Back in the days before the Internet really took off and became common place everywhere, gamers had to rely on essentially four things to learn about a game they might want; television commercials, word of mouth, reading the box in stores (or a rental), and gaming magazines. I was always a fan of the magazines personally and would always bolt off at the super market to spend my time in the magazine aisle. The old Tips & Tricks magazine was a favorite of mine, and the January 2000 issue had a strategy guide in it that really caught my attention. It was a guide for Harvest Moon 64, which came out in December 1999.
I probably read this little four page guide a billion times before I ever got the game. There was no Amazon and it wasn’t a super huge title, it was rather niche. Could never find it in stores, but I’d always come back and read the guide and think, “I really want to play that.” One year later, late November 2000, my parents took me to the Toys ‘r’ Us in the neighboring state to pick out some Christmas presents. There was really only two things I was interested in; WWF action figures and video games. To my surprise, sitting on the shelf was one copy of Harvest Moon 64. Of course I had to have it.
Christmas 2000 I had several new games to play, including WWF No Mercy, but it was Harvest Moon 64 that was the first to get taken for a spin. It was also the one I’d spend the most time playing. I ended up with a few hundred hours put into Harvest Moon 64, and for a long time it was my most played game and favorite game. In the years since, I tried several Harvest Moon games (Back to Nature, some of the PS2 ones, and the a couple of the Wii ones). I didn’t typically enjoy them, at least not anywhere close to Harvest Moon 64. They just didn’t have that spark or charm, or all around fun factor.
That’s a lot to say in a review of a game that I haven’t even mentioned yet, but I feel it warranted. I had a history with Harvest Moon 64 with wanting it for a year and then it being the game I played most from 2001-2004. None of the sequels came close to it, and I had given up hope that I’d ever have that same type of experience with another game. And then in early 2016 I saw a stream from someone playing Stardew Valley on PC and was instantly taken back to the mindset upon first seeing the guide in Tips & Trick… “what is this?” and “oh man, I really want to play this.”
I’m not a PC gamer, so much like not being able to find Harvest Moon 64, I had to sit and wait. Instead of reading the same magazine guide though, I could watch other people play it on Twitch and YouTube. Had I not known a console version was coming, I probably would have eventually caved and bought the PC version, but I waited until the PS4 version launched. I bought it on Christmas day, by buying a digital code off of Amazon. The old days were the good days, certainly, but there’s something to be said for the convenience of today. 16 years to the day after experiencing Harvest Moon 64 for the first time, I fired up Stardew Valley and instantly loved it. I might as well had been 14 again.
Stardew Valley is always going to draw comparison to Harvest Moon and Harvest Moon 64, and rightfully so. More than anything else, it is the clear spiritual successor to the first two Harvest Moon games. It was solely developed by Eric Barone (ConcernedApe) over the course of four years, and it’s obvious that Eric loved the early Harvest Moon games and went and made basically the ultimate Harvest Moon game.
It’s not a clone, but Stardew Valley takes all the best elements of Harvest Moon and expands them and adds a ton of new stuff on top of it. The end result is a much more complete experience that offers up hundreds upon hundreds of hours enjoyment of replayability on the scale that the Harvest Moon games never really had.
The premise is the same, essentially. You’re a boy (or girl) from the city, working a job you hate. Your late grandfather gave you an envelope and told you to open it when life was crushing you and want to be free. Inside the envelope is the deed to your grandfather’s ranch, your ticket to escape the city life and live off the land and be your own man. Of course this ranch has seen better days, and is completely overrun with trees, rocks, and grass. You’re going to have to work hard to improve the farm and make it thrive again.
Of course it isn’t as simple as just taking care of your land. The community of Stardew Valley also isn’t thriving as it once did, in large part due to the mega corporation JojaMart. You’re going to need to make friends with the town folk, grow quality crops, face the beasts in the mines, fish, and forage to help rebuild the community. There are many single folk in Stardew Valley, and you’re free to romance them all and marry who you want. Take a bride, or husband, expand the house, and raise some kids to go along with all your livestock.
Like the Harvest Moon games, Stardew Valley is broken up into four seasons; Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. Each season consist of 28 days and have their own crops to grow and items to forage. There are events during each season as well. Days in Stardew Valley go back quite fast, one hour of game time goes by in less than a minute. As such, it can be difficult to find balance between working on your farm and socializing. You don’t want to work too hard or stay out too late as these things can exhaust you and cause you to be even less effective the next day.
In the beginning, I recommend spending your day clearing your land and attending your farm. The socializing can come later, because there’s a lot of work to be done especially if you want to start making money. Thankfully, Stardew Valley is a open-ended game and you’re free to do everything at your own pace and set your own goals. There really isn’t anything to beat. Having said that, unless you side with JajaMart, and don’t do that, your overarching objective will be restoring the town’s community center and that’ll certainly take some time and a lot of work.
There’s so much to collect, see, and do in Stardew Valley that it can be a little daunting if you come in and just immediately expect something simple. This is a very deep game with tons of content, and that it was crafted by just one guy is extremely impressive. For $15, you’d be hard pressed to find a game, indie or otherwise, that is as jam packed with stuff and replayability as Stardew Valley is. I’d say $15 is quite the steal, especially considering you can easily sink many hundreds of hours into it.
Stardew Valley features something that Harvest Moon lacked that is especially welcome; a really large ranch and the ability to choose from several different ranch locations each with their pros and cons. This means you have a ton more space to craft the ranch you want, and no just have a barn in one set location and a relatively small part of farm-able land. This opens up many additional hours that can be spent in game and even out of the game designing your ultimate farm.
For a long time, Harvest Moon 64 was my favorite game. It isn’t anymore, and while Stardew Valley IS better than Harvest Moon 64 in every way, it’s also not my favorite. I’ve changed as a gamer, and wouldn’t be able to sink 300 hours into Stardew Valley without it being spread across multiple save files over the course of a couple of years. It’s still addicting, and a perfect game to play for a set amount of time (although I’m only going to play a week of in game time can very easily end up seeing an entire season pass) as a relaxing experience.
As far as this genre goes, I think Stardew Valley is as close to perfection as the farming RPG simulation can get. Multiplayer is coming at some point, and beyond that I can’t think of anything else I’d really want to see in this type of game. Stardew Valley hits all the right notes and checks all the right boxes as a feature rich farming based RPG. If it can be done better, I’d certainly like to see it, but no one person could make a better game for this genre than Eric Barone has done. I’d say it’s the peak, the Harvest Moon game many of us always wanted.
If you haven’t, I highly recommend picking up Stardew Valley for your platform of choice. It is an absolute delight.