Once upon a time in Japan (the time in question being around 1996 or so), a game designer named Yasuhiro Wada
had an idea for a game. He envisioned a unique, non-violent role-playing game (RPG). Most RPGs of the time focused on venturing around the world, slaying monsters and stopping evil overlords. In Wada's games, the player would stay within a single community and build relationships with its people. He (or probably someone in marketing, I dunno) named this game Bokujou Monogatari
("Ranch Story"), and it released in 1997 for the Super Nintendo (SNES). In this game, you play as a young man who has recently inherited his grandfather's old farm. You must plant crops, tend to animals, and bring the farm back to prosperity, while befriending the locals and potentially wooing one of the town's elligible bachelorettes.
And if that sounds familiar to any of you gaming types out there, it's because this man invented the genre that was made famous by Stardew Valley.
But we'll get to that. For now, know that we'll be referring to this game, and the sequels that followed, largely by their Japanese titles in this writeup. You'll see why. Part 1: Harvest Moon
The original Bokujou Monogatari
(hereafter shortened to Bokumono,
its "official" nickname) was originally developed by a company called Pack-in-Video/Pack-in-Soft. They published the game as well for its Japanese release.
It released very late into the SNES's lifespan--the Nintendo 64 had been out for a year already, and the now-legendary Sony Playstation had beat it to the punch by nearly two--and was an unusual, unproven concept. But despite this, the game was picked up for a North American English release. Pack-in-Video did not have offices in North America, so the game was published and translated by the North American branch of the Japanese company Natsume, Inc.
For its English release, Bokumono
was retitled Harvest Moon.
That name, too, may well be familiar to you--because surprisingly, Bokumono
ended up being a modest success. It was quickly followed by sequels: Bokumono GBC
, for the Game Boy, and Bokumono 2,
for the Nintendo 64. These were titled Harvest Moon GB
and Harvest Moon 64
in English, respectively. It's around Bokumono 64
that the series really started taking off--in addition to favorable reviews, the game garnered positive word-of-mouth on that newfangled "Internet" thing. Gamers enjoyed the simulation-style gameplay, the slice-of-life nature of the game's writing, and the (very tame, very G-rated) dating sim aspects. Pack-in-Soft had a hit on their hands--maybe not a mainstream hit, but a hit nonetheless. It turned out, Bokumono
was the exact sort of series many gamers wanted in their lives.
And what do you do when you have a hit on your hands? You milk the hell
out of it. And no, I will not apologize for that pun.
Pack-in-Soft started pumping out Bokumono
sequels at a rate that would make a machine gun jealous.
From between 1999 to 2003, they released seven Bokumono
games. In four years.
Now, admittedly, part of this is because someone in the company figured out that, hey, all of our games so far have you playing as a boy and pretend-kissing digital girls; maybe some people would like to play as a girl and pretend-kiss digital boys, but apparently just having a gender selection screen at the start of the game was too much for them, so they would re-release the same game except hey, now you're a girl this time. (Playing as a boy and pretend-kissing digital boys and vicey versa, on the other hand, took until this damn year
to happen, but that could be an entire topic on its own.)
Around 2003, Pack-in-Soft was accquired by a company known as Marvelous Interactive.
franchise became part of their stable of series, and has continued to merrily print money for them until this very day. The games lined Natsume's pockets as well, becoming the publisher's largest and most successful franchise in a relatively short period of time. How successful? The Nintendo DS, a system that was actively supported between the years of 2006 to 2011, saw eleven different Bokumono games.
Most of them wore the Harvest Moon
branding in America, though one spin-off, Rune Factory,
ended up becoming a franchise in its own right. And that's just one console--this isn't taking into account the Wii games or PSP games released concurrently.
But while everything was coming up roses for Marvelous, Natsume's cash cow was about to run dry. Part 2: The XSEED of Doubt
In 2013, Marvelous Interactive accquired an American company by the name of XSEED.
XSEED was a US-based publishing house founded in 2004 by a group of former Square-Enix employees. XSEED's mission was singular: They focused on translating niche Japanese games with a very, very
large amount of text in them to English. Their previously published titles consisted almost entirely of wordy, story-heavy Japanese RPGs, with a few visual novels (for the non-gamers: choose-your-own-adventure books with music and animations) thrown in for spice. High-quality translations were a focus of their business model as well. They specialized in what is often referred to in the translation sphere as "localization"--not merely changing a script from one language to another, but rewording it and changing it around so that it sounds natural and resonant in its new language.
This seems like a fairly innocuous business move on the surface. Having your own in-house translation team? Dandy! If they have a proven track record of good work? Even better! Now you don't have to outsource the translations of your popular series any more!
Kind of like how Marvelous had been outsourcing the translation of the Bokumono
games to Natsume for a decade or so.
And how did
Natsume's tenure go for them? Let's take a look, shall we? Part 3: Sopha, So Bad
you describe the English translations of the Bokujou Monogatari
series? The ones branded "Harvest Moon?"
Should you say that they have their own, unique character? Do you claim that they're one of a kind? Do you say that you wouldn't mistake them for any other game's?
No. No you wouldn't. You would call them what they are: Bad. Infamously
bad, in fact. While they've never stooped to Google Translate lows, the English translations of the Bokumono
games are "renowed" for being some of the most sloppy, poorly-implemented, and downright buggy
video game translations out there. They're full of bizarre, strangely-worded translations.
("Confirm the origin of fire!") They're full of basic typos (such as calling that long soft thing you sit on a "sopha"). The game's programming code often leaks into the text boxes, and in one memorable instance, a character in the English version starts speaking in German for absolutely no reason.
Most damningly of all, the translations often introduce a multitude of glitches not found in the original games. From freezing glitches to marriage candidates being unobtainable
) to your player's children disappearing into the void
), English Bokumono
games were janky, unstable, poorly-tested messes.
Folks playing the series for the first time were often outraged at what was allowed to slip through the cracks. Longtime fans were numb to it, and joked endlessly about the poor QA to make the tears stop.
But it wasn't just the unintentional changes that had fans riled. For many, many years, there had also been accusations of homophobia leveled at Natsume's handling of the franchise. That could well be an entire post of its own (and a far less humorous one, given its much-less-risible subject matter), but the biggest one to be aware of is the removal of the so-called "Best Friends System" from the installment Harvest Moon DS Cute.
To sum it up: DS Cute
was the "girl version" of the earlier Harvest Moon DS
--the same game, but with a female player character and male love interests. However, four of the female love interests from the "boy version" remained in the game, and, in the Japanese version, could become "Best Friends" with the female player character. This was marriage in all but name; you achieved this status in the same way as marriage, you had a special ceremony, your "Best Friend" would move in with you, and you would even be magically granted a baby to raise together by the local supernatural forces beyond man's ken. Naturally, this feature made a number of fans very happy. And their hopes were dashed to the rocks when the English version of the game removed it. (Incompletely at that--the various romance scenes with the female love interests were left in, but they won't accept your proposal of marriage. Err, "Best Friendage." No, wait, definitely marriage.)
And while the Bokumono
series was not quick to give the player their choice of sexualities, its later installments were slowly making progress. In the 4th installment of its spinoff series Rune Factory,
while still locking in your choice of love interests based on your gender choice at the beginning of the game, kinda-sorta lets change your gender partway through. (It's not perfect, but any port in a storm when you're a thorsty young woman who just wants her knight waifu.
) More concretely, the series' upcoming Nintendo 3DS installment, Bokujou Monogatari: Tsunagaru Shin Tenchi
(often translated as Ranch Story: Connect to a New World
), was to feature an openly gay NPC. And if your current translation company seems like they just can't handle The Gays, well, that's not a good look to say the least.
So, as you might expect, the fairly predictable happened: Natsume got dumped like a load of hot garbage, and further Bokumono
titles were the exclusive department of one XSEED. Part 4: Story of Seasons
In May of 2014, XSEED announced the upcoming release of their latest title for the Nintendo 3DS--a farming sim entitled... wait for it... "Story of Seasons.
The game sure looked
like Bokumono: Tsunagaru Shin Tenchi.
It had the right art style, as well as many features unique to that game (like Super Mario Bros.
-themed costumes for your character). But it wasn't called "Harvest Moon" any more.
And that lead to a great deal of confusion among gamers. Was this an all-new franchise? (No.) Was this another spinoff of Harvest Moon?
(Also no.) Was the series trying to reinvent its image? (Getting warmer, but still pretty off-base there, buddy.)
In its press releases, XSEED made it abundantly clear what had happened
: Natsume still owned the legal rights to the name "Harvest Moon." Marvelous was not able to accquire those rights, so when they began translating the series in-house, they had to come up with a new English name for legal reasons. This was indeed the English version of *Tsunagaru Shin Tenchi.
* But nobody reads press releases, so confusion still ran rampant amongst the series's more casual fans.
Then, that same May, Natsume announced their own game: Harvest Moon 3D: The Lost Valley.
Ooooh nooooo. Part 5: ...Harvest... Moon?
Their new game was a farm simulation game, just like older Bokumono
games had been. In it, you would raise crops, as well as livestock like cows, chickens, and sheep. You could also woo NPCs and eventually start a family. And legally, there was nothing stopping them from doing so--game mechanics cannot be copyrighted.
In fact, there was even some weird little indie game in development at the same time with the same mechanics,
so there. The game's plot involved you ending up in a desolate valley and saving the Harvest Goddess and Harvest Sprites of the area. Both the Harvest Goddess and Harvest Sprites are long-standing elements of the Bokumono
franchise, and more than one game has tasked you with rescuing one or both of them. But notably, while long-standing, they are not trademarked
elements of the franchise.
So, since Natsume still had the legal rights to use the name "Harvest Moon", they were doing what any self-respecting money-hungry company would do: they started making their own in-house ripoffs of the series they formerly had the rights to, slapping a trusted name on it, and leaning heavily on the brand recognition to carry them through.
If people were already confused by Bokumono's
abrupt name change to "Story of Seasons"
in the West, this announcement was absolute chaos. It didn't help that the new game looked... well, significantly lower-budget. The art had a much less polished feel, and the gameplay itself seemed to be taking less after classic Bokumono
and more after, er, Minecraft.
For casual fans, it looked as if the series they had grown up with had suddenly gone off to college and started making questionable life choices. After all, these games were called
"Harvest Moon," so for all they knew, this was
the continuation of the beloved series. Natsume themselves did little to debase people of this notion.
Among fans who saw through the bull, reactions were... mixed.
The game looked, to be charitable, unpolished. A number of fans saw this, went "The Asylum is NOT a good role model!", called it a shoddy ripoff, and vowed to have nothing to do with it while remaining resolutely faithful to the true
franchise of Bokumono.
What Natsume was doing was shady, and they didn't want to support shady business practices.
Some fans remained optimistic. After all, they liked vegetables-'n'-cuties games, and deceptive name or no--this was another game with farming and also dating. And, they thought, what's wrong with more of a good thing? If nothing else, they were more willing to judge the game on its own merits when it released.
Yet a third group of fans were not convinced by the game, but thought that something positive could come of it. As you might expect from its breakneck release schedule, some thought that Bokumono
had been stagnating for years and was, at that point, just resting on its laurels. What better than a little not-precisely-friendly competition to shake it from its complacency? Even if this new Harvest Moon
wasn't spectacular in its own right, perhaps its existence could spur Bokumono
into doing new things.
And lastly, a tiny fourth group went, "Are they still giving out adorable preorder plushies with this?
They are? Well... crap. Not my proudest preorder." And lo, a handful of wallets cried out in agony and were suddenly emptied.
Unfortunately, when the game finally released, the cynics were largely borne out. Neither critics nor fans were particularly impressed by the end result,
, and it was abundantly clear that, yes, Story of Seasons was the superior product.
Among those who played The Lost Valley,
some did note that it had a few good ideas under its belt: The Minecraftian idea of terraforming your farm wasn't entirely terrable, and crops in the game could change and mutate based on their growing conditions, which was an interesting mechanic in theory. But the social aspects of the game were completely stripped down, with no town to visit and a simple rotating schedule of NPCs on your farm, which left it feeling barren and cold. The warm sense of community had been a focal point of the Bokumono
series since its early days, and without that, it was obvious what a pale imitation this new Harvest Moon
And the damnable thing was? It worked anyway.
Despite poor reviews, the game still sold well. That's what trusted brand recognition will do for you, I suppose; Natsume is still making their own-brand Harvest Moon
games to this day. But this success has come at a price. For now, whenever the series is mentioned on gaming forums and social media, it often comes with a murmur of how bad current Harvest Moon
games are, and how the series "used to be better," and prospective farmers are often urged to stay away. Part 6: A Tale of Two Series
In the end, outside forces DID pressure Bokujou Monogatari
to grow and evolve. But they didn't come from Harvest Moon.
Because about two years after The Great Story of Seasons
Confusastrophe, a little game called Stardew Valley
went nuclear. Farm sims went from being a profitable niche for one company to a booming genre in their own right.
Thanks to this explosion of new farming fans, the confusion surrounding the Bokumono
series never really went away. Budding new farm fans, after dumping half their life into Stardew, go seeking more. They quickly learn about the series that inspired Stardew and want to experience it. Then they meet with an immense wall of half-truths and outright misinformation. Some of it even comes from Natsume themselves, who slapped a big "20th Anniversary" sticker on the front of one of thier titles, Harvest Moon: The Light of Hope...
Which is correct about the name
"Harvest Moon" and not at all about their homegrown franchise.
"Wait, so... the game that inspired Stardew Valley
is called Harvest Moon...
but this recent game called Harvest Moon
isn't good, or it... isn't actually Harvest Moon?
And there's this game called Story of Seasons
that is supposed to be good, but it isn't the same, except maybe it is...?"
It doesn't help that many fans themselves are still unclear on what happened, and pass their unclear perception of the facts onto these new fans. One claim I've seen passed around is that "the team that used to make Harvest Moon
moved on to making Story of Seasons.
" While technically correct, this is also a fairly major misrepresentation of what's actually going on. And while some of these inacurracate posts do manage to attract a member of the "Well akchually
" squad to explain things in greater detail (card-carrying member represent), many more of them slip through the cracks.
It's possible that, in the future, this confusion may die down. As of this writing, the latest English-language Bokumono
game is about to release: Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town.
This game is a remake of the Game Boy Advance games of the same subtitle, released in English as Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town
and Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town
(the "Now with more estrogen!" version). Said Game Boy Advance games are often held up by fans as the absolute best of the franchise, the cream of the crop, and are well-known even among casual fans of the series. It's possible that seeing the Story of Seasons
moniker attached to the familiar subtitle will make it clear to many more people: "This
is the franchise you grew up with, the one you love--psst--the real one.
" (It's also the first game in the franchise with 100% no foolin' same-gender relationships right from the get-no, which is awesome for all those farmers whose romantic inclinations are towards or include persons with the same pronouns as them. Also those who just like hareming to see all the dialogues.)
Meanwhile, over in their own little sandbox, Natsume has merrily continued making their own games. None have received very favorable reviews, but given how the farm sim genre has only gotten more popular, they're not likely to stop any time soon. Some Bokumono
fans have since dipped their toes in to this alternative franchise, and a few even consider them to be guilty pleasures. It's worth noting that the new translation company, XSEED, is not universally beloved either (which, again... could be an entire separate post), and some have started playing the Harvest Moon
releases simply because they don't like supporting XSEED. Because lord, this is a complicated scene.
But whether you be a farming fan or a Harvest Sprite neophyte, you,
dear citizen, now hopefully understand the tangled history of this beloved franchise a bit better. And if, somewhere, on the Internet, you, too, come across a poor Stardew Valley fan just looking for something else fun to play, you can help set them straight.
Or don't. It's not, like, an obligation or anything.