Starting a restaurant is usually a bad idea. Pursuing that dream can lead to financial ruin, destruction of personal relationships, and ravaged mental and physical health. So, why bother with all of those risks when you can just play a video game? Many restaurant simulators exist in the mobile game world, most of which boil down to simple challenge of time management, like seeing how quickly you can take and serve orders before your customers get angry. Little Dragons Cafe, out now for the Nintendo Switch, is a little more involved than its cell phone brethren, and a little more farm-to-table in its gameplay.
Also, it has a dragon, and you can ride it.
Little Dragons Cafe is the creation of Yasuhiro Wada, most well-known for creating the Harvest Moon series of farming simulation games. Harvest Moon created an entire genre of these low-stress, casual, gentle games, built around a cycle of daily and seasonal chores. Harvest Moon and its descendants, games like Rune Factory and Stardew Valley, are games about routine. Every day there are chores to do: seeds to plant, crops to water, cows to milk, villagers to befriend. There aren’t dramatic or high-tension moments, only the satisfaction of setting small goals and achieving them.
Little Dragons Cafe can’t really be called a farming game, but rather an evolution of the genre. The story begins with a set of young twins helping their mother run the titular cafe, until she falls ill and the twins learn the shocking truth that their mother is actually half-human, half-dragon. Her illness can only be cured with the help of a full dragon, and conveniently the twins have come into possession of a ready-to-hatch dragon’s egg. Raising a dragon isn’t a full time job, however; the twins must keep the cafe running while their mother is ailing.
The first step in successfully running this cafe is sourcing recipes and ingredients. Knowing that Little Dragons Cafe came from the creator of Harvest Moon, I expected that I’d be raising chickens and sowing crops to stock my cafe’s pantry as I took over the role of one of the twins. But there are no chickens in Little Dragons Cafe. Instead, there is a creature literally just called an Egg Bird, which looks like a cross between a chicken and a duck and, well, it lays eggs. The Egg Bird requires no feeding or tending to, just as it turns out there are no seeds to plant or crops to grow. All the ingredients for the Little Dragons Cafe come via hunting, foraging, and fishing in the world surrounding the cafe.
In a world where you get eggs from the Egg Bird, it seems only natural that all vegetables come from the same kind of bush. I was a little put off at first by the idea of harvesting onions, cabbage, and carrots all from the same plant, but I was still expecting the Harvest Moon experience, in which I could plant deliberately and specifically. The draw in the foraging of Little Dragons Cafe is exploring to find these magical produce bushes, and the uncertainty of what you might find. There’s a fuzzy, cartoony vibe to the its world, where hills may be purple and mystic lakes may exist atop mountains. My dragon and I quested through the brightly colored and soft-shaped hills, cliffs, and forests to find new ingredients in hard to reach places. All the bushes look exactly the same, so it required a little memory to remember exactly where I found the one that yielded shallots and bell peppers.
Seasonings and condiments are discovered in the same way, which leads to the somewhat unsettling experience of “harvesting” things like chocolate sauce, cream sauce, and ketchup. It’s important to remember exactly which rock yields the most curry powder before setting the menu at the restaurant. None of it is exactly a realistic simulation of foraging for morels, but you’re doing it with the help of a dragon, so real-world accuracy is hardly a goal.
Back at the cafe, to actually cook the recipes I’d found — they’re scattered in fragments over the landscape, to be pieced back together by the power of a wizard who lives in the cafe — is arguably a less arduous process than scrolling through endless personal stories on recipe blogs. Cooking in the game doesn’t resemble the attempts to mimic real-world cooking techniques that you’d find in games like Cooking Mama or Sara’s Cooking Party. It’s just a simple rhythm game, hitting up and down on the controller to a beat; the better your rhythm is, the better the dish turns out.
It’s difficult to actually cook food that’s bad in Little Dragons Cafe. Sure, if I’d completely missed every note in the cooking rhythm game, I would end up with a bad dish, but when it comes to personalizing the dishes, there are no wrong combinations. Every recipe has a few base ingredients — curry powder and rice, for instance, to make curry rice. But as the cafe’s chef got more practice in making them, I got the opportunity to add more ingredients to give them a higher ranking. Want to put chocolate sauce and eel in your curry rice? That’s no problem. It just makes for a more unique dish that the patrons will order.
Because yes, there are patrons; all this foraging and cooking is for a purpose. There is actually a restaurant to run. Early in the game the cafe takes on a staff to help run it — a flamboyant orc chef, a cheerful waitress with a surprising violent streak, and a lazy elf who likes to play the guitar. I could have spent my entire time playing Little Dragons Cafe collecting ingredients, but the problem with having a staff is that the staff needs to be managed.
Little Dragons Cafe may be the most realistic restaurant management simulator I’ve ever played in that your staff is sometimes a huge pain in the ass. While I was in the restaurant, I could help out with service, taking orders, delivering meals, and clearing plates, and to my great dismay I found I often had to, due to my staff being a bunch of slackers. I found myself becoming the asshole boss to my employees, saying out loud to my Switch, “GET BACK TO WORK” when I found my waiter hiding in a corner practicing sweet licks on his guitar. In the game, my character was just giving the staff a gentle nudge to stop goofing off, but in my living room, I felt like Gordon Ramsay.
I could never fully leave behind the cafe operations. Occasionally — no, more often than occasionally — while out and about with my dragon, flying around, finding new heights to find newer, better ingredients and recipes, I would receive a message from the game that my employees were slacking. Slacking! In those words. Fortunately with the press of one button I could return to the cafe and put them in line, but this led to an enjoyable sort of stress. I could never get too lost in exploring and foraging, because I was always tied back to the reason I was doing it all. The game is one-player, but I could see a potential for play with friends here; it could be fun to manage the cafe while another person foraged for ingredients, and vice-versa.
In the endless day after day cycle that is the core of games like this, it is possible to forget the point. Little Dragons Cafe has in its favor over simpler games like the ones in the Harvest Moon series something of an actual plot, episodic in nature. Each new chapter brings a new special cafe patron, one whose story and secrets could be drawn out by finding out the kind of food that they liked and stocking the restaurant’s menu with appropriate dishes. The angry witch likes spicy food, so I put chili and radish-heavy green salad on the menu, and before long, she’ll spill her guts. None of the plots are too deep, and they’re honestly a little cliche if you’re aware of Japanese game and anime tropes, but the storytelling is one more element to keep the constant push to play more, and more.
Because that is the appeal of games like Harvest Moon, and its latest descendant Little Dragons Cafe. There’s always the drive to play for just one more day, to see what you can find in the next. Games like these are addictive in their calming tedium. Every day brings more crops to harvest, more eggs to gather (be they chicken or Egg Bird), and, if you’re lucky, more stories to learn. And, in Little Dragons Cafe, every day of doing the same thing over and over eventually leads to you having a big goddamn dragon of your very own.