The Harvest Moon game series, also known as Bokujō Monogatari in Japan (and now known as Story of Seasons in the West), has been around for 26 years and has undergone some interesting changes. Natsume owned the Harvest Moon name for many years, but right before the 20th anniversary of the game, a different company known as X-Seeds was chosen to localize the latest entry Story of Seasons, while Natsume split from its parent company and came out with a separate game titled Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley.
From this point on X-Seeds would go on to translate the Bokujō Monogatari series under the name Story of Seasons, while Natsume created their own Harvest Moon instalments.
Leading up to this change, many Western fans had begun to find the latest instalments of the franchise childish and hollow rather than the family-friendly and enjoyable content they were used to. Previous small cultural differences were becoming increasingly bigger as new forms of farmer life were explored in ways that highlighted Japan’s cultural differences to the West.
Many felt that Natsume could have done a better job at translating these games, but they may not understand how difficult that can be.
A game’s age rating is often used as a rough guide by most as parents or individuals will typically determine what’s appropriate for themselves. However, in terms of game development, there are specific guidelines that need to be followed for the game to be advertised and displayed for certain ages. In different countries, these guidelines differ. Very similar to the way Animal Crossing characters have been dulled down in order to reach a broader and younger age-range, Harvest Moon has undergone the same thing.
The character Neil in Harvest Moon 3D: A New Beginning was known to have a crude personality and sarcastic disposition. This was celebrated by many fans as this allowed for a more relatable and enjoyable character for the older fans, but when the game was released for Western audiences his character had been changed completely. To make the game child-friendly, his character was nothing like the Neil found in the Japanese version of the game.
There were various other changes made for the age ratings as well. The character design took a much more cute and Chibi-like style making the marriage aspect of the game uncomfortable for many, new warnings were added at the start of games to illustrate that there would be death even though it had been an established part of the game since the beginning, and other aspects deemed inappropriate had been removed altogether.
Many felt that Harvest Moon: Tale of Two Towns and Harvest Moon: A New Beginning were just too child-friendly and had lost that family-friendly appeal. Fans that had been there from the beginning were now older and needed those jokes, Easter eggs, and characters from the first games that made it more enjoyable for older consumers.
Another issue with trying to localize Harvest Moon is the cultural references that are lost in translation. The Harvest Goddess was one of the central figures of the original games, but in recent times she has slowly transitioned into a comedic or distant character. The Harvest Goddess was originally a Goddess that lived in a river and ruled over the Harvest Sprites — beings that lived/ existed in different aspects of harvest life.
In Japan, the idea of everything having a spirit or living essence is a part of the underlying faith and influence of Buddhism and Taoism. This, however, doesn’t translate well for Western audiences as the idea of crops or elements having spirits is not a well-known philosophy. It isn’t a part of the culture and so a key element of the first games came across as abstract or odd rather than quirky or wholesome.
As such later developments of the game made the Harvest Goddess less of a central figure and more of a guide to the player or a special character you can unlock later in the game.
Other cultural clashes were changed too: the best friend ceremony held in earlier games was removed and, once given to X-Seeds, was converted into same-sex marriage options instead, while ideas of different places having different farming methods was explored, as the different ways of farming in each country was restricting a lot of farming possibilities.
There are still some cultural nuisances present though. In Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns, the main character bows to everyone they meet only to be reminded that they don’t do that in this particular town, as it’s based on American agriculture. To anybody that doesn’t know that bowing is a Japanese greeting, this wouldn’t be understood. However, if changed too much, the game loses its source material and creates a lot more work for the game developers.
Many have speculated that the transition from Natsume to X-Seeds was due to the dissatisfaction people felt over the way Natsume was translating the game for worldwide audiences. The differences between the games for each country were too vast and in trying to keep it child-friendly, the end-product lost its charm. As Natsume owns the title Harvest Moon, they could go on to create their own games under this name even though the original franchise had moved.
X-Seeds has been a lot more successful at balancing the cultural and marketing needs of the franchise while keeping it true to the source material. Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town, for example, has incorporated the Harvest Goddess and Sprites in a way that mimics the older games. It seems that they’re gaining their own individual spin on the franchise and it will be interesting to see the path the franchise will take going forward (at the time of writing I haven’t yet played Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town, which saw releases across Switch/PC last year and PS4 this year).