What's going on with Harvest Moon?
It's a good time to be a nostalgic farming sim, from the meme-machine Farming Simulator series to Stardew Valley, the smash hit Steam game recently announced for consoles. Nowhere is this more evident than the fact there are two Harvest Moon games on E3's show floor this year: one by name, and one by geneology.
See, in Japan, the series known best as Harvest Moon is called Bokujo Monogatari (literally "Farm Story"). In the West, however, the games now going under the Harvest Moon brand are not Bokujo Monogatari at all, but a unique franchise Natsume began publishing in 2014. The developer behind Bokujo Monogatari, Marvelous, is still in business and putting out titles, but with a new publishing deal under XSeed, it's had to rebrand itself overseas.
As a result, there are two booths at E3 showing extremely similar farming/life/marriage sims this year, Natsume and XSeed. Natsume's Harvest Moon-branded game is... well, fairly lifeless, but XSeed's title -- Story of Seasons -- has the full force of Bokujo Monogatari's legacy behind it, and it shows in every charming little detail.
For example: you can pet the dogs. And the cats. Not sure about the foxes and monkeys, but I will wager you can pet those too.
The second Story of Seasons title, Trio of Towns, is not even out in Japan until later this month, but even sans localization it oozes charm in every sprite and character portrait. As indicated by the subtitle, this one features 300% the usual number of villages for a Bokujo Monogatari game, each a sort of microcosm of various cultural influences and tropes. There's the Extremely Tropical Village, the Extremely Japanese Village, and the Extremely Old West Village -- all of them interconnected by simple roads and, apparently, a unified postal system. There is inter-village commerce and what sounds like an entire interior world for each of the inhabitants, with lives and schedules and favorite foods. Did I mention the cats? You can pet the cats.
Meanwhile, Natsume's new Harvest Moon, Skytree Village, has... well, it lets you move blocks of dirt around more efficiently now? That's all I got from the demo, honestly. The booth rep seemed as excited to show it to me as I must've looked trying to play it. If it has any redeeming features to speak of, Natsume's representatives aren't trying too hard to show them off.
That isn't to say Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns is gloriously perfect or some such thing. For one, the version I saw was completely in Japanese, so I can't really evaluate the writing or menu design for myself. For another, Story of Seasons still doesn't permit same-sex courtship or marriage -- in fact, it goes to some pretty ridiculous logistical gymnastics to avoid it, while maintaining a figleaf of inclusivity.
Here's how it works. Players are required to select one of two binary genders at the outset of the game, and available love interests are determined accordingly, all heterosexual. You still have access to the full range of character customization options like hairstyle and clothing, so if you wanted to you can achieve same-sex coupling that way, but let's be honest: that's really cheap in 2016. A member of XSeed's localization team assured me that Story of Seasons developer Marvelous was "incredibly open to and receptive to the idea" of expanding romance options in future games; it was just "out of the question for right now, for tech reasons more than anything."
From an outside perspective, it can be hard to imagine why removing player restrictions would require more programming than restricting the player in the first place. And we've also heard a similar line from a number of Japanese developers at this point -- remember Tomodachi Life? Fire Emblem? It could very well be that these companies are sincere when they say they're open to change, and that we'll see the fruits of that in a few years time. But being told in 2016 that the only way to be gay in Harvest Moon -- sorry, Story of Seasons -- is through dress-up still kind of smarts.
But well, you can pet the cats, at least?
Natsume's Harvest Moon: Skytree Village is out fall 2016, and Marvelous/XSeed's Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns is due out sometime in 2017. Both are headed for the Nintendo 3DS.
CORRECTION (6/16/2016): A previous version of this article gave Harvest Moon: Skytree Village's release date as 2017.