- [Adorable regular GSW columnist Mister Raroo has been specially funded by GSW to examine what we're elegantly calling “not quite games” - and he starts things off with a visit to My Pokémon Ranch on the Nintendo Wii. Anyone who has ever awkwardly been harassed by a farm boy for being a “City” should take special note with this piece!]

Not Much of a Farmer

In one way or another, farms have always been a part of my life. My family’s American roots are in the Midwest. My parents were both born and raised in Illinois and my mom’s family owned a farm since the time she was a young girl. It’s important to point out the difference between owning a farm and living and working on a farm. My mom was raised in the suburbs of Rockford, so she’s in no way a farm girl by any stretch of the imagination, but it just so happened that her family happened to own a farm in the nearby rural areas. Today, she and her brother both retain co-ownership of the farm and all things considered it’s been a solid investment for them.

When I was a kid, I didn’t fully grasp the concept of how farms worked. My view of farm life was primarily limited to the cartoons I watched, and since my family relocated from the Midwest to Southern California when I was still an infant, going to visit the family-owned farm wasn’t something I had an easy opportunity to do. To me, farms were places where Foghorn Leghorn stood just out of reach as he teased leashed dogs.

We usually visited my Grandpa’s home in Illinois during summers, but I spent most of my days there playing with amazing vintage toys in his basement, looking for treasures in his attic, and catching fireflies (who somehow managed to open the lid on the jar and escape after I went to sleep... which I discovered years later was my mom letting them free to live out the rest of their little lives). Going to visit the farm wasn’t something that was on the agenda.

One summer, however, when I was in my late elementary school years, we took a trip to the farm and I saw firsthand what life on the farm was like. The family that was living and working on the farm wasn’t performing all the jobs they were supposed to, so my Grandpa, uncle, and cousins had to regularly visit the farm to make sure everything was being handled correctly. Perhaps because of this tension between owners and workers, I wasn’t necessarily greeted in the most hospitable way by the teenage boy who lived on the farm.

- I was told to go outside and play with the boy while the rest of my family sat down and talked business with his parents. I was a shy kid, so I didn’t take well to situations where I had to meet and play with a new person. The boy was a few years older than me and gave me a suspicious look as I grudgingly walked toward him.

I managed to squeak out a “Hi” and he smiled and said, “Hello, City.” From that moment on I was bombarded with the name “City” in every sentence. “Where you from, City? You say you from California, City? What you doin’ all the way out here, City? Your family owns this farm, City? You rich, City? What, you want to play, City? Why would I want to play with you, City?” Needless to say, it was rather awkward.

Thankfully, before any Deliverance reenactments could occur, my family emerged from the back door of the farmhouse and I quickly made my way over to stand between my mom and my uncle. I tried to act calm and nonchalant, but every now and then I’d steal a glace at the farm boy and he’d give a menacing smile. He knew he scared me, all right.

Before we left to head back to the safety of my Grandpa’s suburban house, I was given a tour of the farm. I saw corn and soy beans. I saw cows, pigs, and chickens. And, on the drive back to my Grandpa’s home, I came to the realization that those cute farm animals would one day be someone’s dinner. That made me a little sad.

Still, despite the rather strange experience I’d had that day, I was quite fascinated with what I’d experienced. Though I certainly wasn’t interested in pursuing a career in farming, I couldn’t deny that farms were interesting and important. And, on a quick side note, my family’s farm no longer raises livestock, so at least I know that should I ever visit the farm again some day, I won’t have to guiltily look into the sad eyes of the farm critters.

My Attempts at Digital Farming

I’m a moderate fan of the Harvest Moon games. That is, I’ve played a handful of them and I’ve enjoyed them, but I’m not a serious fanatic. The problem for me is that the Harvest Moon titles just feel like a bunch of work. I suppose that’s the point, but tilling the soil, planting seeds, and watering crops gets old after a little while. Sure, as the games progress you get can some assistance with your chores, but by that point I’m often bored.

I do appreciate the fun rural atmosphere the Harvest Moon universe offers, and the harmless virtual romance involved with wooing and marrying your in-game love interest can be a lot of fun. I always try to chase after the girl who most resembles my wife and pretend she and I somehow exist in that colorful little world. Yet, it begins to dawn on me that it’s silly to chase a virtual version of my wife when I should probably just spend more time with the real thing instead.

- I have also spent a good deal of time on “Uncle Farm” in the Playstation 3 iteration of the Boku no Natsuyasumi (My Summer Holiday) games. In the game, you spend the month of August with your uncle and his family on their farm. Each day more or less grants you free reign to run around the farm grounds and surrounding areas as you please. You can collect butterflies, participate in beetle wrestling matches, go for a swim, catch fish, talk to neighbors, and much more. It’s a very relaxing game and I particularly like playing it before I go to sleep at night.

All in all, games involving farms are usually easy to enjoy. They might not test your reflexes or strain your brain, but they are almost without fail cheery and charming, two qualities that I always enjoy in my games. Real-life farm work is backbreaking and grueling, but virtual farm life is generally sunny and calming. Farm games might represent a niche market, but obviously there is a large enough farming fan base to warrant their continued development.

I am a Pokémon Rancher

The Pokémon games have introduced us to different types of ways to interact with the titular creatures. Trainers capture wild Pokémon and raise their abilities by battling them against other trainers’ Pokémon, with the victors gaining experience and leveling up their skills and moves. Rangers, on the other hand, don’t use Pokémon for battling, but instead employ them to help in do-good activities, such as moving boulders to save people trapped behind or burning fallen trees blocking roadways.

With the release of My Pokémon Ranch, gamers are introduced to a new category of Pokémon caregiver: the Pokémon Rancher. Ranchers don’t ask anything from their Pokémon, but instead give them a safe haven where they can frolic about, simply enjoying the easy life of not having to battle opponents or partake in rescue missions. Rather, the largest stressor Pokémon on ranches have to worry about is being picked up and tossed about by the on-screen hand icon controlled by players.

My Pokémon Ranch is certainly not what I’d consider a game, but instead acts more like an interactive screensaver. Still, it’s oddly captivating and I often find myself having My Pokémon Ranch on in the background as I pick up around the house or get ready for work. My attraction makes sense, though, as I’ve always had a strange fascination with screensavers and can fondly remember spending many Summer afternoons goofing around with After Dark on my family’s old Mac. To this day, images of flying toasters are permanently burned into my brain.

- Like many other Nintendo-published Wii games, My Pokémon Ranch offers Mii compatibility. In a nutshell, players’ Miis, adorably decked out in farming clothing, walk around and mildly interact with the Pokémon on the ranch, often to hilarious results. To spice things up, the game provides a number of “toys” that your Miis and Pokémon can play with. Seeing Miis and Pokémon frantically run from the odorous wrath of the Stinky Ball never fails to make me crack a smile.

My favorite activity, though, has to be snapping photos. My Pokémon Ranch equips Pokémon Ranchers with a camera to capture and share all shenanigans that occur on the ranch. A nice touch is that all photos can be saved to an SD Card in jpeg format. Of course, photos can also be sent between Wii users as well. I often can’t wait to show Missus Raroo the endless number of ridiculous photos I’ve snapped on my ranch.

It would be nice if My Pokémon Ranch offered more substance, such as some slight leveling up of your Pokémon for time spent on the ranch, but the software is essentially Pokémon Box mixed with the Mii Plaza. For me, that’s enough. But for most gamers, it probably isn’t. In fact, my initial impressions led to me imagine that the majority of Pokémaniacs would be very disappointed with the limited options offered by My Pokémon Ranch, though as I soon discovered from my brother-in-law Thomas, that may not be the case.

My Pokémon Ranch: Serious Business!

One of the many neat things about Thomas and his son Mario is that they get the most value out of every game they play, probably more than I do. Thomas is a single father who works as a mechanic and his income doesn’t allow for a great deal of luxury expenses, including video games. However, both Thomas and Mario love games, so he’ll often scrape together what he can to get a new game every now and again.

My wife and I know Thomas has an even tougher time buying new games than we do, so we always try to get him something game-related on holidays and birthdays. It’s not easy to guess the tastes of individual gamers, so this past Father’s Day we just gave him a Wii Points card and decided that way he could buy what he wanted. Thomas used those points to purchase My Pokémon Ranch.

Whenever Thomas and I discuss a game we’ve both been playing, I usually start to feel guilty because I realize he’s played it more than me, and My Pokémon Ranch is no exception. Players can import their Pokémon from Pokémon Diamond/Pearl to “level up” their ranch size and sure enough, the Pokémon population on Thomas’ ranch is leaps and bounds larger than mine—and I have imported just about every Pokémon I’ve ever captured! That means not only has Thomas probably put in more time with Pokémon Ranch than I have, but he’s also dug much deeper into Pokémon Diamond/Pearl than me, too.

- Recently when I was hanging out with Thomas and Mario, Thomas discovered that Mario had transferred many of the Pokémon on their ranch back to Pokémon Diamond, much to Thomas’ dismay. When he asked Mario why he had done this, the tone in his voice sounded like Mario had been caught red handed peeking at his presents before Christmas.

After a long pause, Mario finally managed to give a barely audible “I don’t know.” Thomas scolded him, saying, “If you want our ranch to get bigger, you’ve got to leave the Pokémon there!” Some fathers reprimand their sons for not taking out the trash or getting poor grades in school, but Thomas was laying into Mario for jeopardizing the progress of increasing the size of their Pokémon ranch. It took all my strength to keep from laughing and I couldn’t wait to tell Missus Raroo about the absurdly comic exchange I’d witnessed.

My Pokémon Ranch features a Bulletin Board listing a number of “Wanted” Pokémon and where they can be caught in Pokémon Diamond/Pearl. I’ve neglected this aspect of the game because, frankly, I don’t have the free time or desire to bother with it. Thomas and Mario, on the other hand, have been excitedly trying to capture every single Wanted Pokémon on the list, often racking up hours at a time on their Pokémon Diamond game clock.

Hilariously, Thomas recently confided in me that he’s a little disappointed with the fruits of his labor. When you capture a Wanted Pokémon, you have the option in My Pokémon Ranch to trade it with the ranch’s owner, Hayley, for one of her Pokémon. Thomas angrily vented to me that he’d spent hours catching a few of the more elusive Pokémon and was legitimately offended by what was offered in return. “I don’t need another stupid Pachirisu!”

Planting the Seeds of Fringe Gaming

The shallow but pleasant experience I’ve had thus far with My Pokémon Ranch is most likely representative of how far I’m going to go with it. I don’t foresee myself spending hours tracking down Wanted Pokémon so I can trade them with Hayley, and I probably won’t bother importing many more Pokémon to the ranch simply because that’d require a lot more play time with my copy of Pokémon Pearl—playtime I’d rather spend on other games.

Still, that doesn’t mean I won’t continue to keep enjoying My Pokémon Ranch. Like I said before, it’s a blast to have on as background entertainment as I do other things. Despite not really being much of a proper game, My Pokémon Ranch is a thoroughly harmless but engaging diversion. There’s not really anything to play, per se, but there is a lot to enjoy all the same. Sitting back and relaxing as my Miis and Pokémon happily prance around the screen is a nice way to wind down after a stressful day.

In many ways, I think it’s lovely that there exists a level of diversity in video games so enormous that Nintendo can release a piece of software that is really nothing more than a glorified screensaver. Obviously, many gamers won’t find any appeal with My Pokémon Ranch, but to me it signals the game market is so wide open that almost anything is feasible and marketable. It also means that more experimental and fringe titles will continue to be created and available for those of us who enjoy these types of things.

All the same, I’m not sure who My Pokémon Ranch is supposed to appeal to. Despite the fact that Thomas and Mario are definitely getting their money’s worth from the title, I can’t imagine most gamers would find the software to be worth the $10 asking price. Other than storing Pokémon and watching them walk around and bump into one another, there’s not a heck of a lot going on.

And yet I find it so intoxicating! My Pokémon Ranch isn’t necessarily a title I’d ever recommend, but for gamers like me, it’s charmingly compulsive. And, I must say, it’s refreshing that I have the opportunity to live a virtual farming lifestyle without fear of being called “City.”

BONUS ROUND! Photos from Mister Raroo's Pokémon Ranch

-

Here we have a number of the Miis and Pokémon that live on my ranch stopping by to say hello. People in this photo (left to right): Uncle Harvey, Missus Raroo, Mister Raroo, Autumn, Granny, Mario, Isabelle, Yuki, Glenn, and Kazuo. Besides the five Wailords, how many other Pokémon can you see? Can you name them?
-

Uh-oh! It looks like Granny got a little too close to the snowman. Don't worry, though, Granny. Before long you'll thaw out and you'll be free to roam about once more. It's fun how My Pokémon Ranch gives you a few different toys each day to play with. I bet that Wailord is glad it missed getting put on ice!
-

Silly Isabelle! You don't look too happy! Well, that's what you get for playing around with a toy called the Stinky Ball. What did you expect? All of the Miis and Pokémon sure seem curious about the Stinky Ball whenever it's on the ranch, but unless they're unlucky like Isabelle, they get the heck away before they fall victim to its terrible stench. Go take a bath!
-

Teenagers! My niece Autumn--or as we call her, Wubba--seems to have gotten into something that is making her see stars. That'd better not be what I think it is! Just say "no"! Oh well, as with the snowman and Stinky Ball, status changes in Miis and Pokémon are temporary and before long any problem they're experiencing soon goes away. Come on, Wubba, let's keep it clean.
-

Well, it's getting pretty late and we should probably get back to doing whatever it is we do here on our Pokémon Ranch. We hope you enjoyed your visit. Feel free to send some photos of your own Pokémon Ranch. See you next time!

[Mister Raroo is a happy husband, proud father, full-time public library employee, and active gamer. He currently lives in El Cajon, CA with his family and many pets. You may reach Mister Raroo at mister.raroo@gmail.com.]