Harvest Moon: Magical Melody
The moon on a stick.
Who'd want to be a farmer? Foot and Mouth, Mad Cow, Bird Flu - these are only some of the epidemics that threaten them. Crop farmers aren't exempt from suffering either, as supermarkets demand the best quality produce at the lowest cost, while consumers bitch about pesticides and genetically engineered food.
Plus, farmers are always incredibly hungry.
Harvest Moon: Magical Melody teaches us that farmers are the hungriest people on Earth. Play it for a bit and you'd surmise that the average farmer chose the career simply to get direct access to a food source. The simple act of watering the crops in the morning can tire out a farmer to the point where he has to devour all the freshly laid eggs in the chicken coop. In fact, a brand new farmer will spend most of his time foraging for leaves and berries just to put a dent in his appetite.
Then again, it's probably best not to put too much stock in the lessons of Magical Melody, because if you do then you'll probably decide that farmers are meant, even encouraged, to go out into the forest and hug all the animals - be they raccoons, squirrels or even monkeys. Meanwhile, moles should definitely be hit with a mallet. It's just the done thing.
Harvest Moon's always been about crafting an incredibly cute farming experience, ya see, rather than simulating the grim reality of intensive farming; you may be able to own sheep, chickens and cows, but there are no abattoirs here. Magical Melody goes further than most. Indeed, this might actually be the cutest iteration of Harvest Moon yet, with an adorable cast of bobble-headed villagers and cuddly critters. It may also be the hardest Harvest Moon yet.
At the outset of A Wonderful Life, its GameCube predecessor, you inherited a well-kept farm with a chicken coop and a barn. In Harvest Moon: Magical Melody your character, male or female, is given the choice of three areas of land in Flower Bud Village, then dumped unceremoniously on the plot with nothing but a house and some tools. The land is covered in a web of weeds, trees and stumps that have to be cleared before any farming can happen, and this can take days. In fact, in Harvest Moon: Magical Melody, nothing is quick or easy.
But that's not to say this can't be incredibly rewarding. Initially it can feel frustratingly unfair as you struggle to clear the land and care for your first few rows of crops, all the while foraging for food or passing out from exhaustion. Regularly. There's also a painful lack of explanation - each new object or technique requires trial and error, as the manual merely describes what you can do, not how you do it.
However, as the rhythm becomes familiar (for example, finally learning how to use a bonfire to grill low quality fish to stock up on food), and you can afford helpful items like a larger rucksack, it quickly turns the corner and becomes almost dangerously addictive, as you juggle the daily efforts of maintaining a field of crops and saving for farm improvements. Each day brings you closer to that purchase of a chicken coop or a brand new cow. Eggs and milk can even be refined into mayonnaise, butter or cheese with the purchase of farm machinery. You want these things.
The game's minimal plot surrounds the Harvest Goddess, who, depressed as no one believes in her, has turned to stone, and the main character must perform at least fifty tasks to gain the lost notes that will form the magical melody that revives her. These tasks range from something as simple as staying up all night to winning a competition held at one of the many festivals during the year, and add a nice feeling of accomplishment to occasionally quite obscure tasks.
Competition comes from Jamie, a farmer already established in the region, and it's supposed to add an extra edge. That said, it doesn't really change your daily business compared to previous titles, but then that's not the only competitive element of the Jamie equation - you're also competing for her affections. Assuming it's a girl - Jamie's always the opposite sex, although, actually, the character model's the same whether she's a he or he's a she. Which is a bit weird.
As with previous Harvest Moon's, it's possible to marry someone like Jamie. But then why marry a freaky poncho-clad asexual farmer when there are an amazing twenty (ten for each sex) other possible sweethearts to offer your blue feather to? (Not a euphemism, incidentally.) Sadly, due to the size of cast, they lack personality, so relationships are largely forged on constant gift-giving [sounds realistic - Ed]. As a consequence, Harvest Moon: Magical Melody has a real loneliness to it, unlike A Wonderful Life, which regularly featured amusing or touching vignettes about the local townspeople. While we're on the subject of slight disappointments, Magical Melody also suffers occasional frame rate issues when you're near Jamie's busy farm or other clumps of activity, but this is rare enough that it doesn't particularly detract from the experience.
Despite these faults, I've been utterly hypnotised by Harvest Moon: Magical Melody from the moment I laid my hands on it, even watching my girlfriend play it for hours on end (her time spent playing probably a tenfold increase on mine) and I still don't feel that we've even begun to scratch the surface. The game seems to value extreme breadth over depth with dull townspeople and simplistic fishing and mining, but, for example, I haven't even found space to discuss the joys of horse-riding, shearing sheep and dying wool, or even the (throwaway) multiplayer mini-games. I suppose you might want to avoid eating the dead chickens, but if there's a hunger inherent to Harvest Moon: Magical Melody, it's the hunger to keep playing it until you've seen it all, and it'll be a long time until it's sated.