Stardew Valley Provides a Roadmap for Successful Nostalgic Design

All aboard to country living!
All aboard to country living!

As we slowly move into an era where so-called “indie games” become increasingly indistinguishable from mainstream gaming, it’s almost inevitable to see a backlash against the multitude of games being released each day. In particular, most of the vitriol is directed at the unending stream of pixelated games that lean heavily on nostalgia for their appeal and offer little else. Even I have reached a point of burnout with retro-themed platformers which all blur together in a haze of uninspired, repetitive design. But we as consumers often forget about the gems in the indie rough, games like Rogue Legacy or Undertale which use the retro blueprint as a springboard to novel experiences. It is with that in mind that I recently started playing Stardew Valley, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it uses nostalgia to come up with a compelling new experience.

On its surface, Stardew Valley seems like a carbon copy of the Harvest Moon franchise. Like Natsume’s series you run a farm and make it grow by tending crops and livestock, foraging, fishing, and interacting with local townspeople. It’s a charming formula that’s lasted through the years on many platforms and it’s good to see it back. But Stardew Valley also incorporates crafting elements similar to Terraria and combat and mining that is akin to the Rune Factory series. These interlocking systems add up to more than the sum of their parts. You’ll need to farm for money, but also for ingredients to make dishes to impress townspeople. To improve your farming capabilities, you’ll need to mine and forage for resources to improve your equipment, which also requires you to farm and fish for money. These systems just go on and on until you’re mentally planning the best ways to maximize your time and energy in order to get the best return on your effort. It seriously expands the scope of the game such that the amount of content you get for $17 (CAN) is incredibly generous.

Stardew Valley admittedly starts off a bit slow as you begin the process of revamping your deceased grandfather’s dilapidated farm. You have very little money, your equipment is barely functional, and the townspeople are slow to trust you. This leads to an unengaging first few hours, as you are mostly limited to tending a small crop, clearing out your farm of rocks and overgrowth, and foraging for things to sell. But once you push through all that the game begins to open up. You are given a rod to catch fish, and the crafting menu starts to come into play with useful items such as the field snack or scarecrow. Pretty soon you’ve joined the Adventurers’ Guild and are regularly giving your crush gifts that he or she likes. Like the old Harvest Moon games, Stardew Valley’s charm sneaks up on you and pretty soon you are caught up in the intricate patchwork that makes up life on the farm.

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I’m still early on in Stardew Valley (only through the middle of spring!), but I expect to keep going with it for quite some time. Thanks to its clearly delineated day-by-day structure, the game is perfect for both short bursts and extended play sessions. I am hoping to see a portable version of the game for the Vita or 3DS in the future, as the design structure would complement those platforms quite well, but for now the PC version is perfectly fine. The slightly awkward controller support could be better, as I dislike moving a cursor around with the right stick. That being said, the game is being constantly improved upon by its developer, ConcernedApe, so I’m sure that any wrinkles will be ironed out in due time. It’s not too often that a game comes along that you can’t help but cheer for, but Stardew Valley’s awe-shucks charm makes it all the more likeable. Whether you’re a lapsed Harvest Moon or Rune Factory fan or simply a newcomer to the farming RPG genre, there’s lots going for Stardew Valley to make it well worth the price of admission.