E3 2008: Natsume

Natsume's games always seem so cute and child-friendly that it was impossible not to go see what they had this year. Besides, with Harvest Moon celebrating its 10th anniversary, some surprises were bound to be announced. We checked out the two upcoming Harvest Moon games, Princess Debut, Hi! Hamtaro: Ham-Ham Challenge and Rune Factory 2.

Princess Debut (DS)

The first game we looked at was Princess Debut. As you can probably guess by the name, it's something aimed at young girls, and it's definitely inspired in Japanese dating sims.

You play as a girl who is transported to another world, where she becomes a princess on a mission to find the prince of her dreams. You have thirty days until the ball, and you must learn to dance so you can impress the six princes and pick one to be your partner.

The story branches as you interact with the princes, with the game offering 14 different endings. The music ranges from tango to waltz and other ballroom dances in between, plus a series of latin songs. Throughout the adventure you will unlock about 20 different outfits and accessories for your princess.

Once you have convinced one of the princes to dance, you enter the dancing mini-game. While on the top screen you see the characters moving as if they were real people performing real dance moves, on the touch screen you must follow the moves and keep up the pace using the stylus.

It's definitely a very simple, light-hearted and cute game for girls. While I frown a bit upon the "impress the prince" concept, I found the rhythm game really addictive and fun to play, and the wide range of songs make it a pleasant experience for not-so-young girl gamers.

This little princess will be making her royal debut on the DS this Fall.

Hi! Hamtaro: Ham-Ham Challenge (DS)

What a mouthfull that name was to say... I must have gotten tongue-tied about ten times. But it's probably the cutest, most adorable and simplest collection of mini-games for children I have ever seen.

Starring Hamtaro and a bunch of other adorable little hamsters, Ham-Ham Challenge is a bit like Brain Age for kids, with a virtual hamster pet component. You can take care of Hamtaro in his little cage, complete with hamster wheel, litter box, food and water. In fact, watching him go in the litter box is the cutest thing I've ever seen! And yeah, I know how weird that must sound when you read it, but really, Hamtaro makes the happiest face when he goes potty, it's impossible to watch without cracking a smile.

You can leave the "cage" and go for a stroll around the village. Here you will meet all kinds of other cute little hamsters, each offering a task for you to complete. The games include coloring, rope-jumping, recognizing and matching shapes, math exercises, "Simon Says" memory games and more.

Parents can monitor their children's progress or adjust the game's difficulty settings to match their skills, even give them in-game rewards for their hard work. Hi! Hamtaro: Ham-Ham Challenge will be out later this summer.

Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness (DS)

One of the 10th anniversary celebration titles, Island of Happiness has the largest DS world out of all the Harvest Moon games on the handheld.

In this game, you are given the choice to play as either boy or girl. You are stranded on an island with five other people, and you will be working to make a new life for yourself out of restoring an abandoned farm and a few seeds. There are several activities available, such as farming, fishing and mining. You can grow different crops, and you will notice that light and water will affect their quality.

The game progresses through 3 game years, which should be about 50 hours of gameplay, with plenty of characters to unlock. The more you work on your farm, the more attractive the village will become for new settlers, and eventuall it will become a place bursting with life and events (such as crops festivals).

For a bit of competitiveness, Island of Happiness will include a Wi-Fi ranking system where you can compare your progress with other farmers. Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness will be out later this summer, and those who pre-order the game will receive a very cute chicken plushie as bonus gift.

Harvest Moon: Tree of Tranquility (Wii)

The second anniversary title (in fact, the 20th Harvest Moon game) has more of a storyline that Island of Happiness. It also takes place on an island, where once there was a mystical tree which is nowhere to be seen now. The Harvest Goddess seems to have forgotten this island and its inhabitants are in disarray.

Once again you can play as either a boy or a girl, and as you work to build your farm and your life, you will also be trying to attract the Goddess to plant the Tree of Tranquility once again.

Of course, the controls have been adapted to suit the functionality of the Wii, so now you will be doing motions as if you were using real tools.

The game introduces some new features to the franchise. New animals for example. There is an ostrich which not only it produces eggs, but you can also ride it around, and there are silk worms that you can use to make silk. There is a tailor shop where you go to make your own custom clothes (pick colors and patterns). You can buy multiple properties and build different houses, even rearrange the furniture inside. You can get a part-time job in town to make extra money (nothing fancy, you just watch your character do whatever at the store and receive your reward at the end of the day). Festivals will take place as time progresses, such as carnivals, crops festivals, horse racing events.

The gameplay is much more in-depth now, with the ability of passing down your farm through generations. If you build a family and have children, at the end of the game your child can inherit your farm, and you will be able to play as the son/daughter, something that adds to replayability.

If you pre-order Tree of Tranquility, you will also receive a cow plushie as bonus gift. Expect the game to be released in August.

Rune Factory 2: A Fantasy Harvest Moon (DS)

Rune Factory mixes the Harvest Moon gameplay with an action/adventure RPG. The second title of the franchise adds in some new elements as well.

The story takes place several years after the first title. The world is seemingly at peace, but premonitions predict danger to come. It's your job to find out the source of these premonitions and return the peace back to the land.

As the story progresses, you will manage your farm, build a family, raise creatures and make friends. The innovation in Rune Factory 2 is the multi-generation gameplay. You play as Kyle initially, but you will build a family and watch your child grow, so at a certain point you will take control and play as the child and keep going to the end of the story.

You can use touch screen controls or button controls to play. The menus are easily acceesible and allow you to equip weapons or tools with a few simple taps. You will be able to upgrade your faming tools, forge new weapons and armor.

The RPG elements add a HP and RP meter to your character. HP can be replenished by using certain items, while RP (Rune Points) can be harvested by planting crops. If during a dungeon exploration you run out of RP, you must plant crops to harves more and replenish your meter. Without RP, you can't do pretty much anything.

The main quest should last you over 30 hours, with plenty of mini-quests to complete in between. It all depends on how much time you want to spend developing your character and your farm. A Wi-Fi component will be included to let you trade items with others or play a 4-player mini-game.

Rune Factory 2 will be released in the Fall.