Happy Birthdays is a simulation game where you populate ecosystems, and promote the conditions for the evolution of their inhabitants, by altering the height of terrain to affect both the temperature and moisture of each space in the environment, among other methods. It has charming graphics and is fun to explore, but unfortunately lacks intuitive play.
Originally released in early 2017 on PlayStation 4 and PC (through Steam) as Birthdays the Beginning, Happy Birthdays is the creation of Yasuhiro Wada, who is also responsible for the better-known Harvest Moon game series. I looked forward to reviewing this game because I thought that the graphics and gameplay would provide a cute and relaxing game, which they do, but it’s not so accessible because it requires gathering information on how to evolve each creature through a deep menu system which I don’t think is suited well for consoles, or at least the Nintendo Switch.
The game is built around creating the conditions for evolution, and intermittently passing time to yield the results of changes made. You move an avatar around an ecosystem “cube”, raising and lowering terrain to create everything from deep seas to uplands. The higher the terrain, the lower the temperature will sink, and the more water present, the higher the temperature will rise, both locally, and throughout the entire cube.
It is fun to float around and change the terrain to see what will happen. Plants and animals explode in population, go extinct, or evolve throughout the course of the game. The appearance of new species is also dependent on the appearance, existence, or even extinction of other species. There are also special items, which can be used to change the temperature and moisture of smaller areas within the cube when necessary, and others to promote the reproduction (or extinction) of targeted plants and animals.
I had a difficult time overall, but when I discovered that I could read the conditions for each creature to appear, check the conditions for each square unit inside the cube, and make the most basic adjustments by changing the terrain, I was able to clear one challenge by evolving a dinosaur from what looked like an alligator. I tried something similar to evolve a mouse-like creature into a monkey of some sort, but despite creating the right conditions (I believed), I was unsuccessful even after attempting for thirty minutes.
A sense of accomplishment does come from the appearance of new creatures. There are at least 295 species in the game, including a variety of plants, sea creatures, dinosaurs, birds, fish, insects, mice, big cats, monkeys, and more. One of the greatest feats in the game is to evolve humans from monkeys, who then build little structures of varying sophistication (think ancient Rome). Unfortunately I was not able to do this myself!
The game offers three modes from the start: a regular game, a challenge mode, and a free mode. The regular game has some story and objectives, the challenge mode offers several smaller scenarios with clear objectives and special restrictions for each, and the free mode offers you the chance to create whatever you’d like entirely from scratch. I preferred the challenge mode myself only because I found the freedom of the gameplay a bit overwhelming.
Happy Birthdays is a cute game. The plants and animals, and environments, are colorful and simple. Each square unit of the environment may consist of a different variety of plants or animals than the next, and is always changing, so there’s always something new to look at. It’s even possible to fly through the environment in first person to observe the plants and animals, which are always in motion in one way or another (plants sway back and forth, and many animals like to eat a snack as they wander around). The music is relaxing, and the creatures make their own sounds when you observe them up close. I especially love hearing the dinosaurs roar! I noticed that when I moved the camera under the terrain where lava is visible, but otherwise hidden, the music changes to create a small atmosphere, where in any other game, it might just seem like bringing the camera into that space was some sort of mistake, with nothing to discover. Overall, the ambience created by the graphics and sounds are memorable.
I think this game could be better if it were more accessible. Jumping into this game is overwhelming because you have to figure out that you’re expected to search through a library of possible plants and animals to see exactly what kind of conditions bring them into existence, and then shape the environment in the game while juggling a handful of these variables in your memory. I found myself checking the information on each plant or animal several times while trying to create a space for them to appear. All of this, while using a deep menu system where every button on the Joy-Cons is mapped to some menu or gameplay function, matching a legend at the bottom of the screen, which itself must be expanded by holding the L button! It just seems like too much!
In the game’s defense, you are constantly being shown how to play it by the in-game character (or avatar), who you control and can ask for help at any time by clicking the right stick. There’s also a full text tutorial available to the player at any time during the game. However, I think that many of the functions of the game could have been made into an icon menu (like in Sim City) or changed in some way to better fit the Nintendo Switch. Overall, this game feels like something that you might play on the PC, but not typically on a console.
If you think you might enjoy Happy Birthdays, there is a demo available on the Nintendo Switch eShop to try out at the time we published this review. I think this can be a relaxing and rewarding game, but I also think that many players won’t be able to overcome the barrier of learning how to play it before they become disinterested, and that’s a shame.
Happy Birthdays was reviewed using a final retail Nintendo Switch download code provided by the publisher.
Adam “McSNES” Martinez, gaming drop-out and FuncoLand ghost, has spent his entire life training to review games for YOU, the loyal readers of Nintendo Times. Adam is permanently banned from Final Fantasy XI: Online, his favorite game.