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Harvest Moon is no longer the game you grew up with

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But the series has always been evolving, Natsume explains

To the producer of the upcoming Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns (the latest Bokujo Monogatari, formerly known out West as Harvest Moon), playing Natsume's Harvest Moon games would be like hanging out with an ex: It's better not to.

"It's kind of the feeling that you have for an ex-girlfriend," Yoshifumi Hashimoto told Polygon during E3 2016. "You still love them but, at the same time, if you do play, maybe some people will see the same features."

Graham Markay of Natsume hasn't played 2015's Story of Seasons either, he told us — although Taka Maekawa, producer of this year's Harvest Moon: Skytree Village on 3DS, enjoys it. But where Hashimoto is concerned with consumers potentially mistaking the Story of Seasons series for the newer, Western-produced Harvest Moon games, Markay sees Natsume's take as yet another evolution for the series.

"[Harvest Moon] has changed ever since I have been working with the series," Markay, Natsume's vice president of operations and a 19-year veteran of the company, said when we met during E3 2016. "It's always kind of changed. We've been involved in it for so long, [and] I look at it as Harvest Moon. I don't look at it like, ‘We lost Bokujo.'"

"We wanted to evolve the series"

Explaining how Harvest Moon and Story of Seasons differ can be confusing, especially to someone who has never played the farming games. But for devotees of the 20-year-old franchise, when longtime publisher Natsume split from original developer Marvelous Interactive to create their own games under the Harvest Moon moniker, it was a major turning point.

To recap: Natsume localized the Bokujo Monogatari games as Harvest Moon until 2014. Though the company retains the rights to the title, Marvelous has partnered with XSeed games to localize the franchise's games instead. Natsume now uses the name for its own internally developed series.

The first game in that series, Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley, received criticism from players more familiar with Marvelous' gameplay and aesthetic.

"We wanted to evolve the series," Markay said of Natsume's approach to the 2014 3DS title. "We had heard things from the past two decades, like, ‘I got tired of going in and out of my rucksack, of the watering can, tilling the land.'"

The Lost Valley simplifies the inventory system and allows players to water crops at a much faster pace than previous games. Many of these tweaks made farming more efficient and were appreciated by fans. But a cartoony art style and the lack of a central town miffed those expecting, well, another Harvest Moon.

"This Harvest Moon isn't Bokujo, but it is, fundamentally"

Markay reminded us that Harvest Moon has always been different, from entry to entry. Markay pointed out some notable changes: The PlayStation 2's Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland was maligned upon release for removing certain core features, like marriage. Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life on GameCube had a stronger focus on narrative and slower pace than its predecessors. Harvest Moon: Animal Parade on Wii threw in a variety of zoo animals to live alongside the cows and chickens. Even the original Harvest Moon on Super Nintendo hardly resembles many of the series' 30-plus titles, including spinoffs.

Harvest Moon: Skytree Village is yet another evolution, as it moves far away from the chibi farmers of Natsume's previous game. It brings back the town, but pares the cast of eligible bachelors and bachelorettes down to just six, in an effort to build the game around quality, not quantity, Markay explained.

Not everyone will be convinced, of course. After The Lost Valley's mediocre reception, and in light of Story of Seasons' more positive one, it wouldn't be surprising if fans have made their choice.

"There's loyalists and they want to say, ‘Oh, I'm never going to play this because it's not authentic,'" Markay said, acknowledging the divide. "Obviously they're going to feel that way, but why is it not authentic? Because it didn't have the guy who developed the last one?"

Natsume has stuck with Harvest Moon from its inception. The company is responsible for introducing a generation of gamers to not just the series, but the farming simulation genre as a whole, Markay said.

"It's all changing, and every game's changed," he explained, speaking from his history of overseeing Harvest Moon's development over the years. "Everything's evolving and moving. I can't say there's a split. This Harvest Moon isn't Bokujo, but it is, fundamentally speaking, because of the experience.

"It's messy, but it's a good messy. I think everyone benefits from it."