What is it about cooking games that we love so much? Sure, food is a wonderful thing in real life, but when it’s on the screen you can’t ever realise its full pleasure, as you can’t taste it. That doesn’t seem to stop us or the fans of such games though. Maybe it’s the creative process and the subsequent dreaming of how it would taste.
Indeed, there’s a certain alchemy to cooking that’s hugely intriguing and that’s certainly something the developers at Ghost Town Games Ltd were going for when they made Overcooked. Published on Steam in 2016, this cooking simulation sees individuals and teams enter a series of high-pressure environments in a bid to serve up a tasty menu. Since it went live, the co-op game has received a 93% approval rating from the Steam community.
But why? Well, let’s have a look. In fact, while we’re at it, we’ll also try to explain why gamers have gorged themselves on cooking games for over two decades. To accurately review Overcooked and why it’s been so well received, we first have to take a look at the culture surrounding it.
A Smorgasbord of Cooking Games
Despite an explosion of culinary classics in the noughties, there have been cooking console games on the market since the eighties and Burger Bar. A platform game that has a Super Mario flavour to it, Burger Bar was an arcade hit in its day. Although the process of pushing burgers off of platforms and onto plates might not seem that appealing, it was.
Much like in most eighties’ classics, the increasingly tricky levels had a strangely addictive quality that kept players engaged for hours. Moving into the nineties, one of the best cooking games of the decade was Motoko-Chan no Wonder Kitchen. A point-and-click game developed by Super Famicom and released in 1993, this title was initially designed to be a promotional prize. In total, 10,000 units were produced and gamers could receive a copy if they entered a contest and proved they’d purchased two jars of Ajinomoto mayonnaise. In terms of gameplay, Motoko-Chan no Wonder Kitchen was a series of mini-games that were interesting, if not a little simple.
Beyond games that make cooking the heart of a dish, the world of food has been used to add something extra to other genres, often in the form of mini-games. The cooking experience in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an impressive use of the theme. In a bid to keep Link alive, you basically have to forage for fruits, vegetables, spices and more ingredients. Once you’ve loaded up your knapsack, you can combine and cook them in various ways to create different power-up items.
Another example of cooking nourishing another genre is a slot game titled More Chilli. Much like the developers of Zelda added cooking to the mix in order to create some variation, the developer of this slot, Aristocrat, chose the Mexican cooking theme to create a slot that appeals to fans of cooking as well as of cooking video games. Themed online slots have been gaining in popularity in recent years. The cooking theme in More Chilli comes in the form of chickens, peppers and chilli carts as symbols on the reels, and is perhaps directed at fans of the casual gaming genre who enjoy games such as Cafe World on Facebook.
Then there’s Nintendo’s Battle Chef Brigade. Combining RPG and puzzle elements, the game really does take the cooking experience to the max. Instead of presenting you with a neatly packed selection of ingredients, Battle Chef Brigade requires you to go out into the wild and literally fight for survival. After hunting for meat and making a clean kill, it’s back to the kitchen where you have to complete puzzles to prepare and create a hearty dish. This combination of action and logic puzzles captures the spirit of what makes a good game, which is why it has become something of a cult classic.
Time and Pressure are the Perfect Ingredients
OK, so now we know the lineage that precedes Overcooked, we can see how it stacks up against its peers. According to IGN’s Tom Marks, the game is a “graceful ballet” where a missed step means spoiled burgers, burning kitchens and wheelchairs plummeting into a lake of lava. In aesthetic terms, Overcooked looks similar to the Sims series of games. Quirky cartoon-style characters get to action in a variety of vibrant locations.
However, the real beauty of this game is its time constraints. Throughout the game, you’ll have just three minutes to complete each task. As is the case in most situations in life, a timer creates pressure. Although you’ll only really have to use two buttons to pick up items and then perform an action (e.g. chopping, washing etc), things are always exciting because of the time limit. On top of this, you’ll find that the environment you’re in is set to make things harder. Everything from moving ships and fires to broken dishwashers will impede your progress and make it even tougher for you to serve up the right dish at the right time.
The final aspect of Overlooked that’s worthy of praise is the co-op feature. Although it’s possible to play alone, the real fun and one of the main reasons for this indie title’s success is the option to bring other people into the mix. The developers have created a situation where teamwork is the key to success. Naturally, that’s easier said than done in the gaming world, especially when you’re racing against the clock to complete a task.
Indeed, when you combine this feature with a timer, unexpected obstacles and a set of increasingly tricky levels, it’s easy to see why Overcooked has captured the attention of the gaming community and even won a series of awards, including a video game BAFTA. Now, we could take the cooking aspects out the game and replace them with another theme and the dynamics of pressure, problem solving and co-operation will always be entertaining. However, what’s nice about Overcooked is that all of these things feel natural.
If you’ve ever watched a cookery show set in a professional kitchen, things rarely run smoothly. If it’s not a foul-tasting dish upsetting a customer, it’s a commis chef upsetting the head chef with a poorly chopped vegetable. On top of this, there’s always the added pressure of having to get each dish out of the kitchen and in front of a diner in the least amount of time possible.
This is something the team behind Overcooked has captured perfectly and that, in turn, helps give the game a certain realism. Indeed, if you compare Overcooked to a title such as Burger Bar, there’s clearly a much greater depth to the former. Sure, Burger Bar was fun and, at times, taxing. However, the lack of plausibility of setting is something that made it more of a throwaway product. That’s not to say that Burger Bar isn’t worth playing, it is. But, if you want to be engaged for longer, Overcooked is a much better option.
An Authentic Tasting Treat
Moreover, the fact that Overcooked stays true to the culinary genre helps to make it one of the best “cooking games” of the last couple of decades. Yes, the cooking aspects of Zelda are fantastic and the fact you can spin a food-themed slot and win big money is great. However, they aren’t cooking games from top to bottom. Instead, they’re using food to bring something extra to a seemingly incongruent genre.
Overcooked is a game that’s about cooking and all the things that make it interesting. Put simply, Cambridge-based Ghost Town Games Ltd has used the perfect blend of ingredients to create a hugely entertaining game. Is it the best of all time? Only time will tell. However, for our part, we enjoyed sampling this product and would certainly go back in for a second bite.