Feathered friends in new frontiers

Hataraku Chocobo does something so incredible when you turn it on I’m almost reluctant to talk about it, because when typed out it sounds as if I’ve resorted to pathetic “My uncle at Nintendo said…” level lies. You see, Squaresoft’s game was exclusively designed for and released on Bandai’s WonderSwan – the original monochrome WonderSwan, the one that gave us portable Clock Tower – but when I plug the cart into my SwanCrystal… it’s in full colour.

Proper colour, made-this-way-from-the-beginning colour, not Super Game Boy style palettes painted over grey sprites. I wouldn’t believe me either if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction – and a little research (as well as some help from Yanik Magnan) can go a long way. A quick check of the WonderSwan Color’s release list reveals the upgraded system debuted in Japan just a few short months after Hataraku Chocobo’s Sept 2000 release, so it would be reasonable to assume Bandai – no doubt acutely aware of the advantage the RPG titan could give them in this Game Boy Color dominated field – had been giving Square unfettered access to every aspect of their new hardware at the earliest opportunity, creating a rare example of a forwards compatible game in the process.

Unexpected technical wonders make a great first impression but they don’t mean much once the surprise has faded away, do they? Luckily for everyone Hataraku Chocobo is a charming little game, pitting a renameable you chosen from a selection of classic Final Fantasy styled human avatars and your chocobos against three CPU-controlled rivals, everyone trying to cultivate the untamed frontier lands before them better than anyone else over a set number of in-game years (a “year” is roughly equal to about five minutes play time). It plays out like an inventive board game, each area a pleasantly tabletop-y 3×3 grid of different land types for your chocobos to farm, mine, and gather wood or water from.

That grid always has the chocobo house placed in the centre of it and there are just three landscapes that can appear in the remaining eight squares, each having a with/without water variant. There are four materials to collect in these areas – gysahl greens, stone, wood, and water – and to win you need to have more of these combined than anyone else by the time the pre-set number of years have passed.

That’s basically it, the same setup playing out over and over again. But the thing is Hataraku Chocobo’s a lot like Tetris: technically you’ve seen it all in the first five minutes, but it’s how those pieces interact with each other and how you learn to use them that makes it such a compelling game. You find the game gets more tactical not as new gimmicks are introduced (because there aren’t any), but as you become better at using the tools you’ve been given to make the most of any situation.

It all comes down to texture, the way small and immediately understandable details work together to create something significant. Each area has its own distribution of the four available materials, shown on the area’s chocoboard. The supply is infinite but, for example, a year’s work at a mountain will almost always yield a miner more stone than it would a farmer greens so it’s important to assign your chocobo the job that’s going to produce the biggest reward for the area – or you’d think so, if it weren’t for the fact that up to three chocobos can be placed in one area. It’s not a great idea to fight a rival’s – or even you own – chocobos for the same resource when one could be collecting something else entirely, as this results in diminished returns.

The chocobos themselves come in several different forms, some working better in forests, some tough-looking types able to intimidate rival chocobos out of their own production perks if they try to muscle in on your chosen patch. You’ll often find wild ones roaming about, waiting for you to tame and then set them to work – and even this has its own interesting little wrinkle, as the chocobos you discover vary by location. To make your toil even more unpredictable each new year brings big changes: maybe crops will grow especially well this year, mines will burst at the seams with ore, or sloppy management will see masked figures make off with half your items in the dead of night.

So why not concentrate on gathering whatever this year’s star item is? Why bother collecting a bit of everything? Why fight for resources in the same place?

Because sometimes you have no choice, as each material serves a specific and essential function. Gysahl greens keep your chocobos working – if you run out they have nothing to eat, and that causes one chocobo to run away every year until you either fix that or run out of horsebirds – and stored water increases the amount of time you have to wander your little avatar around the small area map each year (turn), which means more time to change chocobo jobs, ride chocobos over to wherever you need them to be, or talk to the ones already out there to give them a bit of a boost. Wood and stone are needed to change a chocobo’s job – mining, chopping, gathering – so they can get all of this work done and supply the materials you need. Everything is important, all the time.

But what if all the best slots in every area have been taken and you simply can’t get enough of the materials you need? That’s where the Chocobo Auction and Chocobo Trade segments come in. These take place at the end of each year (bar the very last one), and allow you to try and out-bid your fellow chocobo wranglers for items (sometimes bundles of items – which is a great way to get ahead) using your own supplies as currency in the former, or trade with Cid 1:1 from a limited supply in the latter. There’s always the worry that someone might grab that last bit of wood before you do (the person in last place always gets first choice), but either way there’s always a real chance you’ll get what you need – and if you’re feeling particularly brave it also opens up the possibility of concentrating only on gathering something plentiful or something that suits your chocobos’ preferences during the year and then trading for the rest… so long as you can afford the potential bidding war, or know how to manage if supplies start to run low.

And if you can’t, and find yourself coming dead last after four or so years of hard work – just try again. There are always a few areas to challenge during the campaign, so you’re never stuck throwing yourself at one stage over and over until you get it right. Even the manual makes a point of emphasising its easy-going attitude – there are no game overs here, only short bursts of chocobo-themed fun. It’s a game tailor-made for handheld play, and it shows in all the best ways: Hataraku Chocobo’s compartmentalised structure is easy to understand, quick to get back in to, and frequent to save – something designed to be picked up and enjoyed in bits and pieces, rather than playing for hours on end.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practise you’ll end up sitting with it for as long as you’re able to, unable to resist seeing just one more turn through to the end. Maybe you’ll find a new chocobo. Maybe the rains will come, altering your tactics. Maybe a rival will steal the spot you were planning on taking. You’ll never know if you don’t play…

[There’d be no article here if it weren’t for the support I receive through Ko-fi! Please consider chipping in if you enjoy reading my work, it makes writing more so much easier]

One thought on “Feathered friends in new frontiers

  1. Very interesting. I always assumed from the title that this is a Harves Moon-ish game. Surprised to read it’s a competitive resource gathering sim instead.

    I miss the time when Square seemed so keen to experiment with different genres.

    Like

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