To say that Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town is unlike any other RPG or simulation game currently available on the Game Boy Advance would be an understatement. After you pop in the cartridge, a brief cinematic explains that an old man has died and willed you his farm. Your goal for the rest of the game is to sow fields, grow crops, and raise livestock. Along the way, you'll interact with townspeople, buy goods from local merchants, participate in community gatherings, and develop friendships with the daughters of the local citizenry--to the point that you can even ask one of them for her hand in marriage. The game does take quite a few hours to hit its stride, but once you get past the initial stages of seeding the farm and learning the ropes, you'll discover that this hokey farming simulator is actually one of the GBA's most satisfying and captivating games.
The land of Mineral Town is composed of a village in the north, your farm in the center, and mountain and mine areas to the southwest. There are different things to do in each area, but your main responsibility is to fix up and develop a successful farm. Crops are your primary source of income, and there are a fair number of steps involved in turning those seeds you bought from the local supermarket into fruits and vegetables that you can harvest. Each step requires the use of a specific tool. You have a hammer and an axe for clearing stones and branches off of your farm plot, you have a hoe for tilling the field, and you have a watering can that lets you sprinkle water onto the seeds you've planted. To harvest most crops, all you need to do is walk up to a fruit or veggie and press the A button. Grasses require the use of a sickle, which is another tool in your inventory. As time goes on and you add livestock to your farm, you'll acquire new tools, such as a brush, a milking apparatus, a fishing pole, and a calling bell. The running time clock limits what you can accomplish each day, as does your character's stamina level, which diminishes every time you use one of your tools.
One of the first things you'll notice about Friends of Mineral Town is that time actually ticks away, and each day transitions from morning to night similarly to how it does in the real world. For every 10 seconds that pass by for us, 10 minutes pass by in the game's universe. At around 9pm at night, you have to put your character to bed, or he'll oversleep the next morning. Time doesn't advance while you're inside of structures, like barns, chicken coops, and shops, so you get plenty of time to linger during those situations where you really just want to slow down and take in all that's happening. How long a single day lasts is pretty much up to you. If you spend most of your time tending the crops, a typical day only takes about five minutes to complete. If you go into the barn to milk your cows, head into town to interact with the villagers, or enter into the mine to dig for ore, you can easily stretch a single day into 20 or 30 minutes of playing time--especially if you participate in some of the minigames that are located in various spots around town. Over the long term, animals get bigger as they grow older, and they eventually pass away due to old age or illness. Each season lasts roughly 30 days in game time, and the kind of seeds you can plant and the events that happen around town vary, depending on what season you're in. A full year can take anywhere from 10 to 60 hours in real time to complete, which gives the game nearly unlimited replay value since there's no limit on the number of years you can play.
In a traditional role-playing game, your character's spells become more powerful the more you put them to use. In Friends of Mineral Town, your tools can be upgraded once your skills reach a certain level. These upgraded tools generally work faster and affect a wider area than the basic tools do. Instead of purchasing armor and spells--like you would in a traditional RPG--you can take the money you earn from harvesting crops and put it toward the purchase of upgrades to the various house, barn, and chicken coop structures on the farm. The farmhouse you start out with is just a tiny shack with a bed and a television in it. By the time you reach the end of your first winter season, you can have a large house with a refrigerator, kitchen, fireplace, and queen-sized bed. There aren't many items or structures in the game that can't be upgraded at least once, which is a good thing because then you're not stuck looking at the same things--year in and year out--as you develop a successful farm.
At times, the act of farming can get pretty tedious. Luckily, the nearby mountain and village areas offer you numerous opportunities to interact with the local people so that you can partake of fun activities, like fishing and betting on horses. There's even a hot spring to soak in when you just feel like wasting time. While having a full set of upgraded tools will give you more free time to spend away from the farm, the best way to buy a few days off is to ask one of the elflike harvest sprites to take care of the watering, harvesting, or livestock chores for anywhere from a single day to a full week. These little guys get better at what they do the more you put them to work, but you also have the option of playing minigames to train them at a faster rate. These minigames revolve around watering patches of land, feeding chickens, and uprooting crops, and they tend to involve the same basic concentration and button mashing skills you've come across in other games.
Minigames and special events usually aren't integral to your ability to proceed through a typical role-playing game, but they play a much larger role in Friends of Mineral Town. For example, raising a happy dog, horse, cow, sheep, or chicken will result in cleaner fields and higher quality milk and eggs that sell for more money. To keep most livestock happy, all you need to do is talk to them each day. For your dog, you can purchase a rubber ball and a Frisbee that you can use to play fetch with. These daily mini-tasks will also improve your chances at the various competitions that take place throughout each season. Some competitions are minigames in their own rights, like the horse races and chicken sumo competition, while others, like the dog-, cow-, and sheep-grooming shows, are merely lucks of the draw where your success really hinges upon how much the animal likes you. Once you install a kitchen and buy all of the necessary cookware, there are more than 100 recipes to make just by combining the crops you harvest with items purchased from the shops in town. You can give the dishes you prepare to people in town to boost their opinions of you, you can eat them yourself to regain stamina, or you can enter them into the cooking competition that takes place during the spring. Your rewards for winning all of these competitions usually come in the form of items that permanently improve your character's stamina or strengthen his relationship with a particular person in the village.
The people who live in the nearby town also make a significant contribution to the game's open-ended vibe because their comings and goings give you something to do when you're done tending your farm for the day. Most of the adults in Mineral Town work in the local shops, and you can interact with them in a consumer capacity or just pop in to say hello. Each store has its own open hours and off days, which you'll need to keep track of. Before and after work, you can see people milling about on the streets, heading to their jobs, or going to their favorite hangouts at regular, appointed times. Each person develops his or her own opinion toward you, which you can influence by individually talking to them and giving them gifts. Building friendships is important, since that's the only way to trigger most of the milestone events that tell the story of Mineral Town. Many of these seemingly modest events also have far-flung consequences on how your game plays out. Ann is one of six potential girls in the game that you can flirt with and ultimately marry. Initially, your rival for her attention is Cliff, a jobless beatnik with serious thoughts of leaving town forever. At one point, the owner of the local winery asks you to come over and help with the grape harvest. If you invite Cliff along, not only does he choose to remain in town, but he ends up with a job as well.
Marriage is another aspect that makes Friends of Mineral Town unique and interesting. There are six young and single girls living in the village, each with her own different likes, dislikes, schedules, and birthday. By giving them gifts and talking to them, you can cause them to develop feelings for you. Over time, this changes the tone of the comments they make toward you and triggers a number of cute event sequences. Ultimately, your constant attention will transform your chosen sweetheart's love indicator from pale black to rose red. If you've shelled out the funds to add a kitchen and a queen-sized bed to your house, you have the option of asking your girl to marry you. You'll get to see a festive wedding and can decide whether or not your wife stays at home or continues to work in town, and, eventually, you'll welcome a new baby into the world. Courtship isn't foolproof, however. Give a girl the wrong type of gift or answer her questions inappropriately and her opinion of you will sour. There are also other guys in the village trying to woo these women too, and they'll end up marrying the ones that you don't make decent progress with within the first couple of years. The cruel part of this setup is that the game makes sure you witness all of the major courtship events related to these budding couples, so you get to watch every step of the way as another suitor lands the woman of your dreams.
If you're a longtime follower of the Harvest Moon series, you've probably figured out from the previous paragraphs that Friends of Mineral Town isn't a brand-new game. Instead, it's a remake of Harvest Moon: Back to Nature, which originally came out for the PlayStation in 2000. Before you write the game off as an attempt to rehash and make a quick buck off of an established classic, you should know that Natsume has gone to great lengths to fix the problems that were evident in the original game, and they've implemented new features that ultimately make the GBA version a fresh experience. The menu options have been streamlined to the point that most actions can be accomplished with one or two button presses; a save option has been added to the pause menu, which means that you don't have to run back to the house every time you want to save your progress; the prices for most items and livestock have been lowered to make it easier to build up your farm more rapidly; farm-related minigames have been added that give you a way to train harvest sprites in a fun and hands-on fashion; and there are new events and tool upgrades that increase the variety of tasks you can perform in the mountain and village areas outside of the farm. The game also just seems to work better in the portable format. Most chores and tasks only take between a few seconds and a minute to complete, which falls in line with the kind of intermittent play sessions that people generally get out of their pocket game systems.
Even though Harvest Moon developed a loyal following, primarily due to the games that were released for the PlayStation and Nintendo 64, the graphics and audio in those games didn't really live up to the capabilities of the hardware they were on. For various reasons, what didn't seem so hot on the home consoles actually looks and sounds quite nice on the GBA. The graphics are plain, but there's a lot of detail to notice in the buildings and characters that you come across. The way the background lightens and darkens as daylight changes throughout the day is a great touch, as are the seasonal colors that paint the trees and ground depending on what season of the year it is. In the wintertime, your character actually leaves little footprints in the snow that fade over time. The details evident in the game's audio are equally as impressive. There are different theme songs for various areas around the farm, mountain, and village, which change depending on what time of day it is or what season you're in. The use of realistic sound samples for animal calls--from dogs, cows, chicken, sheep, and so on--contributes to the game's authenticity more than standard sound effects possibly could, as do the audio effects used to portray various weather conditions, like wind, rain, and snow.
As it seems to be the case with most GBA games nowadays, you can use Nintendo's connectivity cable to link Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town up to its GameCube counterpart, called Harvest Moon: It's a Wonderful Life. Depending on how much you've played both games, you'll unlock a number of cool bonuses in the GBA game, including GameCube characters that visit your GBA town and a seaside cottage that you can't earn during the normal course of the game.
All in all, Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town manages to package farming, cooking, and dating together into a game that's both fun and time consuming. You could play through it for a good 30 hours--roughly one year in game time--and still not uncover everything there is to see and do. There are a few problems with the way in which the original Japanese dialogue was translated into English--and it's annoying that it's so easy to accidentally toss items away while shuffling through your inventory--but neither of these flaws will keep you from enjoying what is one of the GBA's most unique games.