The payoff is nothing short of sensational

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By Anthony L. Cuaycong

HAPPY BIRTHDAYS is nothing if not peculiar off the bat. And it wears its strangeness proudly, assured of its capacity to unveil a masterpiece from an empty canvas by handing you the brush. As a truly sweeping god game from the mind of Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada, it melds its ambition with seemingly simple presentations; the visuals are colorful, if childlike, and accompanied by soothing keyboard acoustics, but its demands are such that a 20-minute tutorial is required for you to get going, and much longer after to experience comfort and confidence in what you’re doing. Once you get the hang of it, however, the payoff is nothing short of sensational.

Indeed, time is a crucial element in Happy Birthdays. It begins with you finding a map that leads you to a forest and subsequently transports you to an undeveloped world. To get back home, you need to first oversee the growth of your new surroundings by managing the ecosystem; from the temperature to the terrain, you control the variables from which you create life. Needless to say, the scope of your work within the game requires a complex interface. You’re not in a shoot-’em-up where button mashing and mere memorization of pathways will bring you success. You’re in the other extreme, where planning is critical and creativity is key.

No doubt, Happy Birthdays is envisioned to be an eye-opener on environmental change. It aims for as wide an audience as it can get, presenting lessons on the ecosystem and the constant need for balance in a manner that even younger gamers can appreciate. That said, it cuts no corners; you may have an avatar guiding you through the mechanics, even nudging you in the right direction, but, ultimately, the choices are yours to make. In the Nintendo Switch version of Birthdays the Beginning, you get the consolation of choosing a relatively developed biome from lush, cold, or hot presets. Still, your ultimate objective is clear; your task as your world’s omnipotent being is done when you witness the birth of man.

For all the grand intentions and the steep learning curve, Happy Birthdays boasts of stunningly straightforward gameplay. You move to raise or lower the land you’re cultivating to make way for ranges and bodies of water. Your design decisions affect temperature and humidity, which, in turn, dictate the types of flora, fauna, and animals that will thrive or suffer. It’s not as easy as it sounds, though. Time and timing are of the essence; as evolution is best when occurring gradually, so, too, must your plan progress. Else, you run the risk of inducing an extinction level event.

The best things in life are free, goes the cliche. In Happy Birthdays, they’re anything but. Creation and evolution require points, which you amass via the collection of stars throughout the game. Meanwhile, you get to see the fruits of your labor in veritable snapshots; the passage of millennia shows you how your experimentation has influenced the evolution of the world at your fingertips. Parenthetically, planet statistics (e.g. population, temperature) are churned out to enable you to note how every little thing you do affects the swath at your disposal. From the close to 300 species the game gives you an opportunity to “birth” and nurture, you comprehend which have thrived and which have given way to new life, and, accordingly, the gravity of the decisions you’ve made.

In this context, Happy Birthdays cannot but be forgiving; in fact, it prompts exploration of all that is possible under the given parameters. By way of incentive, it maintains a library highlighting the species you’ve birthed; adding them on their respective birthdays gives you points which you can then use to aid you in your terraforming. Parenthetically, it offers a Free Mode by which you can attempt to expand and ultimately complete your library as you please, as well as a Challenge Mode that gives you specific objectives.

On the whole, Happy Birthdays is a slow burn that pays off long after you’ve put the game to storage.

At its best, it’s an extremely engaging educational tool that rewards your initial patience and subsequent efforts with impactful knowledge. And it gets its best iteration on the Switch, which boasts of touchscreen controls and a handheld option that serve to underscore its most important investment: time.

Highly recommended, and a decided bargain at $39.99.