IGN Review of Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness
When I think of the term "niche gaming," few franchises really come to mind more than Natsume's age-old farm sim Harvest Moon. Sure, you've got companies like Atlus that work almost specifically in the gaming minority, and there are certain titles out there that appeal more to the hardest of hardcore, "classically trained" die-hard bunch (even Contra 4 and Metal Slug deserve to be put in that category), but when you get really obscure, you'll find few titles that are more "out there" than Harvest Moon. The fan base is small but loyal, but unfortunately as the series goes on, the quality of product is starting to seriously fade. If not for games like Rune Factory, I'd be ready to turn in my overalls and pitch fork already, as even the latest Harvest Moon offering on DS, Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness, is pretty lacking when stacked against the glory years of old.
Nintendo's handheld kicked things off with Harvest Moon DS, followed later by Harvest Moon DS Cute. Both titles were basically rushed DS offerings made from the classic Friends of Mineral Town on GBA, adding some basic touch interaction and a simple two screen interface for items. It was simple, it felt extremely rushed, and it left me counting the days for Rune Factory and Island of Happiness. Now that I've taken Island of Happiness for a run-through though, I'll continue to tell you what I've said for years already: If you want a great portable Harvest Moon experience, you'll need to stick to Rune Factory, or go pick up Friends of Mineral Town for GBA.
Island of Happiness uses the same core gameplay as every other Harvest Moon game before it, and on paper, it sounds like a perfect DS adaptation. This time around you play as a young boy who is shipwrecked Survival Kids style on an island, only to find that several other members of the ship's passenger lest also survived, and are determined to make the island a thriving wonderland. Rather than trying to escape, the NPC characters seem to embrace the new life destiny has handed them, and you're quickly thrown back into the classic farm 'n go mix of things. You'll grab yourself a nice little chunk of land, spend the first 15 minutes or so clearing away rubble and waste, and then start planting. As the game continues you'll further your wealth and watch the town grow around you, going as far as to court a mate and live happily ever after. Yup, it's another Harvest Moon game.
And that's all well and good. Like I said, it sounds fine on paper, and I personally don't need anything more in a Harvest Moon game than some good controls, solid economy system, and some fun AI characters to interact with. Unfortunately, Island of Happiness only has two of those things, and the lack of precise control makes this one a pain in the butt to play. Island of Happiness is stylus-only controls, and it's some of the most slapped together I've used on DS, making for a very sluggish, uncomfortable play experience. To move, you'll slide the stylus around the screen (tapping to move point to point doesn't work), and the farther you slide away from the center of the touch area, the faster your character will move. For starters, a d-pad mode is absolutely needed, as Harvest Moon is a game you can sit down and relax with for hours, and not something you want to hold one-handed while you trace around the screen over and over again. Secondly, unlike Phantom Hourglass or Summon Night, there's no analog feel to the movement, so your character will instantly shift into a run once you're on the outside 30% of the screen or so. Sit anywhere in the middle though, and you'll shift between a slow and mid-speed walk; very clunky.
And for a game that's all about walking tile by tile through your garden, dropping items on specific 16 by 16 pixel spaces, sloppy touch control just doesn't do it. You don't need to play through hours and hours of farm sim (we did; you shouldn't) to realize that this game could have been leagues above its current state if the team had just spent another few days to include d-pad support, or at least refine the current stylus mode. It just doesn't work. What's even more upsetting about it all, is that a game like Rune Factory already got control right over a year ago, and it's made in the same Harvest Moon universe. As a consumer, the decision is simple for you, as you can go out and buy Rune Factory 2 in a few short weeks and be done with it. The real shame is that the core Harvest Moon series is being put on the back burner, and for whatever reason we haven't seen a true pocket sequel that's worth your time since August of 2005. So many loyal fans love the Harvest Moon series in its pure, unchanged form, and this is another effort that just feels rushed and sloppily made.
If you can get over the clunky controls though, there's still a pretty impressive little Harvest Moon package, though nothing here that'll trump any single aspect of Rune Factory or the Mineral Town GBA experience before it. Character models and animation have gotten a small bump over Harvest Moon DS, now using a mix of 3D models and simple 2D sprites. You've still got a solid economy, lots of options, and a stronger interface (though still very simple), and a generally entertaining experience throughout. The only other major infraction I've got with the game's core design is that the top screen - used primarily as an overworld map - is virtually useless, showing which area your character is running around in, but not specifically where you or your town mates are in each section. You can have three people hanging out by the beach, for example, but have no idea where they are in relation to you. Each of your icons are sitting in a row in the right area on the map, but they don't change in relation to each other as you run around the screen. Again, just lazy execution.
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