Video games are supposed to be an escape from daily life. They’re supposed to transport you to fantastic, far-away lands you will never actually experience in your lifetime. They’re supposed to let you live out your wildest dreams as a race car driver or an imperial storm trooper or a member of the 101st over Normandy. Why, then, does my all-time favorite game opt out of all of this, presenting the player with a familiar home cooked slice of humble pie?
Harvest Moon 64 for the Nintendo 64 is, for lack of a better genre-title, a farming simulator. You take control of the main character, who inherits the family farm after his grandfather passes away. Initially the farm is in disarray, with logs and weeds and rocks littering the soil; your job, over the course of three in-game years, is to restore the farm to its former glory. It was nothing revolutionary, it was nothing groundbreaking, it was not a big-name blockbuster – let’s establish this fact first. It was a simple back-to-basics RPG that, unfortunately, never received the recognition it deserved.
After all these years, the thing I still cannot wrap my head around is why I enjoyed playing Harvest Moon 64 as much as I did when I hated living the reality of it. My town is pretty rural – over the past ten years or so it’s become more modernized, remarkably so, but upon the game’s release in 1999, my region of Cumberland Valley was nicknamed “Cow Valley” for a reason. The high school was situated next to about three different farms and the smell of methane was always in the air. There was never anything interesting to do, and I scoffed at the stereotypical annual small-town gatherings like the Apple Festival or Greek Week.
Harvest Moon 64 made everything seem so fresh and fun, though. I loved pulling the weeds and hoeing the land and raising crops of corn – never mind that I could drive three minutes outside of my development and see corn as high as an elephant’s eye (which, everyone knows, is prime harvesting time). The real-life apple festival may have bored me to tears, but the in-game firefly festival was so gosh-darn endearing I looked forward to it all year. When I was nine, girls still had cooties, but I remember trying my damndest to woo Popuri, the daughter of the flower-shop owner, giving her flowers and strawberries and even my own dog, all so I could eventually give her the legendary prized blue feather that officially joined us in marriage. If only real dating were as simple.
From a technical standpoint, the game was unremarkable. The graphics were acceptable, and the story was what you made of it — you could power through the game, focusing only on improving the farm and raising your livestock, or you could take your time, get to know Flower Bud Village and its environs, get to know the inhabitants by a first-name basis. The whole game had a very Lake Wobegon feel to it, and I always looked forward to running into the friendly vineyard owners or the town librarian at the Starry Night festival.
The game received generally positive reviews, but nothing groundbreaking — in a way verifying the overall complacency of the game itself. The videogame website IGNgave the game an 8.2 and Metacritic gave it a 78/100. In a nutshell, the scores reflect the game’s end goal as a simulacrum of everyday life — this is not a Final Fantasy or a Mass Effect, it’s not going to get the incredible 10’s and exceptional 95/100s you would expect. In much the same way, though, I’m (most likely) not going to end up doing anything incredible or exceptional with my life. Really, the most I can hope for is to grow up, find a job, move to a nice neighborhood, get to know its surroundings, meet the townfolk, participate in some social events, meet a girl, fall in love and eventually, just maybe, woo her enough so that she’ll accept the blue feather and we can settle down and start a family together. If my real life ends up being half as fulfilling as my Harvest Moon 64 save, I’ll be happy.