm an amateur game historian who likes to do write-ups and videos about video game history; today I wanted to talk about the origins of the Harvest Moon franchise, a bit of an oddity. The reason I say odd is the late release window on the SNES and how it redefined how people imagined simulation games of the time. It would also prove to inspire later generations of developers, including ConcernedApe, who would go on to bring us Stardew Valley.
If you'd rather watch the video on the subject, rather than read you can do that here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4xpSCp-u4E
As a warning, this wasn't my best work. I'm still trying to master the video production stuff.
As difficult as it might be to believe in this day and age there was a time when games about farming didn’t exist. If you wanted to plant vegetables, pet cows, or harvest crops, you had to go out to the country and do it yourself. Then on August 9th, 1996, a game called Bokujo Monogatari released in Japan and fixed all that. Although you might know it better by the name Harvest Moon.
Harvest Moon was created by developer Yasuhiro Wada and was inspired by his life growing up in the Japanese countryside. As a child, he always dreamed about leaving his home in Kyushu and moving to the hustle & bustle of a large city.
Harvest Moon was the original farming simulator - a game all about quiet country living, building relationships, and fixing a dilapidated farm that you inherit from your grandfather. If you think this sounds a lot like Stardew Valley, you’re right. This game was the Stardew Valley of 1996.
After graduating from a local university, he moved to Shibuya and found a job with game development studio, Pack-In-Video. As the months of his life in the big city went by, he began to think more and more about his old life and the stark differences between country and city living; cities were loud, teeming with people, a complete reversal of what he was used to. The country was quiet, filled with close-knit communities that were intertwined. It was these feelings that instilled in him a deep appreciation for his old life and made him want to recreate that experience in a video game.
The more Wada worked on projects for Pack-In-Video the more his desire began to grow to explore the concept of a game that could capture the essence of his old rural life.
Inspired by games like Derby Stallion and SimCity, he could see the foundation for his vision, just not the final product. These games were proof that players out there desired more than just platformers, RPGs, and beat-em-ups. They wanted simulation games that could offer them a different kind of experience.
And after two years of working on localization projects, he successfully pitched his idea to the company’s higher ups, who greenlit the project with a small budget. Wada was put in charge of a team of 10 people, including Setsuko Miyakoshi (writer) and Tomomi Yamatate (programmer). Miyakoshi and Yamatate would become his closest allies on what would become Harvest Moon, helping turn Wada’s dream into a reality.
Development started pretty slowly, first exploring the concept by drafting three key points on paper he wanted to explore: farming, interaction, and cattle.
Farming is pretty obvious, he wanted the player to be able to plant and grow crops. To feel like they’re involved in the day-to-day operations of a farm they’ve built from the ground up. Gathering tools for use, planning ideal crop yields, and selling at market. Similar to SimCity, but without the depth. Most simulation games of this age dealt with raw numbers, positive cash flow, negative cash flow, visitors to your park, etc. Wada wanted to bring the human element by allowing the player to engage in personal relationships, grow with the town, and become a part of the small close-knit community.
Wada wanted everything to relate to the allure around successfully raising cattle. He believed that cattle represented the involvement of all of the core elements of Harvest Moon. Echoing the themes of care, planning, and attachment a farmer would get form really working on a farm.
Back in early alpha when the graphics engine was developed the farm wasn’t much. It consisted of just a small plot of land, populated by a few rocks, tree limbs, and had a farmer that had 30% of the moving animations completed. They wanted to test the basic clearing mechanic of managing your land, the core aspect of Harvest Moon’s gameplay, to see if it would be fun. Luckily It was! It was fun and satisfying to see the land, which starts off pretty overgrown, progress to being clean and maintained by the player.
But as they put more of the pieces together however, they were shocked to discover that the different elements weren’t cohesive. The prototype had turned from fun and satisfying, to tedious and boring.
In an effort to fix this, not unlike a failed recipe, they kept adding new things to the mix hoping to stumble over the one idea that could make the dish taste better. The more they added however, the more sour the game began to become. Gameplay slowed to a crawl from horrid frame rate drops from all the on screen assets and it made it almost impossible to play.
The months spent adding material to the game had to be scaled back, reverted to an earlier build. The art style had to be downgraded as well. It was a definite blow to the development team--after months of work, adding new things, and chasing new ideas, what they were left with was a version akin to the alpha prototype they built to test the clearing mechanic. The last place you want to be during development. There was hope that this would be the last of the setbacks, but the ultimate blow was waiting just ahead, like a tiger in the bushes; The studio went bankrupt.
It was estimated that Wada’s team had 80% of Bokujo’s assets complete, but no overall game to put them in yet. A company called Victor Entertainment stepped in and purchased the bankrupt studio, merging it with their game development division, Victor Interactive Software, but the financial stability of Wada’s project was still in jeopardy. They were already depressed from having to revert the game’s state, but the studio going bankrupt really pushed Wada into a spiral. He was ready to pull the plug and call it quits on his dream.
Wada and his two friends, Setsuko Miyakoshi and Tomomi Yamatate, convinced him to keep the project going and suggested he reach out to their new owners, Victor Entertainment for financial support.
He would once again have to pitch the validity of his farming simulator to higher ups. Bokujo’s fate was in the hands of people Wada didn’t even know.
They must have seen something worthwhile in what he was making though, because they greenlit the project. Then Victor Entertainment gave them a fraction of their old budget, barely enough money in the coffers to last a year.To say that three team studio experienced a massive crunch is an understatement. In order to get Bokujo back on track they had a lot of work to do.
Yamatate, the programmer, threw out the old code from the previous build and started from scratch. Miyakoshi worked on the script, character dialogue and helped with general planning. Wada stayed on the concept/planning side of things, organizing the game as they moved along at break-neck pace, day in and day out.
Then after 6 months of living, eating, and sleeping in the office, Wada’s dream was finally finished. The farming simulator, Bokujo, was ready to meet the world.
Sales were going to be difficult though, not only because it was unknown but also because of the timing of its release: August 1996. For reference, the N64 premiered in Japan two months earlier. With a new system already out in the market, expectations for Super Famicom titles were low--everyone had already moved on.
Initially the game started off selling just 20,000 units. But, as word of mouth about Bokujo’s unique gameplay, sales rose to a little over 100,000 in just a few short months.
As sales of Bokujo rose, Victor Interactive Software, began looking for ways to expand the games’ audience internationally. They came into contact with a company called Natsume and brokered a deal to localize Bokujo for the west. Natsume chose to call the localized version of Bokujo, Harvest Moon.
The newly minted Harvest Moon released to the SNES June 1997, but like its Japanese counterpart, it grew a dedicated following quickly.
It was always supposed to be a one and done type of game, just an attempt to see if Wada could capture the magic of country-living. But, the higher ups at Victor Interactive had a different strategy in mind. To them, not tapping into the surge of popularity and exploring just how far they could take the farming simulator was a massive waste. Launching a new intellectual property is the hardest part of development. The fans were there, the groundwork was there, as was the potential.
After the higher ups convinced Wada to continue making the series, he was given staff, budget, and the directive to work on three new games. Harvest Moon Gameboy, Harvest Moon Gameboy Color, and Harvest Moon 64. The development team fragmented into two groups: one working on the Gameboy versions and the other working on main-line titles.
While Harvest Moon 64 underwent development, excitement in the video-game industry was palpable and energetic thanks to the recent releases of the PS1 and the Saturn systems. Wada, being a pretty enthusiastic gamer himself, loved the idea of developing for these other systems.
As a result, after the Gameboy team released Harvest Moon GB and Harvest Moon GBC, they were commissioned to port Harvest Moon 64 over to the playstation. This port of the N64 version would come to be known by the name Harvest Moon: Back to Nature.
Wada didn’t want it to be a direct port either. He wanted Back to Nature to be a new experience for playstation players. And in order to do that, he gave the Gameboy team free reign on creating new dialogue and injecting new elements into the game. When Wada sat down to review the work of the Gameboy team, a few months before Back to Nature was set to be released, he found everything about his characters had changed. Dialog, events, and even the personalities of the characters had changed. Instead of insisting on revision, Back to Nature was released as is, and two very different versions of Harvest Moon 64 emerged.
The release of Harvest Moon 64 and Back to Nature began a golden age for the franchise; both games were a perfect follow-up to the original, not only expanding on its founding concepts, but improving them in a full 3D environment.
They would follow this release pattern for a while, never quite re-capturing the magic of the SNES, N64, PS1, or Saturn versions. They weren’t bad games, in fact, critics and fans kept praising the series for trying new things and continually innovating on the experience that made the older games so popular.
When the team at Victor Interactive Software, now Marvelous Inc, began work on Harvest Moon DS, development would be led by Yoshifumi Hashimoto, who would go on to create the Rune Factory games. It was here that Wada stepped back from game development and took on a more supervisory role. He was still involved in the development process, but he left the day-to-day operations to other members of his team. Although he loved his franchise and the work his team had done, he would continue to pull away from Bokujo, until one day he made up his mind to finally leave and pursue his own projects.
The last project Yasuhiro Wada would be involved with in the Bokujo series was Animal Parade in 2008. He worked with his old colleagues, one more time, on developing his last game of the franchise with a much younger development team. He would go on to say the whole experience was a bit bittersweet. Having to say goodbye to a franchise he loved was difficult, but seeing the enthusiasm of a young, fresh development team gave him hope for what was to come. They had a wealth of new ideas and a passion for the games that just wasn’t with him anymore. He would go on to found ToyBox Inc, his own game development company, and begin working on new projects.
When 2014 rolled around, we found the series in a really awkward place; Xseed Games, a subsidiary of Marvelous Inc., became the localization arm of Bokujo, so they didn’t need Natsume anymore to localize games in the west.
Instead of abandoning the name Harvest Moon, Natsume founded it’s own development studio called Tabot, Inc in 2012 and continued to release games under the Harvest Moon. The first of those was Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley, which received a 47/100 on Metacritic, leaving many long-time fans of the series to wonder what the hell happened? It had land terraforming, graphics that looked like a mobile title and was such a departure from the quality of its predecessors that it was hard to believe it was a game from the same franchise. Of course, it wasn't, but the fans didn’t know that. Because Natsume never volunteered that information to the public.
Bokujo, the original harvest moon as we know it, lives on under the name Story of Seasons in the west.
Story of Seasons has continued its tradition of development excellence, winning the attention of fans who understandably wonder where this farming game suddenly came from. On the flip-side Natsume is continuing development on the Harvest Moon franchise, with the newest game, One World, set to release later this year.
The History of Harvest Moon is a chaotic one.
From small beginnings on paper to the loss of it’s creator, Harvest Moon has experienced a lot of ups and downs over the long years, but it's a series that I'm glad to still see alive. With the advent of Stardew Valley, the features of the more well known farming simulation games will have to rise to meet the level of accessibility Stardew has raised the bar for.
Despite being so late to the SNES, the diverse gameplay elements, the tenants of love, care and patience made one hell of an experience that players would always remember.
That's all I have and all I managed to dig up over the time I was working on the script/video for this franchise. I'd love to hear about your personal experience with the games in the series. A lot of people I spoke with said past the N64/PlayStation era there were some wonderful entries into the franchise, but that's where I stopped playing.
If you have any questions, let me know. I've also done write ups on Fire Emblem, EverQuest, The History of Nintendo, Cuphead, EverQuest II, Hollow Knight and a couple others. Thanks for reading!
(references Wada’s early life, growing up on a farm in the country-side, the pressure he had on his shoulders from landing his first game development job, as well as his desire to try different approaches compared to his mentors to create video-games; this ultimately led to him trying to capture his young life digitally in Harvest Moon.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derby_Stallion
(the game that inspired Wada to try Harvest Moon in a farm setting). https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1015842/Classic-Game-Postmortem-Harvest
(Wada speaking about the making of Harvest Moon; this includes his early life as well as the timeline for Harvest Moon up to 2011/2012). https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1016368/Classic-Game-Postmortem-Harvest
(translation of the above text, since the original video is strictly in Japanese). https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/2729/harvest_man_yasuhiro_wadas_.php?print=1
(confirmation of the move to Victor Interactive after Pack-In-Video was absorbed) https://tcrf.net/Harvest_Moon_(SNES)
(unused assets in the SNES Harvest Moon)