Stardew Valley Has More Spirit Than Its Inspiration
Calling Stardew Valley a love letter to classic Harvest Moon titles would be unfair. It is much more than a dogged emulation of its inspiration. At first glance, I assumed that Stardew was a lucky shot in the dark. It was simply the answer to a gap in the market: a spiritual successor to the Harvest Moon franchise which never made it into the PC gaming catalog. If there’s one thing that the internet hates, it’s a blatant cash-grab reproduction of one of its beloved titles. But the internet loves Stardew, so I gave it a shot.
In the first hour or so, Stardew sings a familiar refrain. Your character is a city-slicker, weary of an unfulfilling, pencil-pushing job, who has inherited a dilapidated farm from a relative. It is your quest, through the power of hard work and friendship, to revitalize the farm and the surrounding community. You even have a convenient rival. The evil Joja Corporation, manufacturer of Joja Cola, has established a JojaMart superstore in town. The JojaMart manager is undercutting local small business prices and threatening to tear down the condemned and unused Stardew Community Center. You can choose to beat back the corruption that is Joja Corp and its insidious marketing schemes, or, if you have no soul, buy a JojaMart membership to cash in on those cheap prices!
Each day is a laundry list of tasks: wake up, water everything, tend to your animals as needed, stop by town to meet and greet the neighbors, spend hours learning the fishing minigame, and try not to forget closing the barn and coop doors at night or you’ll piss off your animals. You’ll have the option to marry and have children, answer small fetch-quests for the townfolk, and participate in annual community festivals. These are all mechanics that you’d expect and recognize from a game that’s been compared so often to Natsume’s enduring franchise.
The real antagonist in Stardew, aside from Joja Corp, is time. There are so few hours in the day and you’ll be forced to prioritize tasks based on how invested you are in each. If you plant sixty crops in your first spring with no way to water them but individually by hand, you’re going to spend a large portion of each game day just making sure your plants are healthy. If you choose to spend your days deep in the mines looking for rare minerals to sell, that will also require most of your game-day. If you want to spend your time fishing…you’re crazy, but yes, it will take time.
The area in which Stardew really excels is offering the player parallel avenues for progressing to the end-game. The way I broke it down, I saw three possible areas to specialize in: farming, fishing and foraging, or mining. Since I wanted to see as much of the game as possible, I went the jack-of-all-trades route. It isn’t the fastest, but is just as viable. No matter what you specialize in, you won’t be forced to participate in the other activities. If you choose to farm and never mine, you can buy your metals for tool upgrades from the blacksmith. If you choose not to raise animals, you can buy their products from the mysterious forest trader. Just about every resource is accessible in several ways, making it a real play-your-way kind of game.
I love Stardew most for preserving the dream of the one-man development team. ConcernedApe is the moniker of a single man who completed the game alone over the course of four years. Not only is completing a commercially successful game alone a feat of endurance and perseverance, but there’s a certain charm in games with a single vision behind them. The characters in Stardew lack the carefully studied “everyman” quality that you find in games with a larger team of writers and the editorial interjections of a publisher. Each NPC in Stardew is more unique and quirky than a carefully distilled cast meant to represent the full spectrum of diversity and inclusion could have managed. Stardew does represent a reasonable cross-section of race, gender, family status, and imposes no gender restrictions on your romantic partner choice — but it does so with a whimsical appreciation for the idiosyncrasies of real people rather than because a PR team said it was best.
Stardew Valley is a charming addition to the casual farming simulator genre. It hits all the high notes of the older Harvest Moon titles and expands into several unexplored game mechanics that Harvest fans will appreciate. You won’t run out of tasks for several in-game years, at least until acquiring all the community upgrades, if not longer. With ConcernedApe promising support for future content updates, the future of Stardew looks just as bright as its auspicious initial success. I can see myself, and others, several months from now, still awake at 2am saying: “just one more day”.