Cooking Video Games Hit the Shelves

In the Iron Chef America video game, players compete in culinary challenges against Iron Chefs Mario Batali, Cat Cora and Masaharu Morimoto. Video by Destineer
By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Filleting a whole fish takes practice, but not as much as you might think. You have to carefully follow the spine, then trace around the gills to get the head to pop off. The whole process is remarkably clean, at least when you're doing it on the Nintendo Wii.

There's no blood, no guts, no odor. Just you and your remote, pointed toward the TV and mimicking the movements of cooking. Fail to do it quickly or accurately enough, though, and eventually you might hear one of the judges on the new Iron Chef America: Supreme Cuisine game announce, "I've had better dishes in my trailer."

Things could be worse. You could be in the weeds at Hell's Kitchen, where the intricacies of cooking are lost in a whirlwind of ticking clocks and cries of customer dissatisfaction, all while chef Gordon Ramsay breathes down your neck. Time your dishes wrong so that too many customers wait around, and they'll start sighing and scoffing and throwing their hands in the air. As you scramble to keep up, your heartbeat quickens and grows louder until, in a blaze of flames, Ramsay slams the doors on you and shouts, "Don't even think about touching another [bleeped-out] thing in this kitchen!"

Inspired by hit games such as Cooking Mama from Japan and the arcade-style Diner Dash, producers who want a piece of the $2.25 billion casual video game industry have realized that if couch potatoes want to bowl and box, play golf and tennis, race go-karts or shred like rock stars, some of them also want to "cook." And as TV cooking competitions continue to multiply, developers are turning them into video games.

Diner Dash, a 2004 downloadable game that became a phenomenon, follows a waitress/restaurateur named Flo as she hustles around and tries to earn points by keeping patrons happy. (Unlike the character in the 1970s TV sitcom "Alice," this Flo never tells a customer to "kiss my grits.")

Hell's Kitchen, released this past summer for the Wii and handheld Nintendo DS, puts a decidedly edgy spin on the concept, echoing the tone of the expletive-laced Fox reality show of the same name. As in Cooking Dash, a sequel to Diner Dash, Hell's Kitchen casts the player as cook, host, waiter, expediter and busboy. Rather than start out with hearts above their heads to indicate satisfaction, though, Hell's customers begin with a neutral attitude, then build up frustration (indicated by growing flames) if they tire of waiting.

The game reduces cooking to a numbers game and to the sort of plate-juggling circus act that anyone who read chef Anthony Bourdain's 2001 "Kitchen Confidential" will recognize. In Hell's Kitchen you click on a set of ingredients that spin above a mixing bowl for a few seconds, then drop in when ready. You must drag them in the right combinations to pots, pans and baking dishes, paying close attention to the number of seconds each dish takes to cook and ideally arranging for things to be done at the same time. Completed dishes can lose points (measured in stars) if they overcook on the stove or cool off before they reach the dining room.

The game can be downright addictive as you try to master growing numbers of diners in hopes of hearing Ramsay say, clutching his chest, "I'm a very proud man." But since all you do is point and click, it doesn't take advantage of the Wii's ability to track your motion as you swing the remote as if it were a knife or skillet.

That's something put to better use in games such as the Cooking Mama franchise and Iron Chef. In these games, the Wii remote becomes your hand as you hold a knife, spoon or pan handle and chop, stir, tilt or flick.

Iron Chef, based on the Food Network show, might as well be called Iron Prep Cook, though. On TV, those Iron Chefs are watching the clock, but they're also focused on creative use of the "secret ingredient." The game strips out the creativity, leaving you to impress the judges solely with your task-execution ability.

The best part of the game may be its use of the voices of commentator Alton Brown, Mark "The Chairman" Dacascos and chefs Mario Batali, Cat Cora and Masaharu Morimoto, along with the same over-the-top music and kitschy formality of the show.

The Iron Chef developers, from Destineer, calibrated the remote to require elbow grease, making the game capture the physical exhaustion of the show. The character animation is disappointingly herky-jerky rather than cinematic, but some of the food is beautiful, such as big caps of portobello mushrooms that from above look unrecognizable until you start slicing them into neat fans on your cutting board.

But you can't really see your dishes coming together, and, unlike in Hell's Kitchen, you don't have a good sense of your performance until judgment time. You battle a series of fictional characters before taking on the celebrity chefs, but you don't see what your competitor is up to, although that might not be so different from competing on the show. "When I'm cooking on 'Iron Chef,' I don't ever look at what the other guy's doing. I don't have time," said Batali, who reported that he and his two sons recently had a blast playing the game with actor Jimmy Fallon.

Cooking Mama and its spinoffs, even as they put you in a Hello Kitty-like environment that anyone over the age of 12 may have difficulty enduring, offer more realistic cooking moments. Tilting the remote to coat a saute pan with butter provides such a vivid connection that you can almost smell the pat as it melts.

In one game, the line between fantasy and reality gets particularly blurry. What's Cooking? Jamie Oliver, a game for the handheld DS that doubles as an electronic cookbook, lets you navigate a hyper-realistic kitchen, deciding which utensils and pans to use and how to do so in following Oliver's recipes. Poaching shrimp is almost excruciatingly exacting: You have to move shrimp from pantry to countertop and a pot from pantry to sink. Then you turn a faucet on and off to fill the pot with water, drag it to a burner, turn up the heat, wait until the water boils, uncover the pot, drop in the shrimp, wait for them to turn pink, then pull them out.

You also can put together dishes of your own, and the device tracks the ingredients and amounts and writes a recipe as you work. It's all beautifully designed, but as in Iron Chef and Cooking Mama, after an hour or two of chopping, slicing, grilling, boiling and mixing, you start to wonder: Shouldn't I be cooking something I can actually eat for dinner?

Even Alton Brown hinted at such doubts, although he said his 9-year-old daughter, Zoe, couldn't put down the DS version of Iron Chef. "If you had told me a few years ago we'd be talking about food video games, I'd have thought you were crazy," he said. "Why would you stand in front of your TV and pretend to chop an onion when you can go into the kitchen and chop a real onion?"

Excellent question, and one for which Kyle Orland, author of "Wii for Dummies," had an immediate answer. "Put me in front of a real onion, and I'll make a mess of it," he said. "But in Cooking Mama, I can chop it perfectly every time."

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