The Galloping Return of the “Horse Game”
Lil' Sebastian rides again!
As a little girl growing up in the 2000s, the gaming industry still felt a bit inaccessible, and often games were uncharted and unfamiliar territory. All the guns, sleuthing, and—gasp!—curse words were a bit too much for my single-digit brain to handle. However, I still thought they were cool, because, duh, games are cool. And watching my siblings go to town in a video game made me long for gaming experiences that spoke to me.
Luckily (or unluckily) for me, I had a veritable interest in the most maligned animal in pop culture: the horse. Yes, I was a “horse girl.” I loved those things more than life itself, and since horses were often too expensive to even daydream about, I would have been adrift in the Wasteland of No-Horses-Having if it weren’t for the Horse Game market designed to play on just exactly that fact.
Yes, there was an entire market of horse games back in the day, often with some championship rider’s name attached to them. Petz Horsez. Championship Rider. Let’s Ride. Secrets of the Barn. These were the most common titles, often reused depending on who bought the game’s license, as they were passed around as cheap cash-grabs by studios like THQ and EA. To the eyes of a “hardcore” gamer, they’d probably be considered shovelware by modern standards.
But to me? They were home—the ultimate wish-fulfillment. In these games, you could own a shit-ton of horses in your own barn, on your own property, and all you had to do was brush them, ride them, and live your dang life. Heaven. In what world can you do that, unless you’re like, a nepotism baby or something?
Unfortunately, not everyone gets their wishes fulfilled through virtual animal care, and I understand completely: A lot of these games were janky and poorly-made, with no lasting power beyond their core mechanics. Compared to other games at the time, like Oblivion or Mass Effect, there was no way this very niche genre could continue to survive.
Thus ended the era of the horse game.
… Until recently.
A league of their own
A few years ago, I discovered a blog called The Mane Quest, which is dedicated to the representation and survival of not only the horse game genre, but of horses in games in general. Alice, the person who runs the blog, is a game developer herself, so her commentary is knowledgable and enlightening—especially for people like me, who’ve noticed the same sorts of things in games with horses and are happy to have a community to talk about them in.
What prompted the writing of this article was when a representative from the studio Microids reached out to me about their upcoming game, Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch. I’d already read about this game on TMQ, since Alice is the game’s creative producer, and the fact that I was continuing to hear more about it signaled to me that this wasn’t just a tepid movement to shrug off—it’s a movement in earnest, to bring back this genre not just for the cheap kids’ game market, but for everyone to enjoy with authenticity and quality.
Doesn’t this look absolutely delightful? It’s Stardew Valley but with heavier emphasis on horses. It just seems so relaxing and sweet, the sort of thing that, in my mind, should have already been capitalized on in earnest a while ago.
Alice had this to say about the project in her blog post about it:
I am incredibly excited for you all to see what we’ve been making, and to try it for yourselves. I am of course biased here – I’m directly involved and I absolutely want this project to succeed so I can make more good horse games at Aesir in the future – but I genuinely believe that Horse Tales – Emerald Valley Ranch has a chance to catapult the oft-neglected genre of horse games to a whole new level and to show the market just how much untapped potential there is for peaceful open world games with prominent equestrian components.TMQ
And for those who may still doubt the capability of horse games to relax and captivate the player, I ought to stress that a really good horse game isn’t all that different from a really good farming sim. They both involve a level of relaxedness and commitment that stimulates the human brain in a very peaceful, yet productive way. For the lazy, these are the game’s highlighted features:
Stable Expansion and Resource Gathering: Your dilapidated family estate is a blank canvas: as you progress through missions and explore the world, you will find blueprints to buildings that unlock Horse Care and Customization features. To construct the buildings on suitable building slots, you will need resources such as different types of wood and stone, which you find out in the open world.
Horse Traits: Horses have personality traits that influence how they behave in the world: some horses prefer forests to fields or vice versa, others are scared of heights. Some of these traits can be trained for improvements, others are unchangeable personality quirks.
Horse Breeding: Our horses have a genetic pattern very closely based on real life horse genetics. While not a 100% accurate simulation, Horse Tales – Emerald Valley Ranch will definitely be able to satisfy players interested in strategic breeding for color, stats and traits. To breed horses (or tame wild ones!), you need enough resources on your Estate – that means constructing buildings for Food, Shelter and Activity in order to provide for your animals.
Make a Name for Yourself: By helping people out, competing in races and exploring new areas in the world, you gain Fame, which will let you access more building space on your home base and homesteads across Cape Emerald. You can optimize this in a few ways: Gathering Fame through horse racing for example is directly influenced by your horse’s Charisma value as well as its current condition.
Customization: You are able to play as a masculine or feminine character. The dialogues are kept as gender neutral as possible and all clothing and hair style options are available regardless of the character model you pick at the start, giving you plenty of room to roleplay as a main character of any gender and expression you like.
A Lush and Large Open World: This part is perhaps the most obvious from the announcement teaser, but it still deserves to be said: Our team at Aesir has created an absolutely gorgeous, colorful open world with dozens of lovely spots and little secrets to discover.TMQ
For those unfamiliar with horse games, these are pretty advanced qualities that we’ve wanted for a long time! Often, horses in games are fairly blank and uninteresting, whose only real qualities are their speed and coat color. Games like Breath of the Wild and Red Dead Redemption 2 upped their game, to be sure, but they still aren’t total “horse games.” Sometimes a bitch just wants to ride her dang horse without worrying about O’Driscolls or Guardians, yanno?
Little champions, new and old
Of course, this isn’t the only horse game coming out to keep your ears pointed towards. Many teams and/or individuals have been working hard on their own projects; whether or not these projects bear any fruit remains to be seen, but they’re definitely indicative of the market’s current desires.
Unbridled: That Horse Game has been gaining a lot of fanfare, and if you join their Patreon, you can see how the game is developing in real-time. For a project that’s only really been under one person’s discretion, it looks awfully good.
Then there’s The Ranch of Rivershine, which I’m particularly excited for, as it’s being made by Cozy Bee Games—the creators of such cozy games as Lemon Cake and Alchemy Story. The horses look a little stiff, sure, but the aesthetic is on-point, and at the end of the day, ain’t that all we want, fellas?
Of course, I couldn’t possibly finish this article without paying homage to my personal favorite series of horse games. Star Stable is a Swedish horse game series that I first discovered as a young girl, and I was entranced by the funky graphics and weird sci-fi plotlines. The original games, the Starshine Legacy series, have all been configured to be browser-friendly (click this link to access them). They’re incredibly fun and silly, and only take a couple hours each, so I highly recommend at least trying them.
But they’ve since been expanded into a larger franchise, Star Stable, which began as CD-ROM titles where you could buy and compete with horses in the fictional world of Jorvik, and have now expanded to an MMORPG. I had no idea this MMO even existed until quarantine began, and, like many waylaid college grads who suddenly had no parties or offices to go to, I started seeking out mementos of my youth. Full disclosure, I’ve since played the shit out of this MMO that, for all intents and purposes, is for children. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to fulfilling my wish of owning multiple horses without paying rent or even having to take care of them.
To cap off this article, though, I’d like to pay my respects to Horse Isle, a flash game of the olden times, which tried to teach kids about the economy while also doing very little to prevent chat crimes. It was my first experience with getting negged by strangers, and I miss it so. There were all sorts of funky quests to complete, and the wild horse mechanic—where you just have to chance upon standing on a tile that has a wild horse on it—still shows up in my dreams sometimes.
I mean, it’s not gone forever, but I refuse to download shady flash plugins, so in my heart, it’s gone. Rest In Palomino, Horse Isle. Thank you for giving me my first lesson in the horrors of virtual capitalism. Cremello Server 4 Life.
In any case, I’m pretty excited about this turn in the market, and I look forward to seeing and supporting all the beautiful new projects coming out. Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch releases on November 15 in North America, for PC, Switch, PS4, and PS5. I hope to see all of your beautiful virtual horses, alongside mine!
(featured image: Microids/Aesir)
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