Thanks to the glorious Virtual Console on my Wii, I am finally getting a chance to play the original Harvest Moon. I own Harvest Moon 64 and Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life, so I was already familiar with the series, but considering that the original game is so simplistic in comparison to later games in the series, I am amazed at how fun and addicting it can be.
In a way, I think the simplicity of the first Harvest Moon is a great strength of the game. At its core, this is a game about time management. There are a lot of things to do, but you have very little time in each day to do anything. Within this overarching restriction, it is nice to not have to worry about little details very much. For example, each growing season has only two crops: the crop that grows faster and the crop that is more profitable in the long run. If you need a quick buck you grow turnips or tomatoes, but if you want a lot of money you grow potatoes or corn. There are no crops that fill an unneeded middle ground and there is nothing to distract or confuse you. There are many choices you need to make at a time like that one, but each one is simple enough to process quickly. As a result, days move by very quickly, and a game about growing crops can move at a very fast pace.
Because you spend most of your time doing the same things over and over again in Harvest Moon, someone might think that it might get predictable and dull. However, Harvest Moon actually avoids this by putting all of the repetitive actions in the game on different cycles. Turnips grow on a four-day cycle, but the flower shop where you buy turnip seeds is open and closed based on a seven-day week, and the whole season lasts 30 days. You can't count on buying turnip seeds on the day you will need to plant them because the flower shop may be open on planting day one time but it may be closed on the next. At the same time, you need to juggle the harvesting and planting of various crops, and balance this all with running down to buy livestock when you get money, mending fences after random wild dog events, trying to date a girl, finding time to clear land, and going up to the mountains to chop wood so that you can eventually build a house and get married. While you do have to do some things every day, the time you spend each day outside of just feeding animals and watering crops can vary widely based on your shifting needs, priorities, and goals, simply because different things happen at different times, and there is not enough time in the day to do everything.
Finally, one thing that is a great strength of Harvest Moon is how it sticks to the basic premise that you only have to do what you want to do in the game. The only artificial restrictions are that if you want to make money quickly you need to farm, and if you want to get married you need a big house. The first is a logical and fair restriction that keeps the focus of the game on the main farming mechanic, and the second is just a way of encouraging you to go to the effort of improving your house (and perhaps adding extra obstacles to help make getting married remain at its position as the game's most difficult and unique accomplishment). While marrying a girl is an option, it is not required. While making a lot of money is an option, it is not required. While attending various festivals is an option, it is not required. You can pretty much have the main character sleep through the entire game without any particular consequence, or you can work like a dog to get as much as possible, simply of your own choice. Any stress or difficulty in the game is something created by the player himself, which makes it all the more real for the player.
Harvest Moon 64 inherits all of the strong qualities of the original game, and adds just enough complexity (such as making friends, winter mining, the horse and dog racing festivals, and the inventory screen) to make things more interesting without impacting the speed and simplicity of the game. It is a really good game. Unfortunately, many of the later Harvest Moon games do not emphasize the traditional strengths of the series, and end up losing the "one more day" addictive quality of the early games. For example, even glossing over Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life's crime of being a farming sim game in which raising crops is far and away your least efficient way of making money, that game completely ruins the principles of simplicity and time management of the early Harvest Moon games. For example, in A Wonderful Life you can buy just about everything you need from a catalog in your farm. This mechanic removes the valuable effect of forcing the player to go to different shops, which is an important thing you need to budget time for in older Harvest Moon games and a source of variability in the game. Also, A Wonderful Life lengthens the day so much that time budgeting is not incredibly important. You can do most of the things you want to do in a single day, rather than having to pick the two things other than caring for livestock and watering crops like you do in the original game. Also, added unnecessary complexity (such a fertilizing crops, having to impregnate a cow for her to give milk, etc) slows the game down even further, and makes the various chores of a farmer into a chore for the player.
The one advantage that some later Harvest Moon games have over the original and Harvest Moon 64 is the story. While I think that some of the attempts made in these games go against the basic principles of the game being a story about a farmer who does what he (or she) wants (namely the plots involving "save the town from being bought out!" or "save the Harvest Goddess!"), the movement towards having some more sophisticated story is a good one. Despite all the fun gameplay, Harvest Moon is a narrative desert with lifeless characters, and Harvest Moon 64 is fairly empty as well. A Harvest Moon game that combined the mechanics and pacing of the early games with more character development and story would be a great game indeed.