As a little girl growing up in the 2000s, the gaming industry still felt a bit unreachable, and often games were uncharted and unknown territory. All guns, detectives and – gasp! – the swear 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 crave gaming experiences that spoke to me.
Fortunately (or unfortunately) for me, I had a genuine interest in pop culture’s most maligned animal: the horse. Yes, I was a “horse girl”. I loved these things more than life itself, and since horses were often too expensive to even dream of, I would have been adrift in the Wasteland of No-Horses-Having had it not been for the horse game market designed to play on just exactly that fact.
Yes, there was a whole market for horse games back then, often with a championship rider’s name attached to them. Petz Horsez. Championship driver. Let’s roll. The secrets of the barn. These were the most common titles, often repurposed depending on who was licensing the game, as they were distributed as cheap money by studios like THQ and EA. In the eyes of a “hardcore” gamer, they would probably be considered shovels by modern standards.
But for me ? They were home – the ultimate wish-fulfillment. In those games, you could own a shitload of horses in your own barn, on your own property, and all you had to do was brush them, ride them, and live your shitty life. Heaven. In what world can you do that, unless you’re like a nepotistic baby or something?
Sadly, not everyone’s wishes come true through virtual animal care, and I totally get it: a lot of those games were janky and poorly made, with no lasting power beyond their core mechanics. Compared to other games at the time, like Oversight Where Mass Effectthere was no way this kind of niche could continue to survive.
Thus ended the era of horse racing.
A league apart
A few years ago, I discovered a blog called The Mane Quest, which is dedicated to representing and surviving not just the horse games genre, but horses in games in general. Alice, the person who runs the blog, is a game developer herself, so her commentary is knowledgeable and informative, especially for people like me, who have noticed the same sort of thing in games with horses and are happy to have a community to talk about them in.
What prompted me to write this article was when a representative from the Microids studio contacted me about their upcoming game, Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch. I had heard about this game before on TMQ, since Alice is the game’s creative producer, and the fact that I kept hearing about it signaled to me that it wasn’t just a lukewarm move to ignore, it is a move in earnest, to bring this genre back not just for the cheap kids game market, but for everyone to enjoy with authenticity and quality.
Doesn’t that look absolutely delicious? This is Stardew Valley but with a stronger emphasis on horses. It feels so relaxing and sweet, the kind of thing that in my mind should have been seriously exploited by now while from.
Alice had this to say about the project in her blog post about it:
I’m incredibly excited for all of you to see what we’ve come up with and try it out for yourselves. I am of course biased here – I am directly involved and I absolutely want this project to succeed so that I can make more good horse games at Aesir in the future – but I sincerely believe that Horse Tales – Emerald Valley Ranch has a chance to catapult the oft-neglected horse games genre to a whole new level and show the market just how much untapped potential there is for peaceful open-world games with premium equestrian components.
And for those who still doubt the ability of horse games to relax and captivate the player, I must point out that a really good horse game is not that different from a really good farming simulation. They both involve a level of relaxation and engagement that stimulates the human brain in a very peaceful, yet productive way. For the lazy, here are the highlighted features of the game:
Stable Expansion and Resource Gathering: Your dilapidated family estate is a blank canvas: as you progress through missions and explore the world, you’ll find blueprints for buildings that will 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 will discover in the open world.
Characteristics of the horse: Horses have personality traits that influence their behavior in the world: some horses prefer forests to fields or vice versa, others are afraid of heights. Some of these traits can be trained for enhancements, others are unchangeable personality quirks.
Horse breeding : Our horses have a genetic pattern very closely based on actual horse genetics. Although it is not a 100% accurate simulation, Horse Tales – Emerald Valley Ranch will certainly be able to satisfy players interested in strategic breeding for color, stats, and traits. To breed horses (or tame wild horses!), you need enough resources on your estate – that means constructing buildings for food, shelter, and activity to support your animals.
Make a name for yourself: By helping people, participating in races, and exploring new areas of the world, you earn renown, which will allow you to access more building space on your base and properties in Cape Emerald. You can optimize this in several ways: Gaining fame through horse racing, for example, is directly influenced by your horse’s Charisma value as well as its current state.
Personalization: You are able to embody a male or female character. The dialogues are as gender-neutral as possible and all clothing and hairstyle options are available regardless of which character model you choose to start with, giving you plenty of room to role-play as main character of any genre and expression you like.
A lush and expansive open world: This part might be the most obvious of the announcement teaser, but it’s still worth saying: Our team at Aesir has created an absolutely beautiful and colorful open world with dozens of cute places and little secrets to discover.
For those who are unfamiliar with horse games, these are fairly sharp qualities that we have been looking for for a long time! Often the horses in the games are quite pristine and uninteresting, whose only real qualities are their speed and the color of their coat. games like breath of the wild and Red Dead Redemption 2 have upped their game, sure, but it’s still not “horse games”. Sometimes a female dog just wants to fuckin’ ride her horse without caring about the O’Driscolls or the Guardians, yanno?
Little champions, new and old
Of course, it’s not the only horse game to come out to keep your ears pointed out. Many teams and/or individuals have worked hard on their own projects; Whether or not these plans will bear fruit remains to be seen, but they are certainly indicative of current market desires.
Unbridled: this horse game has gained 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 was really left to one person, it looks awfully good.
So there is Rivershine Ranchwhich I’m particularly excited about, because it’s made by Cozy Bee Games, the creators of games as cozy as Lemon cake and alchemy story. The horses look a little stiff, sure, but the aesthetics are on point, and at the end of the day, isn’t that all we want, guys?
Of course, I couldn’t end this article without paying homage to my favorite horse game series. star stable is a Swedish horse game series that I first encountered as a young girl, and was mesmerized by the funky graphics and weird sci-fi storylines. The original games Starshine’s Legacy series, have all been configured to be compatible with browsers (click on this link to access it). They’re incredibly fun and silly, and only take a few hours each, so I highly recommend giving them a try at least.
But they have since been expanded to a larger franchise, star stable, which started out as CD-ROM titles where you could buy and compete with horses in the fictional world of Jorvik, and have now branched out into an MMORPG. I had no idea this MMO existed until my early 40s, and like many wayward college grads who suddenly had no parties or offices to go to, I started looking for memorabilia from my youth. Full disclosure, I’ve since played shit out of this MMO which, for all intents and purposes, is aimed at kids. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to fulfilling my wish of owning multiple horses without paying rent or even having to care for them.
To end this article, however, I would like to pay tribute to horse island, a flash game from the olden days, which tried to teach children about economics while doing very little to prevent cat crimes. It was the first time I was ignored by strangers, and I miss it so much. There were all kinds of awesome quests to complete, and the wild horse mechanic – where you just have to stand on a tile that has a wild horse on it – still occasionally pops up in my dreams.
I mean, it’s not gone forever, but I refuse to download shady flash plugins, so in my heart, here we go. Rest in Palomino, horse island. Thank you for giving me my first lesson in the horrors of virtual capitalism. Cremello Server 4 Life.
Anyway, I’m pretty excited about this turn in the market, and I can’t wait to see and support all the great new projects coming out. Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch releases November 15 in North America, for PC, Switch, PS4, and PS5. I hope to see all your beautiful virtual horses, alongside mine!
(featured image: Microids/Aesir)
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