For some strange reason, we gamers want our virtual worlds to be more like our real ones. We clamor for more player choice in storylines and for graphics so lush we forget that they're just pixels on a screen. As we offer golden calves to the god of realism, it's nice to know that someone hears our prayers. Someone who's not afraid to take us literally-to give us a unique, "realistic" game that we didn't expect to be so much fun.
In Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life, there are no princesses to save. There are no worlds to conquer, no aliens to thwart. There's only a dilapidated farm that a young man and his partner Takakura must turn into a thriving business. Players raise livestock, grow crops and remodel buildings. But those who think that virtual farming is about as much fun as watching corn grow should think again. The Harvest Moon series has been around since the Super Nintendo days, and is nine sequels strong. Eight of those sequels have been brought to North America: a real feat for a "simulation game" whose genre is almost unheard of outside Japan. And this latest incarnation is the most unusual Harvest Moon yet.
For one thing, A Wonderful Life takes a more lifelike approach to farming than its predecessors. Now players need a rooster to fertilize eggs, and cows only give milk if they've had a baby recently. With this emphasis on pregnancy, breeding takes on a new importance. There are four different breeds of cows, each with its own special milk. Cow genetics are pretty straightforward. Still, wondering what kind of calf you'll get makes the game's obligatory baby-having a little more exciting. Nevertheless, these changes also make the game more frustrating than earlier sequels. Impregnating a cow takes good timing, patience (cow pregnancies last 30 game days) and enough room in the barn for the calf. These new rules make getting milk-the most lucrative product on the farm-a waiting game.
Those who are tired of waiting for milk can always make money by catching fish. Like the new milking system, fishing has been revamped so that it better resembles fishing in real life. Fishermen must judge different-strength pulls on their lines to catch fish. When there's a huge yank and the bobber disappears, it's time to reel in the catch. The GameCube's rumble feature comes in handy here. It lets players actually "feel" the tugs on their lines. The rumble feature isn't necessary to catch fish-there are visual cues as well-but it makes the process less painful. Once it's mastered, though, casting off becomes a fun way to earn extra cash.
Harvesting has changed, too. Players can now increase the quality of their crops-from average to good to superior-and can even mix two different crops together to create hybrids. Unfortunately, regular crops don't make the money they used to. Aspiring botanists must play God or go broke.
Players with a game link cable and a copy of Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town for the Game Boy Advance can access yet another novelty in A Wonderful Life. Trading data between the two games opens up new visitors, new recipes and even new tunes to play while working on the farm. These things aren't needed to finish the game, but chasing after them is a nice diversion.
Perhaps the biggest change in A Wonderful Life is just that: there's a whole life to run now, not just a farm. Characters age as the game-years pass. Some leave town and others move in. The farmer can watch his son become a man. And since the goal is to build a wonderful life, the player's decisions affect other people in the town. The farmer's friends provide apprenticeships to his son, thereby influencing the boy's career when he grows up. Friendships also lead to presents and cutscenes. Players must befriend everyone in town if they want to experience all the game has to offer.
But for all the ways A Wonderful Life separates itself from its brethren, deep down it's still the same Harvest Moon. Doing chores every day is still surprisingly fun, partly because of the game's ingenious reward system. A farmer-to-be starts out with one cow and pocket money: after a few days of milking and crop-growing, he can buy better tools, then chickens, then sheep, then more cows, and all manner of things to slowly turn his farm into a veritable plantation. New items offer more things to do and more opportunities for cash, keeping the player interested for hours and hours. In fact, the farm chores only started feeling like chores to me after I'd gotten everything I wanted, 60-odd hours into the game. In general the work is soothingly repetitive, like a child's favorite story.
That childlike quality is what makes A Wonderful Life so great. It allows us to play at being grown-ups, like our EZ Bake Ovens and crackling gumball vacuum cleaners did years ago. Sure, the game has flaws. But they're transcended by its ability to put us in awe of our own lives. We see our daily tedium through fresh eyes, feel it through newly excited thumbs. This game shows us that life isn't some rat-race to nowhere. It is wonderful, after all.
But then a friend introduced her to the seedy underworld of the Mario brothers and she spent her saved-up birthday and Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Her mom didn't like the Nintendo at first, but The Legend of Zelda changed her mind. (When Tera got Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one Christmas, she suspected it was as much for her mother as for her).
Though she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2002 and recently learned how to find the movie theater restroom by herself, Tera still loves video games. Far from being a brain-rotting waste of time, they've helped her practice spatial skills and discover new passions. Her love of games like Kid Icarus and The Battle of Olympus led to a degree in Classical Languages and Literatures. She thinks games have a place in discussions on disability and other cultural issues, and is excited to work with the like-minded staff at GameCritics.com.