Ever played Cooking Mama? I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer is yes; after all, the franchise has, at last report, sold over 16 million copies. It’s not exactly the most “hardcore” of games, but there’s no denying that it’s at least reasonably fun. (Not to mention hilarious, if you suck enough at it.) But of all the things Cooking Mama is, there is one important thing that it isn’t: a first. Cooking Mama might be popular around the modern family video gamer, but it’s far from being the progenitor of the cooking genre. The fact is, cooking games have been around pretty much since the very dawn of video gaming as we know it.
For purposes of clarification, it’s a very specific category of game that I’m (briefly) covering here. Burger Time doesn’t count, because making the food is compounded by obstacles like enemies. Diner Dash doesn’t count, because you have no part in actually making the food. And Pizza Tycoon also doesn’t count, because it’s arguably more about managing the restaurant finances than it is about making the food. The primary focus of the game should be making the food to order, and little or nothing else. So that also means nothing based tangentially on a food mascot license, either.
So we start pretty much at the beginning, with Activision’s Pressure Cooker for the Atari 2600. This is one of my all-time favorite Atari games, and that catchy theme song is only half the reason. The other half is the utter insanity of the concept: you’re a fast food chef, and your job is to assemble burgers according to orders on the bottom of the screen. Except you aren’t just grabbing toppings out of bins like a normal chef; instead, you are in a room with a conveyor belt and five cannons that fire the toppings at you. You catch a topping simply by facing it while it is in flight. If the topping hits you in the face, back, or conveyor belt, it explodes, and you lose one of your 50 performance points. The performance points are basically this game’s equivalent of lives; you lose only one for dropping a topping, but you lose a lot more if you do things like put more than one of the same topping on the same burger, or let a burger drop off the conveyor belt, or try to deliver the burger down the wrong chute. It goes without saying that running out of performance points results in the game ending. They go fast, too, since the toppings fired at you do not necessarily correspond to the orders on the screen. Death is inevitable. Sometimes the game absolutely will not fire the correct topping at you. Such is the limit of video gaming in the early 1980’s.
Moving on from Pressure Cooker is the NES game Short Order/Eggsplode!. We’re really more interested in the Short Order half of the game, as Eggsplode! (the alternate game you get if you flip the Power Pad over) is really just a foot-controlled Whack-A-Mole clone. This is one of those NES games that requires the Power Pad, Bandai’s attempt to get gamers to exercise more. Short Order is simple in concept. You are given a sandwich order, and you must assemble it perfectly to order by stomping on the correct buttons on the Power Pad. Honestly, a game like this is really not very fun when playing in a modern emulator, since the game is deliberately simplified to make up for how relatively unwieldy the Power Pad is compared to a traditional controller. It’d probably be much more fun – and more prone to human error – to play with one’s feet.
Ore no Ryouri
Dialing the Time Machine forward a handful of years, we have a Japan-only Playstation release by the name of Ore no Ryouri, which I’m told translates into “I’m the Chef!” This game gained a small cult following in the States after the Japanese demo was hidden away on a Playstation Underground demo disc. It is one of the few Playstation games to require the Dual Shock controller to play, because the preparation of each dish (and all other tasks for that matter) involves a unique minigame involving the use of both analog sticks. Pouring a glass of beer, for example, is more than just sticking the mug under the spout and pouring. You are actually expected to make sure that the beer has a good head, by tilting the glass with one stick while adjusting the spout pressure with the other. Chopping meat and vegetables requires you to move your hand with one stick and the knife with the other, and it’s entirely possible to accidentally cut yourself. Being a Japanese game, most of the dishes are decidedly Japanese in origin, like ramen and soba. I am told that there is a more modern Wii-based version available called Order Up!, but I have not played it.
Ore no Ryomi 2
While that game never got an English release, a Game Maker developer going by the name Mr. Chubigans released two games based on it, entitled “Ore no Ryomi” (which I’m told translates into nothing at all) and made not as a straight remake of the game, but as an interpretation of a magazine preview for it. While they bear amateurish graphics and music borrowed heavily from other games (and Hollywood film scores), the gameplay carries over to the keyboard input quite nicely, at times feeling more like a typing tutor game than a game about cooking, but as you purchase the supplies for more dishes to cook, your restaurant becomes more and more crowded, and the game becomes more hectic. This game was quickly followed up with a more featureful sequel, whose graphics are now 100% drawn by the author, as opposed to being screenshot rips from the Playstation game…for better or worse. The game is still available to download for free at Vertigo Gaming. (Hey, do me a favor while you’re there, pester the guy to make a third game, will you? =P)
A lot of cooking games are actually not of the sort you can stick in a game console. Many are actually browser-based, but are not any worse for it. Back when games in browser windows were actually starting to become a thing, there was a Shockwave game by the name of Taco Joe (originally hosted at Shockwave.com). In this one, you basically work up a rhythm as taco shells scroll by on a conveyor belt. You aren’t working with different order types; all you need to do is make sure that every taco that passes gets one of every ingredient, and that you send the taco to the correct window (don’t try sending the taco to a window with no customer). In practice, it’s much harder than it sounds, especially with the need to kill cockroaches while you’re adding ingredients. The goal in each level is to make enough money (by giving customers complete tacos – you get no money if you forget an ingredient) to bribe the health inspector to let you stay in business.
A personal favorite among the browser-based games is the Papa’s series on Kongregate, by Flipline Studios. They aren’t in any particular order, but each one focuses on a different kind of restaurant. Papa’s Pizzeria obviously deals with pizza, but there are sequels involving pancakes, hamburgers, ice cream, and tacos. These are all made to order, naturally, but instead of being a strictly pass/fail thing like all the other games above, the Papa’s games will actually grade you in a percentage, based on how accurate you were with the various steps of the order, from how well-cooked the meat was, to the distribution of toppings (the rating won’t be as good if you just stack a lot of pepperoni on one side instead of spreading it) and how long it actually took you to get the order ready. Better ratings actually dictate how much money you make for each dish sold, which admittedly doesn’t work so well in real life (though I admit, I would love to see a pay-what-you-want burger joint).
And then we end up right back where we started, with the Cooking Mama series. Really, there isn’t much actual game to Cooking Mama. You are graded on the “quality” of your final dish, which does give you various medals (so you can brag to your friends that you got a gold medal on…popcorn?), but you generally aren’t pressured for time, and failing any of the individual steps of a dish just has Mama throw it away and do it herself. Where’s the “game”? Once you’ve cooked every dish, where’s the replay value? Why bother going back and making a dish again? Why is it that this game, as a series, has sold 16 million copies, while nobody really talks about the likes of Pressure Cooker or Taco Joe, despite them being better at being games?
Or maybe I’m just looking at this too hard?
Whatever the case, though, I would love to see more games about making food. We have yet to see games where you run a catering business, or games where you run a soup kitchen (there’s ripe material for one of those “Serious Games,” there)…
There’s one other idea, though, and I’d love to see a game developer roll with this one. You and your opponent are both chefs on opposite sides of a kitchen arena. You are each tasked with making various types of pies to throw at your opponent. Each pie has its own strengths, weaknesses, and individual traits – for example, a cream pie is quick and easy to make, but isn’t very “damaging,” but a lemon meringue pie takes longer and requires more precision in each step, but takes a lot out of your foe’s energy bar if it hits – but both chefs are not exactly stationary targets, as they dash between the different stations for making crust, filling, etc., so when a chef is aiming a pie, they need to be patient. Perhaps one could throw in a Scorched Earth sort of thing, too, where you need to adjust the angle and power of your throw in order to actually hit the opponent, giving you a reason to cook up lots of cream pies to use to gauge your throw for a costlier pie.
At this point I have to wonder if I’m actually this crazy, that I’m dreaming up ideas for fighting games involving pie.