Happy Birthdays is a difficult game to describe by any measure. Part Pokémon, part Minecraft, with a multi-colored sprinkling of Harvest Moon, it is the sort of game that makes little sense until you jump in and play it. It is no surprise then, that this Nintendo Switch port, from NIS, is the work of Yasuhiro Wada, the mind behind the hugely popular Harvest Moon Series. Developed by Arc System Works and Toybox Inc, this life simulator challenges players to cultivate more than Bell Peppers in this primeval garden.
Where games like Civ challenge their seemingly omnipotent overlords to build a society of happy citizens, this challenge takes things a bit further back. Starting out on a mundane lump rock, Happy Birthdays grants players dominion over their own slice of life. Players begin each instance of the game with the power to manipulate their surroundings in a number of different ways, all with the express intent of spawning modern man. This might sound like a formidable task, but Happy Birthdays provides a welcoming initiation to anybody unfamiliar with this type of simulation, which is pretty much everyone.
The long tutorial instance does a relatively good job of explaining the array of systems that all influence your little slice of life. A variety of conditions that include, height, temperature, food, moisture, salt levels, and vegetation all interact to create the perfect coalescence of attributes to bring about a particular species appearance. The most basic of these is the temperature. Some relatively simple landscaping allows players to carve great oceans and mighty mountain ranges from the virgin landscape, eventually affecting temperature change. Deep oceans can push the ambient temperature up, while sizable inclines will make things a bit brisk for the local wildlife. These environmental changes, in turn, spur basic life to breed and evolve, allowing the foundations of an eco-system to appear.
These tools are in heavy demand, and Happy Birthdays balances this devastating ability using an energy based system. Carving up the surrounding landscape or threading a river through the world are just two of the common commands that will wilt away this energy bar. Energy is easily replenished by taking a step back and watching the world evolve at its normal pace, or using a fast-forward button.
A secondary series of bonus operations, generally tied to in-game achievements, also allow some more drastic redecoration. This particular subset of abilities can elevate an entire mountain range in a single stroke, provide a much-needed dose of sunshine, or even dispose of a particularly virulent species, all at the touch of a button. These handy pruning shears are some of the game’s most influential tools and it is particularly easy to get hands-on experience with them during the early stages of the game. Spend a little more time learning how to nudge the weather in a particular direction, however, and these abilities become less vital to the planet’s overall survival. Of the multitude of available options, the more surgical utilities certainly become appealing, and I found myself using this submenu to add a little rain or shine to encourage very specific plant life.
However, this is not geology simulator. The scattering of adorable critters that lumber across your very own landscape is part of Happy Birthday’s irresistible charm and an essential element in keeping you hooked. These cute characters are evident from the off and the opening animation seems to align this title’s aesthetic with Wada’s previous work. The bright colors, plush polar bears, cuddly crocodiles, and chibi carnivores that end up loitering across the screen are a joy to get up close and inspect. Although the landscaping is a little more Minecraft than Harvest Moon, the, everything about Happy Birthdays is still quintessentially Yasuhiro Wada.
While the odd basks of cute looking crocodiles and other animals exist as part of a fragile ecosystem, they are also collectible achievements. Seemingly hundreds of plants, mammals, and amphibious creatures are documented in the game’s library. Jumping into the world for an up-close inspection provides the opportunity to capture and document these critters, but not before you bring them to life. The functional library window provides a wealth of information on the prerequisite preparations required to spawn a particular type of life and begins to reveal some of the complexity that the game’s cute façade masks. The library system is something akin to a pokédex, but on a much more intricate level, and it is only after the first couple of million years that evolution starts to get a lot more specific with its demands.
The number of evolutionary requirements required to spawn particular animals gradually become more complex as you delve down the hierarchy of the library. This results in a satisfying difficulty curve that allows new players to feel like they can accomplishing something, and gradually learn how to balance the requirements of several species as time progresses. Nothing is permanent, however. Should you fail, it is fairly easy to wipe the slate clean by skewing the environment and plunging the world into an ice age. While potential extinction does provide a little incentive to keep an eye on ecological balance, it is a pity that there are no natural disasters to challenge experts a little further.
Anybody seeking more challenge from this title can step outside the normal field of play. Free play allows players to start from scratch and is a more traditional sandbox experience. Several challenge motes are also included, which introduce a series of handicaps. These are not exactly unexpected gameplay choices, but gamification of a sandbox simulator is hardly a straightforward affair.
The real trouble with Happy Birthdays is that while the tools are entirely adequate for the job, they can be a little unwieldy at times. Making very precise changes to an individual unit of land proves to be a bit of a squeeze on the Nintendo Switch’s six inches of space. I regularly found myself misplacing items and plunging the wrong pocket of land into the sea. Projected onto an external display, I suspect this would be less on an issue but the Switch is a mobile platform and any incarnation of a game that does not recognize this is going to face issues.
This is compounded further by a few unusual control decisions. While the movement, camera, and menu control systems all have a logical place on the JoyCon controllers, the NAME sub menu sticks out as problematic. Whether it is due to my own ignorance or unclear design, this menu and its selection of tiny tabs are only functional using the Switch’s touchscreen. This results in a somewhat frustrating experience. I found myself frequently stabbing at the touchscreen, only to find ill placed attacks would send my avatar racing off to another part of the map like some sort of delinquent. It is not the only strange UI decision to appear in Happy Birthdays, as the Library window also feels awkward and unwieldy, trying to cram all of evolution into a popup window.
These odd UI design choices stand out, particularly because Happy Birthdays is such an utterly engaging experience. The basic principles of the game are surprisingly intuitive and goals are easy to comprehend. The nuance and surprisingly engaging challenge come when trying to balance the demands of a complex ecosystem, yet it never feels like it is ever overwhelming.