Cooking could be gaming's next gold rush

Video gaming is starving for a truly great cooking game. Think of everyone you know (think of everyone they know) and chances are they've at least heard of Top Chef, Chopped, or another cooking show bubbling through the networks. And yet, when you think of the term 'cooking game' what springs to mind? My guess: Cooking Mama's smiling face, and a lot of sadness. And while Cooking Mama has enjoyed some success, it's still far from the prestige a culinary game could achieve in this age of cooking competition fandom.

The absence of such a game has spawned some spirited competition among game developers to fill the vacuum left in the cooking genre. Two frontrunners are Battle Chef Brigade and Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!!, both scheduled for a 2016 release. It's a classic cooking matchup of fusion vs. tradition. Battle Chef melds several gaming styles into something uniquely different, while CSD2 masterfully executes on the classic cooking game style with some smart additions. But unlike other culinary competitions, this matchup could easily have more than one winner.

Billed as fantasy Iron Chef, Battle Chef Brigade is a cooking competition where you juggle monster slaying in an enchanted wood and cooking their tasty remains for the judges. But what sets BCB apart is how the cooking is entirely improvisational. The judges never ask for a magical Ceasar salad or some fantasy lasagna. Instead, you decide the best way to prepare the ingredients you've collected. To help you make these choices in a game where you can't taste or smell the screen, the BCB team had to go abstract with the art of cooking.

"We started off by trying to simulate real cooking," said Tom Eastman, lead developer on Battle Chef Brigade, "and that was a horrible mistake." As Tom explained, trying to make a simple pie would sometimes result in a surprise pizza if you screwed up one step in its woefully complex baking process. That idea got nixed for a more streamlined approach: a match-three puzzler. Don't roll your eyes; this is not Cooking Crush Saga!

Instead, each saucepan or skillet you choose is a mini grid, and the ingredients you place inside are the colored gems. Matching gems represents stirring or sauteing the ingredients, while the color of the gems indicates how sour or spicy the final dish will be. After playing a few rounds, I can say this system works surprisingly well. Since there are colored gems assigned to each ingredient, I was able to easily tell whether squid fin would pair well with plant bug stomach. "[BCB] is a puzzle that asks 'How can I best use these ingredients to improvise a dish?'" added Tom. "It's the difference between a cooking game and a chef game; between being told what to do and improving. You're performing something you want to make."

If Battle Chef Brigade is the quintessential chef game, then Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!! is the quintessential cooking game. In case you missed 2013's wonderfully hectic Cook, Serve, Delicious!, it plays a bit like Cooking Mama if Mama was a hard-workin' line cook preparing upwards of six orders at once while also managing chores around the kitchen. CSD is all about speed and meticulous execution where you're constantly re-evaluating your orders minute-to-minute; not unlike a real line cook.

For the sequel, lead developer David Galindo wants to revamp every aspect of the game, which means more than doubling the number of available dishes. Since the American staples of pizza and hamburgers were already covered, Galindo is going international to expand his menu. "When I think of what makes a great meal that answer is going to be different from country to country," he said. "I asked my artist, who is from Taiwan, some of the foods she'd like to see and one of them is pig's blood cake. And it really is a cake made out of congealed pig's blood and whow boy that's a million miles away from what I'm used to."

"It's a tragically underserved market. I find it very strange that we're not taking cooking games further."

As David Galindo and Tom Eastman toil away on their respective games, both are keenly aware of appetite that exists for a great cooking game. "It's a tragically underserved market," said Galindo. "No one thinks that food and cooking is anything more than a casual game, and maybe that's because of the success of Diner Dash and Cooking Mama has pigeonholed the genre. I just find it very strange that we're not taking cooking games further. It's going to take a game like Battle Chef Brigade or my game to break through and show people these games can be fun and successful too."

"The Food Network is extremely popular and cooking shows are extremely popular but somehow cooking is still a completely underrepresented genre in gaming," added Eastman. "There are so many different ways you can recreate that feeling of making something delicious - Cook, Serve, Delicious! does a good job of that, thankfully in a totally different style. The restaurant sim has been around for a while, but it's never really been about the competitive and improvisational aspects of cooking."

Over the years, video games have done an excellent job approximating all sorts of creative and technical pursuits. An entire school of martial arts can be distilled down into a single fighting game character. Whole armies in StarCraft 2 can be directed with just a few clicks. And yet, the timeless act of cooking a meal still languishes in the video gaming collective bargain bin when - through the lens of gaming - a cooking competition isn't far removed from these other play styles. All are about using a finite amount of resources faster, smarter, and more efficiently than your opponent, with victory coming from both creativity and execution.

Whether Battle Chef Brigade or Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!! pulls ahead, the winner will hopefully help kick off a new wave of culinary competitions.

Maxwell McGee
Maxwell grew up on a sleepy creekbank deep in the South. His love for video games has taken him all the way to the West Coast and beyond.