For a long time, Yasuhiro Wada wasn’t really creating games anymore. After making his name with the peaceful farming series Harvest Moon, Wada did what most veteran Japanese game developers do: he got into management. That included stints at places like Marvelous Entertainment and Grasshopper Manufacture, where he oversaw titles like cult horror game Deadly Premonition, and the cute life simulator Little King Story. They were great games, but they never felt like they were his. So in 2012, he started Toybox Inc., a new company where he could make the games he wanted. “I have more freedom to do what I want to do,” Wada says.
Toybox has released a handful of titles since then, most recently an ambitious sandbox game called Birthdays the Beginning. But the company’s next release is much more in line with what fans will expect from the creator of Harvest Moon. It’s called Little Dragons Cafe, and it’s a game about, well, running a cafe with the help of a dragon.
The experience is split into two main parts. On one side, you’re managing a restaurant by hiring staff, cooking meals, and serving customers. But in order to gather the ingredients you need, you’ll have to venture out into a dangerous forest with the help of a cute dragon. As you raise the dragon and it becomes stronger, the wilderness will slowly open up, as you can reach new areas and take on tougher enemies. And — since it’s a game from the creator of Harvest Moon — there will naturally be elements of farming and fishing as well.
Little Dragons Cafe has a charming storybook sense of style, sort of like a fairy tale rendered through an anime lens. And from what I played briefly at GDC this year, it’s remarkably pleasant, with the same playful, sweet tone that made the original Harvest Moon so endearing back on the Super Nintendo. You cook meals by performing a short musical rhythm game challenge, and the dragon itself is painfully adorable. It’s soothing to just plant and water seeds at a leisurely pace. “It can’t be helped,” Wada says of the inevitable Harvest Moon comparisons that Little Dragons Cafe invokes. “I’m lucky to have made something people liked and can compare to.”
He’s also happy to be making the kinds of games he loves again. Wada is part of a growing list of iconic Japanese game creators who have left large companies to form their own studios. With the launch of Toybox six years ago, he joined the likes of Mega Man designer Keiji Inafune and Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, among others. And while Wada insists that the timing is coincidental, the motivations behind these moves are similar.
“When you’re in a big company and you get [older], you’re not able to do what you want to do, which is make games,” he says. “Before I started my own company, I wasn’t directly involved in making the games. I was away from the creative aspects. When I was younger, it felt like ‘I am making this!’ With the Harvest Moon games, I could say I’m the one who made it. Little King Story, No More Heroes… I was affiliated with them, but there were other people doing the real creative work. It didn’t feel like I was involved. It was sad.”
When Harvest Moon debuted in the mid-‘90s, it tapped into a largely underserved market. It had no violence or complicated controls, instead focusing on building relationships and comparatively mundane tasks like growing carrots or milking cows. And while the game was successful and spawned a long-running series, in some ways, it feels like today’s market is more open to the kinds of games Wada makes. The last few years have seen huge mainstream titles like FarmVille, Animal Crossing, and the surprise indie hit Stardew Valley, which was heavily inspired by Harvest Moon. Meanwhile, new platforms like smartphones have broadened the audience for games, and that’s something Wada hopes to continue as he gets back to making his own.
“I believe there are many possibilities for video games, and there are many different audiences. In order to broaden those possibilities, I want to create games that are different from other games that are already out there,” he says, noting however that “just because something is different, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be popular.”
Little Dragons Cafe will make its debut on the Nintendo Switch and PS4 on August 24th. And for Wada, it’s a chance to continue building off of ideas he’s been exploring for more than two decades. He says he’s never completely satisfied when he finishes a new game, so he views each title as a chance to reach the ever-elusive feeling of perfection. “That’s what motivates me to make the next game better,” he says.