Version tested: Wii
Harvest Moon: Magical Melody is a port of a two-year-old GameCube title that makes little and entirely optional use of the Wii controls, runs at 50Hz and essentially removes half of the game by taking away the choice to be a girl farmer. It's also an otherwise unchanged Wii conversion of the best Harvest Moon game ever made, released exclusively in Europe to make up for the fact that the Cube version never made it over here.
This makes things very difficult for me. As a female Harvest Moon fan, I'm incandescent that they've gone to the trouble to remove the option to play as a girl and marry one of the game's eleven bachelors for no good reason whatsoever (well, publisher Rising Star says it was to minimise delays, but after two years, who cares anymore?), and that this conversion isn't absolutely perfect. As a critic, though, the changes are unfortunate but essentially minor. Apart from marriage, every other aspect of this fantastic, addictive, captivating game has remained unchanged. Hear this, though, Rising Star: if you try to pull this trick again for the release of Tree of Tranquility later this year, I'm going to come after you with a hoe.
Like all Harvest Moon games, Magical Melody casts you as an honest farmer starting out in a new town. From the moment you harvest your first crop of turnips outside your tiny house until you're running a full-scale industrial operation with six cows, a flock of chickens and prize-winning pineapples, it grabs hold of your attention and keeps it until you've expended weeks wooing potential sweethearts, bought and furnished your own double-storey mansion and mined diamonds a hundred feet blow ground level. It is a huge game, full of things to discover, drip-feeding you new festivals, tools, items and friends as you get on with your idyllic day-to-day farming life in Flowerbud Village. It's terribly exciting for fans, but actually a bit overwhelming for newbies - expect a confusing hour or two spent figuring out how to use tools, eat meals and lay out the farm properly if you don't already have the benefit of six games' worth of instruction in virtual farming.
Unlike its forebears, though, Magical Melody supports the base addictiveness and lovely nature that characterise the series with some real steps forward in structure. Instead of being stuck with a run-down inherited plot of land miles away from your neighbours, you're given the choice to establish your farm in amongst the other villagers. You've a choice of land, a choice of furniture for your house and a choice as to how to run your life, whether you'd rather spend the whole day farming, get most of your cash from fishing or mining or always leave a few hours free in the evening for an intoxicating 'juice' down Doug's bar.
The way your farmer conducts his business influences the town around him, causing new people to move in and set up shops until it becomes a bustling hive of activity. Farming feels like your farmer's job rather than the sole purpose of his existence; there's much more choice in Magical Melody, and many more opportunities to things other than plant crops and raise livestock - things like socialising, dating, cooking, fishing and mining.
It also gives you goals beyond the usual simple and unfathomable compulsion to keep on farming. You have a non-gender-specific, badly-dressed rival called Jamie, whose constant progress has you striving to expand and develop your farm - even years down the line, he/she still nips at your heels. You earn musical notes, which act like Microsoft's gamerpoints, for reaching worthwhile milestones or, occasionally, for being a bit silly. There is always something new to aim for, a new arrival in the town to get to know or a shiny, rare new item that you absolutely must possess.
On top of all that, things are just generally more streamlined. The menu systems hold comprehensive information, everything from instructions on plants and animal husbandry to how much every single person in the town likes you. Your stamina bar, too, is now visible, so you know when to grab a snack to avoid collapsing from exhaustion.
The game itself, then, is a perfect example of the Harvest Moon series, encompassing everything good about these wonderful games and enveloping it all in an adorable (if basic) visual style. Unfortunately, in addition to chopping off the option to be a girl farmer, the conversion makes plenty of other mistakes. Rising Star has implemented Wii controls for the game's simplest tasks - swinging a hoe, axe or hammer, and using a fishing rod - but they're unsubtle and physically repetitive, meaning there's little point in using them when buttons work just as well. Annoyingly, the button layout isn't perfect either, as it's clearly cut-and-pasted from the GameCube version without concern for comfort. The in-game text even refers to the GameCube controller's buttons from time to time. It also runs at 50Hz, which is a bit infuriating if you're bothered by such things, and the complete lack of any visual improvements makes a game that looked cute but simplistic two years ago look positively dated today.
But after that initial bad impression has worn off and you're engrossed in planting cabbages so that you can save up for a new barn, making a few new friends in the village and eyeing up a potential spouse, it's just so difficult to care. None of this unfortunate laziness is game-breaking. None of it stops you from stroking your cows every morning before watering the plants, or leaping into bed knowing that each day brings you closer to a coveted item. It doesn't take away from the profound sense of calm and happiness that this gentle, rewarding, deceptively complex game is capable of eliciting in all but the most hard-hearted of players. It's an escape to a place where life is lovely, hard work always pays off and sheep love to be hugged.
The Wii conversion of Magical Melody is slightly inferior to the original, but all of the most important elements remain intact. Much as I'd love to mark this long-overdue European version down for forcing me and the legions of other female Harvest Moon fans to play as a male farmer, robbing us of the most significant choice that the American and Japanese GameCube versions of the game allow you to make, it wouldn't be fair. It's fantastic that this game has finally been released over here, even if the port is a tiny bit botched and the added Wii controls are all but redundant.
Even after two years, this is still my favourite Harvest Moon game in the whole world ever. Whether you're a fan or a newcomer, Magical Melody is captivating, mixing the best aspects of every game that came before to create the biggest, most involving, most addictive and most challenging entry in this loveliest and most unique of series. Still, it really is a huge shame that girls are going to have to find an import copy of the Cube version if they want to marry Kurt instead of Katie.
8 / 10