For a lot of devoted Harvest Moon fans, it might seem unthinkable that someone lacking familiarity with the seminal farming RPG series could stumble into Stardew Valley and find a brand new, untapped gaming passion. But for a lot of players that’s exactly what’s happened, and maybe if you found your way here that player is you. Maybe you didn’t think you’d like Harvest Moon, or maybe you tried one once and at the time you absolutely didn’t. Maybe you never got around to it, or they just weren’t on your radar until now. Regardless, the natural reaction most of us have when we find something new that we like is to try and find more of it, but Harvest Moon and its offshoots have been around for twenty years—longer than some ardent Stardew Valley fans have even been alive. Where on earth do you even begin with something like that? Well, unless you’re a hardcore retro game enthusiast who can cope with the absence of a lot of features and conveniences we take for granted today, starting at the very beginning might actually be the worst way to go about it. But don’t worry, I have a few ideas of where you might want to start instead.
If you’re married to the idea of starting early in the series (a common urge when entering a long-running franchise for the first time) then Friends of Mineral Town is a good compromise. For a lot of Harvest Moon fans, this game represents when the series really came into its own: It’s late enough along that designers had learned plenty of lessons from its hit-and-miss predecessors (particularly the portable ones) while also being untouched by the series’ awkward polygonal puberty phase. The bad news is that this game is also from a point in Harvest Moon history where female player characters weren’t available by default, so if you want to play as one you’ll need to snag More Friends of Mineral Town instead. Also, while I’m not going to tell you to dive deep into the world of illicit rom patches, it should be mentioned that there are fan-made mods for Friends of Mineral Town and More Friends of Mineral Town that add same-sex relationships and marriage to the games, which is unfortunately something that no Harvest Moon games include by default.
Every Harvest Moon game shakes some part of the standard formula up, but one of the least touched mechanics throughout is shipping. Harvest your goods, chuck them in the bin, get money. They’ve done fun spins on the watering mechanics more often than they’ve touched shipping. That’s why Grand Bazaar stands out so much to me as a long-time Harvest Moony, because one of the most stable parts of gameplay got a pretty dramatic makeover. In this game there’s a weekly bazaar where players sell their farm’s goods at a table, haggling over prices and such by engaging locals in a sort of conversation-based mini-game. The bazaar is also your only time to shop for valuable items and livestock, though, so it’s wise to duck out of your stall a bit early and peruse the other tables before closing time. It’s not the most glamourous change the series has ever made, but it was enough to make Grand Bazaar my personal favorite.
Okay, lesson time: Despite the change in name, Story of Seasons is actually the most recent entry in what the western gaming market knows as Harvest Moon. In a nutshell, the company who used to localize (but not develop) all of these games owned the rights to the English “Harvest Moon” brand, while in Japan the series is published as “Bukojou Monogatari” instead. When the developers switched localizers, the rights to the “Harvest Moon” brand remained with localizer Natsume, who are now using it to release their own farming RPGs developed in house in an unnervingly similar style to the Bokujou Monogatari franchise, while Xseed is releasing subsequent Bokujou Monogatari games under the brand “Story of Seasons”, which was also the name of the first game released after the split from Natsume. So what does Story of Seasons itself bring to the table? Well, it’s the first in the series to break from the ambiguously late 20th-century rural aesthetic and dip more into a turn-of-the-century look instead, but that probably doesn’t sound very sexy to most people. How about this: You can harvest an entire field of crops at once, and save the game whenever the heck you want. Maybe playing farming RPGs for years has given me a slightly skewed idea of what constitutes a “sexy” feature, but you have to admit those are both absurdly convenient even compared to Stardew Valley.
Rune Factory was originally billed as “a fantasy Harvest Moon” but over time it’s distinguished itself to the extent that I’m almost not comfortable including it on this list—especially because it’s not developed by Marvelous like all the others. It’s here on a technicality, I’ll admit, but if it’s the combat and mining that interested you most in Stardew Valley then there’s no getting around mentioning Rune Factory. The appeal of this series (or subseries if you prefer) is that farming can play as great or little a role as the player likes, and it’s perfectly feasible (even moreso than in Stardew Valley) to avoid it and focus your effort on fighting instead. Monsters can be tamed and replace standard livestock altogether in Rune Factory 4, in addition to fighting alongside you in the dungeons, forests and against the various bosses. It’s also one of only two Rune Factory games where the player character can be either male or female, and much like Harvest Moon proper you’re not going to miss out on any substantial continuity if you skip to the latest rather than slogging through from the beginning. Bonus: You can fight using a giant silver teaspoon as a weapon, and that’s just adorable.
The truth is that Stardew Valley has a leg up on most Harvest Moon games. In fact it has several legs up. It’s full of features and usability improvements that I would love to see implemented in the series that inspired it, and rarely does that go the other way. The exception is with some of the features present in A New Beginning, which is one of the few in the series with a full crafting and decorating system nearly on par with Stardew Valley’s own. But here’s where Harvest Moon has an edge: You can pick up and move entire fields, paddies, coops, barns and even your own house without jeopardizing their contents, meaning that if you misplace something or just want to change up the layout a little, it doesn’t involve more than a few minutes of work nor does it cost you anything but your time. More than that you can design and redesign the entire town in the same way, including decorating a monthly festival space with flowers and building new shops for villagers to occupy. These were the only Harvest Moon-native abilities that I found myself pining for in Stardew Valley, which makes this one easy to recommend.
These are only jumping off points. It’s worth saying that we’re not talking about a series with a great deal of story continuity, so you can pretty much start wherever you want. The best way to figure out which Harvest Moon is right for you is to find the Harvest Moon with the gimmick or slight alteration in its formula that appeals to you most. Figure out what made Stardew Valley click for you personally, and then find the iteration of Harvest Moon (or Rune Factory, or Story of Seasons) that does it best. If that feels like a lot of pressure, don’t worry. They’re still mostly all the same thing, more or less… And that’s exactly why I love them.
Janine Hawkins is a games writer based in sunny Canada. You can find her written and video work on HealerArcherMage.com or follow her on Twitter @bleatingheart.