There have been a lot of articles about nineties games developed for the Famicom and/or NES on this site lately, and that's simply because there's not a lot of info on them. They certainly deserve more appreciation despite their passing over in favor of games on 16-bit consoles, and it shows that their generally heightened standards of graphics and performance were meant to prove that Nintendo's old gray mare still is what it used to be. It turned out to not be the case and official support was discontinued in 1994, but many of those sunset-era NES games still did the damnedest they could with the limitations they were given. Many rightfully hold up Kirby's Adventure as the last truly great NES game for playing well and looking great, but there were other titles released close around it that had little marketing push in their favor. Panic Restaurant was one such title to fall between the cracks, and it is unfortunate that it has done so, as it's actually quite a good action-platformer that bases itself around a running theme that somehow doesn't get old even when you're at the final level.
The plot is as basic and straightforward as you can get, wherein you essay the role of the Boyardee-esque chef Cookie, owner of the oddly named “Eaten” Restaurant. A nefarious rival chef called Ohdove (who greatly resembles Snidely Whiplash and possibly a prototypical version of Waluigi) knocks out poor old Cookie by dropping a lot of fruit on his head and takes over Eaten with his army of foodlings. From the get-go, the ever-present visual motif for Panic Restaurant is flagrant: Food. Lots and lots of evil food trying to kill you, specifically.
Right at the start, you're assaulted by headless baked chickens and large carrots which pop out of the ground. The first boss is a large pan filled with popcorn, which bursts and flings popped kernels everywhere after hitting it thrice. Rolling pizza, jiggling flan on walking dishes, onions which peel down after the first hit, and diagonally-flying meat kebabs are among the many edible enemies you will face. It may be a bit of a cheesy and silly running theme, but it's also quite charming and impressive to see all the ways food can be bad for you outside of too much fat and heart disease. It's almost as if the arcade classic Burgertime was made into a full-fledged scroller!
The incredibly colorful and cheery graphics are very immediately noticeable when first starting this game up, yet another example of a title released in the fading years of the NES and made the most of its evolved capabilities. Panic Restaurant has a sort of overall pastel palette with light yellows and blues predominantly floating about the first level and a generally calming appearance throughout the rest of the game. The enemies all seem as if they wandered out of an old-timey Warner Bros toon, and the game does feel as if it was meant to appeal to a younger audience. It is regardless enjoyable for all ages, not dissimilar to how the Kirby series can be appreciated by anyone young or old. You'd probably expect the soundtrack to match the cartoonish style, and you would be correct with a mostly bouncy and upbeat set of tunes which all fit their appropriate stages. There's nothing incredibly memorable in the audio files that you'll be humming after you've played enough, but there's nothing offensive either that will leave a bad taste in your brain.
The main goal of each level is to smash or avoid all the malevolent munchables roaming about and fry the hash of the stage boss. Cookie's primary weapon is the tried-and-true frying pan, which is quick but has a pretty darn short range. It's always there if you don't have any of the other four weapons, all of which beef up your power significantly. The most common power-up is the spoon, which is unrealistically larger than the pan and doubles your attack range. You can also pick up dishes which come in potentially unlimited supply and are thrown in an arc, having more range than the pan or the spoon and can potentially hit enemies below you if you aim it just right.
Then there's the almighty pogo-fork, which completely changes your method of attack by making you able to actually destroy enemies in the classic Super Mario Bros “jump-on-their-head” style. It can be tough to use as it disables the use of the B button for attack and has you constantly jumping around, but it's a formidable albeit somewhat situational weapon. Finally, the cooking pot makes you completely invincible to attack for several seconds as Cookie spins around like a doof with the pot on his head. These weapons are all helpful but are taken away if you are hit even once (save for the pot, naturally), so if you want to keep belting out better offense, you'll have to closely mind your defense.
Cookie can only take two hits, which certainly seems like a small amount of damage, but the game's easygoing pace makes it manageable to protect yourself once you get used to the short range of your default frying pan. Still, pieces of candy can replenish one of your missing hearts, and lollipops fully recover your life in addition to adding another heart, maxing out at four hearts for until you lose all of your lives. Of course, you can also pick up bonus lives in the form of chef hats, most of which tend to be somewhat out of the way and a bit tricky to collect. Amongst these permanent power-ups are briefly-bouncing coins that fall from clobbered enemies and shower out from wrecked bosses.
In between levels is where you get to make use of all those coins, where a slot machine can potentially add to your points, give you a heart, max out your hearts at the limit of four, or even snag a bonus life. Some stages even contain one of two bonus levels, where you either get to catch bird eggs falling on a pan (while avoiding bombs) and use a goofy extending hand to snag fish leaping from the ocean (and not grabbing exploding fish which resemble Bullet Bills from the Mario universe). Seeing as how points do earn you bonus lives, it's worth tracking them down, as the latter stages get gradually lengthier and having to start them over can be annoying. You thankfully have infinite continues, so the game ends only if you run out of patience.
Panic Restaurant is not an incredibly challenging game, but it's not a complete pushover either. It's certainly not a lengthy one with only six stages for play, each one named after a meal course: Appetizer, Soup, Salad, Fish, Meat, and Dessert. It builds on a steady difficulty incline in which each stage is tougher than the last, but it's a slight tad simpler to handle than that which constitutes standard action-platformer fare. It takes a bit of timing to hit enemies with your short-range frying pan, but once you get used to offense, you'll be good for the first two-thirds of the game.
The bosses are pretty easy once you've figured out their patterns, like the rogue microwave which releases running fried chickens, the walking wok pan which bombards you with shrimp from above, and the giant hamburger which splits its patty apart from its buns which then attempt to squish you. The last two stages is where the difficulty gets up to a substantial level, as the penultimate level is the dreaded ice world, and the amount of old-school instant death sharp spikes ratchets up. Enemies come at you from weird angles and you have to not get knocked into pits, and the large ice cream cone at the end attempts to destroy the floor beneath you. The last level has a lot of tricky jumps and enemies to deal with, and it's a pretty dang long stage to boot.
The finale against Ohdove is a decidedly interesting change of pace where you duke it out in an aerial duel. You get a unique weapon for this last battle in the form of eggs, which don't have too much for horizontal range but can be dropped below you indefinitely. Meanwhile, Ohdove fires carrots at you in a three-way spread and keeps charging at you with his evil balloon pan. You have to avoid his attacks and hit his balloon quickly enough before he can re-inflate it, actually making for a tricky final battle if you play too conservatively.
It's unfortunate that the English version just abruptly ends after the final battle, where Cookie falls through the sky, safely lands (after an amusing fake-out), and re-opens Eaten with "THE END" printed in big gold letters beneath the open doorway. That's it, without any credits or even the game looping over to restart at the beginning. (On the other hand, the Japanese version has a nice slideshow and a credits sequence.) Story is an absolutely unessential element to Panic Restaurant, but it's still kind of a ripoff; most straightforward action games usually have short endings if any at all, but they're usually more substantial than a mere “THE END” without any credits to follow it. The lack of adequate conclusion is somewhat complimented by the game's short length, wherein at least one or two more levels would have made it feel meatier instead of bloated. Granted, the last two levels do really turn up the heat and may take multiple tries to beat, and there are no passwords to pick up your progress later, but the manageable difficulty combined with infinite continues and the short playtime may make Panic Restaurant feel more like a snack instead of a meal.
That's all there is to digest about Panic Restaurant, one of the last uncomplicated 2D action games on the NES. If it didn't have its ever prominent “killer food” enemy design, it probably would have been a generic if still solid action game. As it stands, its visual style gives it that slight dash of spice needed to set itself apart from the rest of the cookie-cutter 2D NES games. Yet just like most other NES games released late on the system, it did not sell too well but at least received recognition with a full-on walkthrough in issue #38 of Nintendo Power. Having been published by Taito (mostly known for their arcade output) and developed by the obscure and defunct EIM, it was perhaps a game meant to be served rare. It's strange how much devotion Nintendo Power put into these games that otherwise got little to no media coverage, but Panic Restaurant is one of many that deserved better. It's quite a delicious dish that may come in small portions, but it's a rich and delectable selection that is likely to incur as many bad food-related puns as this paragraph already has done.
Before Panic Restaurant came to Western territories, it was called “Wanpaku Kokkun no Gourmet World” in Japan, with “wanpaku” meaning “naughty” (a familiar word to Splatterhouse enthusiasts) and “Kokkun” being the name of the protagonist. Kokkun looks much younger than Cookie, and instead of a frying pan, he bashes opponents with his head. It has the exact same functionality as Cookie's pan, but it looks significantly goofier. The bad guy is also called “Hors D'Oeuvre” (the French word for “appetizer”), likely what the rather goofy “Ohdove” was supposed to be in America but was badly Romanized or simply truncated to fit into his text box for the few lines he actually speaks in the game.
Naughty Kokkun mostly plays the same as Panic Restaurant, but it is quite a bit easier with less frustrating enemy placements and a bit more generosity in power-up distribution. The Japanese box art also depicts a more accurate portrayal of the in-game action as opposed to the utterly nightmarish US cover, where Cookie looks like a giant-headed drunken murder maniac. Interestingly enough, the European version of the game is mostly identical to the American version, except its cover art is also different and far more representative of the actual game than the US box.