The best part of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild is the cooking. There’s something deliciously absurd in the sheer number of meals Link can make for himself. It’s more than roasted apple or maybe a steamed fish. With a simple cooking pot and a few ingredients, Link can make pies, omelets, soups, and risottos. After a difficult battle, Link can indulge in egg pudding, or something a little more filling like a hearty salmon muenière.
Despite my personal indifference towards cooking, I absolutely adore games about food. Food games are diverse in their gameplay and in their relationship to food. Games like Diner Dash focus more on managing a restaurant than cooking for one. Order Up! tasks players with creating speedy and delicious dishes for picky customers and climbing the rank from fast-food cook to culinary chef. The Cooking Mama series, meanwhile, walks players through the basic steps of food preparation, without all the pesky specifics. While some may view these games as menial time wasters, food games have proven themselves to be an incredibly creative genre.
Food games have flourished on the Internet in part thanks to sites like Kongregate or Shockwave. My earliest memory of a food game I played incessantly was called Taco Joe on Shockwave. Players must help Joe sell enough tacos to bribe the health inspector. Rather than cooking under a time limit, Joe cooked based off rhythm. Tacos move at a fixed speed on a conveyor belt, so players must add ingredients just at the right time before the taco surpasses that ingredient’s station. Customers all want the same type of taco, so players aren’t faced with specific orders, nor do the customers leave if players take too long. They simply have to stay in rhythm with the conveyor belt, which is easier said than done.
Taco Joe is a bit more innovative than other food games, which can be as identical as the vast as the thousands of hairstyling games geared towards young girls. Maybe you’ve played Papa’s Pizzeria, but you’re bored of pizza. Well, try wings (Papa’s Wingeria), or pancakes (Papa’s Pancakeria) or hot dogs (Papa’s Hotdoggeria). Tons of franchises, like Cake Mania, Let’s Get Cooking, or Diner Dash provide a steady stream of sequels to satisfy whomever wants a slight twist on an established format.
This isn’t to say most browser cooking games aren’t fun, but that they brought upon the sense that cooking games were casual time-spenders. Their stories are minimal, and their gameplay quick to learn. I will always love these games, and no matter how many times Papa comes out with a new game featuring a new food item, I will play them all. But in the past few years, the genre has only proved itself to be a form that means more than wasting a little time.
Not only did Overcooked, one of my favorite games from last year, remind people that couch co-op is still a vital part of gaming, but it also made simple dishes into absolute nightmares to cook. Overcooked brought teamwork into the cooking that isn’t seen often in the genre. Simple in nature, the game’s difficulty is tied to its mayhem. Making a simple soup out of three mushrooms or onions becomes almost impossible when the stove or cutting board suddenly floats away. Overcooked still provides a timer and inpatient customers ready to bail on their food, but it’s more about finding a cooking flow with friends in hectic environments than serving every customer a good meal.
The most recent title to redefine cooking in games is Battle Chef Brigade, which released this November. Cooking in Battle Chef Brigadeis done through a match-three puzzle game. Some games, like Cooking Mama, try to recreate the experience of cooking, such as twisting a controller to stir, or moving it up and down to chop. Battle Chef Brigade’s take is more metaphorical than literal.
The most interesting thing about the game is that players create their own matches. That is, the puzzle is as easy or as difficult as the player creates it to be. In Battle Chef Brigade, players aren’t handed the right ingredients to create the perfect dish. Instead, they must hunt and scavenge for the food before cooking it. In addition to a specific food needing to be in the dish, judges will also want their dish to be a specific type of flavor. For example, one judge may want her dish to be primarily earth, while another judge may want a mix of fire and water. Each type of food comes with its own elemental flavors so complex dishes.
The great news is that food games will continue to be part of gaming. Upcoming experimental games like Nour by Tj Hughes turns food into objects to play with. Nour strips the pressure out of cooking or winning any competition; the main goal is to have fun with food we all know and love.
Playing so many games about food hasn’t made me into a better cook by any means. I still have no creativity in the kitchen. I need a recipe to make anything more complex than a bowl of pasta. But these games have helped me appreciate cooking as an art form. We may not be able to cook or spend money on a bowl of prime meat and seafood fry like Link in Breath of The Wild, but at at least we have games to let us experiment with our food.
Shonté Daniels is a poet who occasionally writes about games. Her games writing has appeared in Kill Screen, Motherboard, Waypoint and elsewhere. Her poetry can be seen at Puerto del Sol, Baltimore Review, Phoebe, and others literary journals. Check out Shonte-Daniels.com a full archive, or follow her for sporadic tweeting.