Virtual Insanities: Food and Video Games

Food. We love it, we need it and we can’t live without it. Just eating it isn’t enough. Somehow, every human being has a predisposition that brings him to play with his food. How many times has your mother said “stop playing with your food”? How many food fights have you witnessed in your elementary and high school years? There are even some people that find food arousing and are willing to pay websites to see naked women rolling around in cake and chocolate. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that a lot of video games over the years have featured food; sometimes in the lead role, sometimes as enemies and sometimes as pure, shameless product placement.

Over the years, some of my favourite video games have featured food in one way or another. For a couple of them, it seems natural, since a lot of games try to emulate life or human beings to a certain level. This is why we see Link drink some fresh Lon Lon milk to recover health, or why we see various fast food joints around San Andreas, all waiting to serve CJ another greasy meal. For other games, it gets a bit stranger. We are all used by now to seeing Mario stuff his face with various mushrooms, and we have all anxiously guided Pac-Man to the cherry before it disappeared.

However, this particular edition of Virtual Insanities is about video games that made a special place to edible items. It is my way of putting my two thumbs up and saying “Good job, food. You taste great, and sometimes, you even play great”. Of course, not all games featured here are classics worth revisiting again and again, but most of them are at worst fun little diversions that can keep you occupied for a couple of minutes. If it’s worth a laugh, it has to count for something, right?

When Food Goes to the Dark Side

One of the first major food-related video game was Burgertime. It was first released in Japan in 1982 before spending the next few years cloning itself to various consoles around the world, notably the Atari 2600, the Intellivision, the Commodore 64, the NES, and the Game Boy. The object of the game was to prepare delicious burgers by guiding Chef Peter Pepper through a maze of ladders, eventually making him trample the various ingredients until the dropped to the bottom of the screen. Of course, simply putting together the various layers of a hamburger wouldn’t be fun unless there was some obstacle. This is why Burgertime featured evil eggs and mad hot-dogs trying to make your life miserable by mercilessly pursuing you. As if being pursued by sentient food wasn’t strange enough, you could stun them with pepper, which you could refill with ice cream or French fries. I know it sounds about as logical as eating sand to quench your thirst, but back then, before everybody got crazy about “realism”, this was really just par for the course.

The game was popular enough, but its planned sequel was scrapped because of the video games crash of 1983. Eventually, two sequels were released as arcade games, namely Peter Pepper’s Ice Cream Factory and Super Burgertime. None of them had the success of the original, but Burgertime still remains in the heart and memory of many gamers. This is partly because Burgertime has left its mark on the industry by establishing that food items could be seriously annoying enemies.

Such a legacy can be seen in the strange NES game Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom. The game not only featured food as enemies (the evil Minister Pumpkin), it featured food everywhere. This game features a cucumber as a knight, a broccoli king, an octopus-strawberry and a persimmon sidekick. Originally released for various computers in 1984, the concept proved to be solid enough to warrant a Famicom port in 1988 and a USA release in 1991. Taking the usual concept of a knight rescuing a princess, the game made everything seem fresh again simply by injecting vegetables and fruits a characters into the story. In the end, it proved to be an enjoyable game, in the style of text adventures that were so popular on PCs at the time.

The NES was also the host of two more games where food was featured as living entities. The first one is Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, which was based on a cartoon which was itself based on the 1978 film of the same name. The game was a disaster, with boring gameplay and sloppy controls, which is never a good combination when it comes to platformers. It’s a shame, because I believe that murderous tomatoes can be very frightening, and I wonder why the concept has not been used yet in a Resident Evil title.

The second game was Panic Restaurant, in which you played as a chef resembling Chef Boyardee, who had his restaurant cursed by a jealous rival. Of course, this meant that the food inside your restaurant had come alive, which lead you to fight pizzas, carrots, cups of coffee and other menu items in order to lift the curse and defeat the villain. It was a standard platform affair that might look a little bland when compared to its contemporaries, but the game was still fun enough for children and was thankfully not that hard to finish, making it perfect for your pesky little brother, keeping him occupied while you played something manlier like The Adventures of Bayou Billy.

The “food as enemies” theme was shoved to the side for a while during the 16-bits era. Except for a few product placement games, which will be discussed later, the SNES and the Sega Genesis were not known as a haven for such games. I did a lot of research concerning the subject, and the next game on the list is Tonic Trouble, which was known primarily for its N64 version. This game featured all kinds of vegetables as baddies, like tomatoes with pitchforks, spinning carrots, boxing mushrooms or exploding beans. As Ed the janitor, you had to clean up the mess you created when you spilled some kind of potion that breaths life into inanimate objects. During development, it was hailed as an original, imaginative platformer. It was hyped as the next great 3-D adventure because it was being developed by the team that brought us Rayman. At least, they were half-right. It was creative and did feature some fun episodes, but for the most part, it featured graphics that were not up to the N64 standards of the time as well as poor controls. At least, we can praise the game for giving such a prominent role to vegetables.

Apparently, the game was also released on PC, and this version is supposed to be much better than its N64 counterpart. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no intention of seeking this game and finding out for myself. Can you blame me? I’ve been burned before.

Cooking and Serving

While a fantasy world filled with living vegetables can be a great setting for video games, the real world has also plenty to offer. A lot of activities that can be seen as boring can be much different when seen through the eyes of a video games developer. Sometimes, the only thing needed to make a mundane activity look fun is to add a timer, a score counter and a little bit of challenge.

One of the earliest example of that is Tapper, a famous arcade game released in 1983. Its premise is simple. You serve beer, collect tips and take back the empty mugs. Something that looked so simple at first ended up being very addictive because of the increasing challenge. Being popular enough in the arcades, the game was eventually ported to the various platforms of the time, and continues to appear on arcade classics compilations. However, the version you will often see is not the original, beer-serving Tapper, but the more kids-friendly version Root Beer Tapper. This version eliminated the huge Budweiser logo from the back wall, which was seen as advertising beer to children.

Also released in 1983, Pressure Cooker took the art of flipping burgers to Atari 2600 systems all around the country. Its frantic gameplay had the player trying to correctly assemble a hamburger according to the customers’ orders, without making a mistake, dropping burgers at the wrong place or getting hit in the head by flying toppings. The game was relatively successful, but ended up forgotten like a lot of other games released for the Atari 2600. An example would be the official video game of the Kool-Aid Man, in which you had to give drinks to a couple of people before moving to the next, faster stage. All you had to do in this game was to move the Kool-Aid Man, which proved to be boring quickly.

Over the years, cooking food and serving people did not prove to be a popular activity with gamers. In fact, we had to wait until the quirky games craze of the last few years, a genre that Diner Dash arguably contributed to popularize. First released as a PC game, it was one of the most downloaded titles of 2004, which gave way to multiple ports on handheld systems and mobiles. The game featured addictive gameplay that requires a lot of strategic thinking, trying to keep customers happy as you seat them, serve them and eventually collect the tips. The formula has been very successful, spanning sequels that sent the game to different restaurants and even on a cruise boat.

However, despite the success and praises that Diner Dash received, the most talked-about food game at the moment is Cooking Mama, a game in which the player must make different recipes by clearing each steps which are played as mini-games, like cutting, stirring and arranging the meals. Now available both on Wii and Nintendo DS, the game has created a legion of fanatics, hell-bent on unlocking new recipes and getting the best possible scores. Even critics couldn’t resist the charm of the game’s mascot as well as the simple but fun gameplay, although the Wii sequel was not as well-received as its predecessor due to the sometimes-unresponsive controls. One thing’s certain: we can probably expect more Cooking Mama in the future.

Product Placement and Shameless Plugs

In-game ads have been a hot topic for the last few months. Gamers are afraid that their beloved pastime is going to be flooded with content that makes absolutely no sense within the context of a game, and it’s easy to understand why this could become a problem. While it may look natural in a sports game that is supposed to look like a TV broadcast, it doesn’t look quite as good in a fantasy setting.

Sometimes, a simple publicity is not enough for advertisers. They feel the need to take it to the next level, by paying game studios to make full-fledged games around their products. As you can guess, few classics are made that way, and more often than not, the game ends up being a waste of time and plastic. Still, a couple of games managed to perform well despite their apparent tie-in to different companies.

The most successful campaign of that genre is arguably the Burger King-themed games, featuring The King himself doing different everyday activities, like racing pocket bikes, driving bumper cars and sneaking behind people to stuff burgers in their mouth. Partly because it was surprisingly fun and partly because the games were only $3.99 each, the campaign proved to be a financial boost for Burger King, bringing in millions of dollars. Despite mixed reviews, the games are fun diversions and effective time-killers.

Another game that ended up defying the odds starred a soft drink mascot. No, it’s not Coca-Cola presents Santa Claus vs the Mutated Anthropomorphic Polar Bears. The game I am talking about starred nothing more than a dot trying to save other dots. In the “minimalist design” department, this even beats Kirby, who at least has the merit of being a sphere, meaning that he is a three-dimensional character.

The game, namely Cool Spot, featured the red dot in 7Up’s logo going on the beach and around other locations trying to save others of his kind. Against all expectations, the game was very well designed, had attractive graphics and was nearly flawless in execution. It was an entertaining platformer, and as a kid, I never had the opportunity to finish it because it was actually challenging. Finally, it was a success on nearly every platform it was released, and I say “nearly” because I don’t have any reports on how it fared on the Amiga or PC. Developer Virgin Interactive took note of the game’s success and ordered a sequel. This is where things get ugly.

Spot Goes to Hollywood looks like a mistake from the start. It was first released on the Genesis, but not as a platform game. Trying to take away everything that was good in the first game, the developers made this one an isometric-view action game with sloppy controls and poor hit detection. Despite the lack of quality, the game was still released a full year later for the Playstation, and even got a Saturn port in Japan, probably killing Spot’s streak of popularity for good. As you probably noticed, the red spot on 7Up’s logo doesn’t have shades or a mouth anymore.

Chester Cheetah was another junk-food mascot that starred in platform games. However, unlike 7Up, Cheetos’ attempt at video games was crappy from the start, with weird levels layout, lousy jumping and simply boring gameplay. Shitty platform games were a common occurrence on the SNES and Sega Genesis, but when combined with a cheetah representing cheesy snacks, it hit rock bottom. When the game’s one claim to fame is a badly translated line in the instruction manual, you know that something’s wrong.

“As is Chester Cheetah way, is one-person play”

There you go, that’s the best part of the series. Chester Cheetah had two games to his name: Too Cool to Fool and Wild Wild Quest. Both were equally as bad, but thankfully, I spared you the pain of looking for more information about these titles. Now you really know everything you need to know about these abominations of product placement.

In Closing

Video games and food seem to be made for each other. Whenever you get together with friends for a long session of Mario Party or Guitar Hero, it’s a certainty that somewhere around the living room, bowls of chips and other greasy food will be waiting for you to stuff your face and at the same time, get your fingers slippery, making sure that someone loses his grip on a controller. Food is vital to every human being, including us gamers. It should come as no surprise that something that occupies our thoughts so often will end up in our hobbies. While Cooking Mama seems to be the food game of the hour, we can only guess that more games will try to snatch the crown from Majesco’s quirky series, including the flash-game phenomenon Cake Mania, which is set to be released on handhelds soon. While making food proved to be a solid basis for quality games, what I wish to see is more games where food plays an active role. I guess that what I want is a sequel to Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom. I guess I could live with a game just like Tonic Trouble, but please, make it fun this time.