Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town – GBA – Review

Who knew farming could be so much fun? Natsume has once again taken a job, that while rewarding, is also a difficult and often boring chore, and turned it into an engrossing game on the GameBoy Advance.

It’s time to visit the farm again in Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town. This is the fourth outing for Harvest Moon on a handheld, and offers basically the same mix of strategy and simulation as the previous editions. The story this time around is that a friend from your childhood, a lonely old man who recently died, so enjoyed your family’s vacation spent on his farm that he up and left you his farm in his will! Whoo-ee! Now you get to live out your dream as Farmer Boy!

So much to do, so little time. Clear the land, plant the crops, water the crops, gather resources to sell, do some shopping, feed the livestock, cook, make friends, run errands, and find time for a little romance. All these activities and more will consume your farmer’s life.

In the beginning, there was a farm. The farm was deserted, and had no crops, livestock or laborers. Farmer Boy had his work cut out for him, that’s for sure. First, he had to clear the land, which took several days. Then, he bought some seeds and planted a few crops. While tending the crops, he also made money by gathering resources, mining and fishing. His potential labor pool were the harvest sprites who would only work for their friends, so he had to spend a lot of time gathering things to give them as gifts. Once he had some money put aside he bought livestock, which really challenged his time management skills. The more he acquired, the harder it got. But, he saw that it was good.

This game is deceptively simple and incredibly deep. There is just so much to do! The first several hours of gameplay will be spent rushing around trying to gather resources to earn as much money as possible, while also taking care of the crops. After enough money is saved up, then livestock can be purchased, which will in turn earn more money. Having the sprites working on the farm is essential for success, as there is literally no way for Farmer Boy here to handle everything himself. This is where the strategy part comes in, because the designers of the game have the time running in ten minute increments about every 5 seconds, which means a couple of hours will go by just walking across town. Because only a few things can be accomplished in any one day, these tasks will have to be chosen wisely.

Farmer Boy starts out with a few simple tools which can be upgraded over the course of the game into more powerful devices. Using each item also improves its performance slightly. The tools include such items as a fishing pole, hammer, hoe, axe, watering can, sickle and other similar things. He has a rucksack to carry his inventory around, but it can only hold a few items in the beginning; wise players will upgrade to a bigger capacity soon. There is also a handy basket in the supermarket that will be a big help carrying items around for shipment later.

Once the farm is up and running smoothly, Farmer Boy can turn his attention to the finer things in life like watching the cooking channel for recipes, cooking up great meals for his friends, upgrading his house, and flirting with the local girls. If he becomes bored, he can always have a quick mini-game with his fairy friends.

The controls are difficult to master at first, mostly because there are several actions and menus and only a few buttons, which is mostly unavoidable on the GBA. However, there is one big control problem with using items; it’s entirely too easy to throw important things away. The “A” button is used to toss things in the shipment box – it’s also used to throw things on the ground, which then disappear forever! This could have been avoided by letting the items stay on the ground permanently, as in Animal Crossing, for possible pickup later. I can’t tell you how aggravating it is to throw away expensive seeds after just purchasing them, or to inadvertently toss away scavenged items after running across town with them (which takes a couple of game hours) to give them to someone as a gift.

The in-game clock runs very fast, and an entire game day only lasts about fifteen or so real minutes. Evidently this is a big part of the strategy component of the game, to force players to make choices between tasks, but it ultimately sucks some of the enjoyment from the game. The stores are only open certain hours and days of the week, the shipment box items are picked up each day at a certain time, and giving gifts and talking to people requires a lot of running back and forth across town. Just watering the crops can take several game hours. Gathering items for gifts and then taking them across town will often take a whole day to accomplish, even if Farmer Boy runs. Fishing is an all day job. This is in big contrast to Animal Crossing for the GameCube, which runs in real time. I’m not suggesting that FoMT be run in real-time, but it could have been a lot slower and still offered plenty of strategy challenges in time management, because of the sheer amount of things to be done.

As far as I can tell, there are only “2” save game slots, which means only two people can play at the same time, not good for families with more than one child. I didn’t see anywhere in the manual which addressed how many save slots there are supposed to be, but we could only save two separate identities.

The English version suffers from sloppy text, ranging from misspellings to wrong idioms. When catching a fish, you’re informed that you “fished a bitterling”, instead of “caught”, and the typos are too numerous to list. But, these are just minor oddities and they don’t detract from the game in any significant way. It’s only noteworthy because of the lack of care taken.

The graphics are very good! The characters are all drawn with attention to detail, and look as good as any I’ve seen on the GBA. The houses, scenery and crops also received a lot of attention. The horses, dogs, chickens and cows are cool to look at, too. The music is some of the best I’ve experienced on the GBA, but the game could have used more sound effects, especially from the animals.

Anyone who has enjoyed previous Harvest Moon games, or Animal Crossing, will be sure to be pleased with Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town. It will literally consume hours of your time, as you juggle increasingly complex tasks and time issues. Being able to cook and fish, plus run errands for people and play mini-games, really adds to the gameplay. The only drawbacks to this game are the short game-days, the awkward controls and the small number of game save slots. A GameCube version of Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life, is due to be released in the first quarter of 2004, which will offer owners of both games the ability to hook them together for additional gameplay options. This handheld version has whet my appetite for the console version, and I’m hoping the game time doesn’t run as fast on it.

My thirteen-year-old daughter is really enjoying this game as well and so far has compared it favorably with Animal Crossing, her favorite game on the GameCube, which she is still playing consistently a year after purchase. An excellent family game except for the lack of more save game slots, and one that the adults will especially enjoy for a fun handheld alternative to racing and platform games.

Gameplay: 9
When it comes down to it, it’s all about the gameplay. This game offers deep, satisfying play for hours at a time.

Graphics: 8 
The farm and surrounds look great, and add to the enjoyment.

Sound: 8
The music is snappy and fits the farm theme well. The sound effects could have had more detail, but are adequate.

Difficulty: Medium
The main difficulty is in mastering the controls and managing the time. Gamers with all ranges of experience can play and enjoy this game, once the controls are learned.

Concept: 7.5 
While executed well, there’s nothing essentially new or innovative in this latest edition of Harvest Moon.

Overall: 8.5
An immensely enjoyable game that will consume your day, if you’re not careful. A great game for multiple players; too bad there are only two save slots.