Stardew Valley brings back a lot of what made the original Harvest Moon work so well, while picking up the best notes of the rest of the series. You have control over your farm on a square by square basis. Almost everything in the game is available early on, you just need to work to get there by making enough money and collecting enough resources. There are secrets to discover, events to trigger, and improvements to unlock. The town center and bulletin board give you achievement-like long and short term goals. But (possibly as a symptom of being designed by one person) there isn’t an overwhelming amount. At the start of my second year, I’ve done much of what I need to accomplish to feel successful.
There are some shortcomings. Fishing would be overly confusing without using an online guide. Seasonal transitions are abrupt and surprisingly disastrous for your farm. (“This whole area was clear yesterday!”) And to me the town feels lively, but artificial. It feels set up specifically for me, which is unsurprising, as it actually was set up for the player. That’s admittedly difficult as a designer because you want the player to feel like his presence matters, but too much and it feels like everything revolves around you. The crafting system feels mostly superfluous. A lot of items are locked behind having access to certain materials, which is good for progression. But it doesn’t add much to the game versus just having to buy items from a store.
The Community Center is a mixed bag. While it definitely guides the player to accomplish a variety of different tasks, it feels arbitrary, and locks parts of the game behind what is essentially a collection side-quest. There is a missed opportunity to make the town come alive by having specific events unlock these gradually. For comparison, the bridge repair in Harvest Moon 64 stands out to me. At a designated point, the carpenters ask you to help repair the broken bridge, and you can actually work for them, performing repairs. The end result is simply access to a new area, but it feels integrated in the game.
The thing that stands out most to me is that Stardew Valley can be a little too flexible for the player. Shops are open almost all the time. And while it’s annoying to not be able to buy something you need when a shop is closed, some of my favorite moments have been realizing that the shop I need is closed because everyone is at Tuesday Yoga. You need to plan ahead in order to make the most out of your schedule. I also miss the struggle over how to lay out your farm. That was what made the original Harvest Moon a game. You have limited time (in game and real life), money, space, and energy, that you were constantly trying to balance. And it’s all summed up in trying to arrange your crops.
Seeds used to come in bags that cover a 3×3 grid. Since they’re expensive, you want to get the most out as possible (optimizing your money item use). But if you plant 3×3, you can’t reach the crop in the middle. So you look at other options. A thin C shape gets you 7 of 9, and lets you reach all the spaces (optimizing time to water) but takes up more room. It’s also very efficient at watering/harvesting  A thick C uses 8 of 9, but is less efficient at watering. Rows is the least effective use of seeds, but is very fast. Interestingly, they all have the same space utilization—2 out of every 3 spaces is used in the repeating pattern—but they vary in time efficiency, seed efficiency, and energy efficiency. These things change if crops crops re-grow, allowing you to reach the central squares after harvesting.
To get more space, you need energy, to get more energy you need more time, to get more time, you need money to upgrade, and to get money, you need space, energy, and time. It’s a great feedback loop where the “best” plan depends on whether your time, money, energy, or space is the most important at any given moment. When you can simply walk over crops, the layout isn’t that important. Of course, Stardew Valley still creates a lot of other decisions on a moment to moment basis, but this one aspect is symbolic of the types of ambiguous decisions I want in the game.
Now, if it seems like this has been trending negative, that’s because I’m focusing on the aspects I miss in a farming game. Stardew Valley is a very good game in most regards, pretty clearly inspired by and an homage to Harvest Moon. And I think it shows that its creator is missing a lot of the same things about the older Harvest Moon games as I am.
One place it succeeds where the recent Harvest Moon games fail is that the energy, time, and money difficulty all scale well with respect to each other. Early on, you can’t clear everything to make space because you’ll run out of energy. You have foraging and fishing to bring in extra money, but those take lots of time. Crops bring plenty of money for a moderate amount of energy, but need the space and time, and money to buy seeds first. And space is somewhat limited by your tools and the amount of time you have.
It’s difficult to make that balance work so well for so long in the game. And it happens mostly invisibly, because as I progress I’m getting more efficient at doing more stuff, but it takes more money to keep up with the upgrades I need to move forward. I’m much more productive and efficient in my second year, but it feels like I have even less time than I did when I wasn’t as productive. And that’s part of what makes it so entertaining. It constantly feels like I can’t quite accomplish everything I need to, but in a good way. It’s a lot like the boardgame that got me hooked on boardgaming.
(In the original Harvest Moon, you can water the 3×3 grid centered on you after you earn a sprinkler, while in HM64 you must upgrade your watering can before you can water an adjacent 3×3. In both, the reachable area changes during the game).[back]