That's a bold title, and it needs a bold cereal. Really, though, Island of Happiness is one of the best gaming surprises of the year, and all fans of the farm-till-you-drop series should pick it up. Newcomers, less so: some of the aspects that make this such a great entry into the series are also what make it less appealing to first-timers. Who cares about them, though? They had their chance(s) with the 20+ other variations out prior to this one. (Yeah, that's not an over-estimate. There are at least 20 different ways to get your in-game farm on. This both thrills and nauseates me.) Luckily, IoH, despite having possibly the worst HM subtitle abbreviation, is a universal panacea for HM ills. Here's why:
1. You start off with "nothing"
The immediately visible 'storyline' to IoH is that you are stranded on a deserted island after a shipwreck, and decide to build up and populate it. Luckily, because that was the exact reason you were on that voyage, (aside from the shipwreck part), you arrive on your slightly-less-exemplary island with most tools you need to survive, along with two families who just happen to specialize in turning run-down shacks into cozy, furnished homes in half an hour, or it's free.
So, really, what are you lacking that makes IoH better than the average bear farm? Buildings. Scads and scads of buildings. No chicken coop, no cow barn, and nothing else in the village besides the two super-shacks your shipwreck buddies move into. There is plenty of island to explore, but the bridges to other areas are all a-shambles and can't be traversed until they're repaired. You're truly rewarded for your hard work in this one, as opposed to being rewarded for just turning the game on. "Welcome! You've inherited a pristine farm, all the fixin's of a fortune, and your choice of five women we've kept virginal and eligible until the day you arrive in our town. Now, get to 'work,' wink wink!"
2. The island progresses as you do
I fear the previous comment of not being able to cross bridges until they're repaired will bring up traumatizing memories of Innocent Life for some. Don't worry: IoH does not take the pre-destined Innocent Life path, where no matter how much work you've done or how well you've built up your farm, story-progressing points are inaccessible until a certain date on the calendar. Island of Happiness utilizes the much more accepted, and preferred, Harvest Moon timeline of, if you work yourself like a dog and want to have a greenhouse built before summer, you can do so. The bridges to other areas can be built once Gannon moves in, (also dependent on your own efforts), and you've collected enough money and lumber for them. Your hard work is rewarded, not ignored.
If you join a union in Innocent Life, you can get the bridge built early.3. New island, new people to abuse
Haha, but seriously, it's a terrible game.
Haha, but seriously, it's a terrible game.
As much as I love Mineral Town, and hate Forget-Me-Not Valley--(c'mon, it boasts the least memorable or likable characters in all of HM canon)--it's nice to get away on occasion. IoH was the perfect opportunity to do so, since an entirely pre-populated village wouldn't magically get stranded on an island together (unless it broke off from its land mass a la future California). Amazingly, leaving the comfort zone of established characters, and even the tried-and-true brunette hero (look at his ruffly blond locks!) has breathed fresh life into the series. When a new villager arrives by boat and sets up shop, I'm genuinely interested in getting to know them. It's not just reconnecting with old friends I've talked to hundreds of times: these are entirely new opportunities for relationships. ...Mostly. Once you do get to know their basic personality, you find that many characters are just slightly varied clones of old pals. Denny is essentially a tanned Ray, (actually, he's like a Ray+Cliff+Dan-creepy loner-ness); Vaughn is a less hermaphroditic Jamie; and Gannon, like his Gotz predecessor, is grumpy as hell and my BFF. To maintain the façade of variety, don't talk to the Mineral Town residents who are bound to show up uninvited and bombard you with happy memories of days gone by. Just don't do it.
"We haven't had a racially ambiguous character in awhile. That'll keep 'em interested for another decade."4. Most villagers like garbage
When you're first up-and-coming on the island's farm celebrity hit list, handing out 100 G bars of chocolate may seem a pretty steep price for friendship. But once you're mining, fishing, and raking in tens of thousands of dollars a day, your diabetes-ransacked buddies will be a mere drop in the pot. Not only can you make friends with the majority of villagers via fodder, chocolate bars, or colored grass, but the game itself actually tells you these things up front! No other Harvest Moon is so generous with its villager information. Your Asset menu contains a blurb about every villager that lives on your island, and what they like or dislike to receive as gifts. Also, their birthdays are automatically marked on your calendar, so you don't have to keep a cheatsheet nearby as with every other iteration in the series. However, to offer these detailed rap sheets, the game has sacrificed other basic, and essential, information on two of its other very cool additions.
5. My turnips took 20 days to grow
Even though 20 days is a warning of "these are probably radioactive and steroid-filled" in the real world, for Harvest Moon turnips, 20 days is indicative of a serious turnip problem. Usually that you haven't watered them or even actually planted turnip seeds. In IoH, the crop and weather system is entirely different than in the other entries in the series. And somehow, the game forgets to mention this entirely. It's not explained by the "Ranch Master" who teaches you everything else, it's not alluded to in the instruction booklet...I guess you're just expected to know, thanks to your innate island-living skills received by the magical shipwreck fairies who delivered you to this points-based-weather-world.
This is another key reason the game is not intended for new HMooners: you really need to be aware of and utilize that ultimate Harvest Moon guide that we all know, love, and cuddle with at night: Fogu.com. It kindly explains what the game refuses to: that crops grow based on sun and water points. Each crop requires a certain number of sun points and water points per stages of growth, if it doesn't receive one or the other it won't progress, and if it receives too many in a set number of days, the crops will die. Additionally, different types of weather deliver different numbers of points. Oh, and the weather is decided upon five days in advance, so no more saving before bed, deciding if you like the next day's forecast, and then resetting.
Got all that? Me neither. It's extremely well thought-out for a Harvest Moon weather system, and it really takes away the controlled aspect that makes most of the games grow dull after two seasons. Players also benefit from the fact that crops not watered for days in a row won't die--they might not grow, but they will not die. So no more "wake up, water crops, fish, sleep, wake up, water crops, fish, sleep." This mixes things up a bit, and offers the variety the rest of the game has already championed.
6. There are holes in my hammer
The other new farming innovation which is exciting, and yet completely glazed over, is the addition of "Wonderfuls." Most previous HM games utilized the level-up system for tools, most visible and fleshed out in Back to Nature. You use a tool X number of times and it levels up, meaning it is then capable of being upgraded to the next best version (from copper to silver to gold, etc.). When you find said stone and bring both the tool and it to the blacksmith, he levels up your tool. That next best version benefits you in some way, such as being able to break larger boulders, water more crops at once, cut more grass, and so on. IoH has done away with leveling your tools in favor of item collection and assignment. Wonderfuls, colored stones, are now the method in which you enhance your tools. There are seven different types--red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, indigo--and each offers a specific bonus when equipped on your tool. For instance, adding a green Wonderful will reduce the stamina needed to use that tool by 1. They can be stacked, so adding three greens will reduce stamina usage by 3.
The problem here, as with the weather system, is that no one really bothers to mention Wonderfuls in any meaningful way. You can get them by winning festivals, mining, purchasing them on specific days in winter, or from ranking high in the online wi-fi tournaments. But who the hell is supposed to know any of that, aside from visitors to Fogu? Especially the option to purchase: Wonderfuls will show up in the island's main store every day of winter (certain stones at certain points during the season, such as red from Winter 01 - 06, Indigo on Winter 07, etc.), but they will only show up in the store if your "farm degree" ends in the number 5. Not only is your farm degree totally invisible, but if this coinicidence never happened to occur, you'd be totally oblivious to all the Wonderfuls you could be purchasing and making use of--and they are pretty essential to building up the island at a reasonable pace. So, although Wonderfuls are a really unique and interesting change of pace for how to increase your skills, they're almost entirely invisible to the average farmer who just jumps in and hopes the game will help them from killing themselves and an entire island of shipwrecked hopefuls.
Direct improvements over Harvest Moon DS:
1. You shore are purty
I love 2D, FoMT graphics more than the average 3D-challenged bear, but IoH utilizes the DS's capabilties and presents a beautiful pseudo-3D world with non-existent load times. Except: you can run through frames quite often, especially your cows. Sometimes I stand in the middle of my cow while trying to milk her. She likes it.
2. Ohh, freak out!
Considering HMDS suffered from some of the worst glitches known to mankind--including the glitch where if you tried to upgrade your house before summer, you were signed into a $250,000 homeowner's loan you had no way of paying back...Oh, and that one that deleted both your save file on HMDS and on FoMT, if you had it in the GBA slot--the fact that IoH is relatively glitch-free is a beautiful, flowy bit of redemption for the portable Harvest Moons.
Kind of like the glitch that tricked Stephen Spielberg into releasing his cartoon series to their adoring fans after over a decade.3. The aforementioned lack of Forget-Me-Not Valley-ness
Just a reminder that Forget-Me-Not Valley, its citizens, and all games associated with it suffer from a distinct lack of awesome found in most other HM titles. IoH: awesome included.
4. Your animals aren't hand-obsessed attention whores
HMDS was so excited that it had touchscreen capabilities that it forced you to utilize them to exhaustion. Namely, brushing your animals via touchscreen every single day. This "mini game" is exciting the first two times you do it, and then monotonous thereafter. IoH realizes this, and only puts you through such misery on random occasions, demonstrating that you will enter a mini game by displaying a hand (or milker or scissors) thought bubble above your animals. And for doing so, you're rewarded with a blushing, dancing pet who loves you.
-1. Teleportation and casino not included
The two things HMDS really had going for it were: first, the equippable teleportation necklace that let you jump to any area of the map you pleased, in exchange for two fatigue points, and second, the sprites' casino. I could waste hours in that casino, and winning there actually rewarded you with useful tokens--like a teleport necklace (oh hi, circular logic!).
EDIT: I learned today that IoH does have its own teleport stone, but it takes awhile to get and is not nearly as immediately obvious as the one in HMDS. But apparently, it exists, so minus that minus from IoH.
Even without these two nifty dealies we enjoyed on the first DS Harvest Moon, IoH reigns supreme. Beyond the massive list above, it also managed to utilize stylus-only controls surprisingly well--not quite as responsive as The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, but well enough that I'm perfectly content to draw all over the place to do my chores. Swapping items seems less finicky than in HMDS, and you can give people gifts even if you're across the room from them just by tapping on their greed-filled face. I'd say overall, after a year of farming on the island so far, Island of Happiness weighs in as my fourth favorite Harvest Moon title, and mainly because I'm a nostalgic pansy.
1. Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town
2. Harvest Moon: Back to Nature
3. Harvest Moon (SNES)
4. Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness
You're still the one that makes me strong
Still the one I want to take alone
We're still having fun
And you're still the one
Still the one I want to take alone
We're still having fun
And you're still the one