“[Kids] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”
I’ve played most of the Harvest Moon games and their spin offs over the years, from the very first game on the SNES to the later Rune Factory titles. I even dabbled in a little FarmVille. The farming sim bug bites hard and for a while I was obsessed with them. I enjoyed them all to lesser and greater degrees. In a genre which has remained fairly predictable if not stationary, Harvest Moon: Lil’ Farmers is a farming sim which is truly unique without actually adding anything to the mix.
Lil’ Farmers is what’s left when you strip away all of the fluff, all the bells and whistles, and leave just the core gameplay elements. Even though they’re more transparently repetitive here in Lil’ Farmers than ever before, the game is a farming sim in its purest form. Here you will find no ability to construct buildings, upgrade your house, purchase furniture, expand your tools, no capacity to make friendships, marry villagers, have children, go fishing, go mining, go exploring or foraging or hunting or woodcutting or barn-raising or field-plowing, no feature for hatching eggs, buying cows, no changing of seasons, no festivals or holidays, no performing propitiation for the harvest goddess.
While there’s little left to do in Lil’ Farmers, that’s all part of the plan. As it turns out, Lil’ Farmers is designed with simplicity in mind. Its reason for being is being streamlined. That’s because it is meant to be an app for very young children. You know, the kind that parents use to keep their kids occupied and quiet while on bus rides or in waiting rooms. Its gameplay may seem monotonous or mindless in the same way that coloring with crayons, building with plastic blocks, talking to stuffed animals, and banging pots and pans together may seem pointless to the more sensible-minded adults among us.
Consider however what Lil’ Farmers actually does. By cutting away all the fat, as it were, it leaves essentially the same core gameplay intact that we’ve seen in nearly every Harvest Moon. It’s just that instead of having a tangible, specific reward for working on your farm like accumulating money to build a bigger farm to accumulate more money, you just get a thumbs up. That thumbs up received upon completing a task in Lil’ Farmers is the equivalent of achieving that bigger farm or that marriage or that cow with the gold milk. It’s a digital message that conveys to the player that they reached some kind of milestone, a trophy, an achievement.
There’s no actual difference between the bigger farm or Lil’ Farmer’s thumbs up. They’re both digital rewards. That’s all. We just assume that the former is of more substantial value than the latter because of its detailed nature and the time required to achieve it, but it’s merely representative of how much time you put into a game and how much time you will continue to put in based on how much you personally value the reward. Same thing for that thumbs up for that tiny tot, it’s just that as adults we like sports cars more than a Hot Wheels from a Happy Meal.
However, because the thrust of the game and its method of engendering desire to keep playing it revolve around little rewards without variation, things can quickly become boring after doing everything a number of times. The activities themselves are not all equally fun either. Shearing sheep and bagging their wool was much less enjoyable than grabbing eggs from chickens, for example.
Since Lil’ Farmers opts for a paraphrased version of Harvest Moon, there’s little in the way of that laid back relaxation that generally comes with titles in the series. The emphasis is on little activities. The game is merely a collection of such activities. With nothing else to distract from that like friendships or marriage or festivals, there’s no padding to frame the actions and give you something else to play the game for beyond completing a set of chores endlessly.
That makes the game sound worse than it is and we must also keep the goal of its design in mind. The more significant question to ask of Lil’ Farmers is not whether it can sustain the attention of an adult but if it can reliably capture the unpredictable whims of a child. This I found hard to truly measure, for a variety of reasons.
My own kids are still quite young. The youngest is barely a few months old, so of course he showed little interest in the arts of cow-milking and sheep-shearing. But the oldest, Kal, who is 1.75 years old, can identify gallus gallus domesticus and bos taurus like a boss, and he did so while playing Lil’ Farmers because he’s learning about farm animals. He’s also pretty good at tapping a brightly colored screen so he was able (with some supervision) to milk the cow and make the chickens jump.
What seems to be an issue for his age is dragging objects across the screen. Heck, this seems to be a problem for me as well as even my giant sausage-fingers didn’t always grab the item I wanted to drag after pressing on the screen. A lot of the functions within Lil’ Farmers involve you dragging objects like a milk bucket, a freshly laid egg, a watering can from the toolbar menu to the appropriate section of the screen. This is fairly hit or miss for me and I had to tap a handful of times on some objects, but my son couldn’t do it unless I held his finger.
Further, the objective of the game is keeping the locals happy, something which requires swapping through different screens in the game. Locals will pop up in your barn asking for specific crops or animal products. Your task is to produce those via your garden, your chicken coops, your single cow, and your sheep in the meadow. Once you gather the required items, you go back to your barn HQ, place the products in a basket, cover them with a plaid blanket, and hand them to the patient recipients. It was all very much above my toddler’s pay grade.
This leads me to believe that Lil’ Farmers is meant for slightly older children. That ought to be self-evident. They can’t be too old, though, otherwise the game could come off as patronizing. For a poultry $3.99, don’t expect to cultivate much entertainment for an adult but the price is chicken feed for how much you could potentially milk out of the game in terms of repetitive gameplay for a child. Just be certain that you hit that right age group or your little farmers may call fowl.
The 8-bit Review
It’s a bright, sunny day every day in Lil’ Farmers and the graphics are relentlessly cheerful for it. There’s nothing in the game that hasn’t been boiled down to its cutest possible form, whether we’re talking about the hens shaped like potatoes or the local villagers that come a-calling for your produce with their palette-swapping, chibi faces.
I appreciate games like this. I really do. In terms of substance, there isn’t a whole lot here but children ought to have happiness when they can still enjoy it to its fullest: as children. I’m personally against very young children who are exposed to the ubiquitous rated-M games proliferating the market today. I think children, especially before they’re able to choose for themselves, should have games that inspire, delight, and encourage happiness not a depressing, dystopian, violent outlook on life and society. They’ll have that sooner than anyone knows. The graphics in Lil’ Farmers, while certainly not the best in the business, evoke that sense of whimsicality and joy that used to dominate gaming. Plus, there are pretty stars that pop out of your finger when you touch the screen.
The music is obvious filler, not terrible but not memorable either. It’s there because it has to be there. Video games need music. It is less catchy or tranquil than previous Harvest Moon soundtracks and there are only a handful of songs which play in different areas of your farm. At least it maintains that rustic feeling with its flutes and stringed instruments. I suppose the day I catch my kids humming one of the tunes from Lil’ Farmers is the day I up my score for its audio.
Curiously, the game begins the same way every time the app is started afresh. There will be a single local in your barn requesting a bottle of milk, so then you’ve got to go take care of that little quest and get the thirsty individual their liquid calcium. After that, the requests begin to branch out with more potential customers lining up for your wares.
Once you’ve fed the chickens, grabbed their eggs, fed, washed and brushed your horse, fed and milked your cow, sheared your sheep, and grown some vegetables, you’ve done just about everything there is to do in the game. Since there’s no emphasis on chronology as in previous Harvest Moon games, the vegetables grow at rapid speed before your very eyes, requiring only water and what I presume to be fertilizer.
One complaint I had against the gameplay, aside for the notorious unresponsiveness of grabbing and dragging objects, is the fact that the game doesn’t exactly tell you when certain tasks are ready to be repeated. I take it the only cue is a visual one when your tools turn from transparent back to opaque in the toolbar. It’s barely noticeable and maybe another cue would’ve been not only more visually interesting but also more conducive to getting things done in a game where getting things done is all there is to do.
I did wonder briefly about whether a timer would’ve been appropriate for some of this game’s activities but eventually I concluded that it was wise the developers left that out. Yes, challenge is an essential ingredient in the addictiveness of a video game, with the greatest the challenge being the more addicting, so long as the difficulty doesn’t feel cheap or overbearing. However, challenge is not within the scope of Lil’ Farmers’ aspirations. It’s meant to engage young children for a short amount of time, presumably, and that’s all. Whether it can do this or not, I couldn’t discover but its presentation did attract the attentions of my toddler for a few minutes, so there’s that.
The game includes zero dialogue which ensures that even the youngest of players can engage. The display is nice and big, and objects are so rendered that they occupy a large space, thereby being easily recognizable by all. The animals themselves are so stylized as to be iconographic. There’s no confusing them. Even the heart of the game’s objectives, the produce required by the locals, enjoys clear differentiation. I do however feel that the images for yarn and fertilizer would probably require explanation by an adult to the child playing, since these weren’t instantly obvious to me. Beyond that, the accessibility is very high, as it was meant to be.
Family Friendliness: 10/10
As I mentioned under the Visuals section, this game is perfect for young children. Parents don’t (or shouldn’t) want to expose their kids to mature themes without reason and there’s none of that here. The game is also totally free of that bane of mobile apps: ads. You needn’t worry about pop ups filling the screen telling your four-year-old “This 18+ MMO is so hot it’s illegal! Warning: For Adults Only!” Psh, in this regard, Lil’ Farmers is even more kid friendly than YouTube with its occasional raunchy advertisements.
This wasn’t too high for me but again I’m trying to gauge replay value in terms of a young child. Children of that age only seem to enjoy playing apps for a brief period of time before their minds wander elsewhere. This certainly won’t be the only mobile game they’ll have access to playing. I’ve no doubt that a parent’s phone is stuffed with a little library of apps to keep in rotation as an emergency. Lil’ Farmers could just be one of them, “that farm game” that your progeny asks for when he or she has quite forgotten it and is ready for more. It’s not a game that they’ll sit through for hours and hours but it has enough tasks in it for a quick distraction.
So I began this review by asserting that the farming sim genre hasn’t really had its own Renaissance. Nobody has really framed the discussion and moved it forward in regard to farming sims. They are for all intents and purposes stationary, generally speaking. While Lil’ Farmers certainly doesn’t push the envelope, it is at least interesting to see a farming sim dedicated entirely to the youngest of gamers, what with all of the reduction that occurred.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
Even though I didn’t get much out of it, I was idly fascinated by the experiment of Harvest Moon: Lil’ Farmers, the idea that you could still play a farming sim even after taking out so much of the clutter. Remove the excess and what are you left with? Unembellished mini-games that are easily recognizable as the nucleus of the average farming sim: a succession of quick tasks with simple rewards. In Lil’ Farmers, that’s all there is and every farming sim essentially just builds on it.
Is this therefore the purest farming sim? Yes. Will it entertain your children? Probably and indeed we all hope so, for the sake of the many parents out there in desperate need of a little peace and quiet.
Aggregated Score: 6.5
The Well-Red Mage is a lover of all eras of gaming but he’s got a special place in his heart for the classics. Read more analytical, long-form reviews at thewellredmage.wordpress.com.