[15 December 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Cooking games on the Wii are usually a long series of thematically linked mini-games. You wave your arms about in a gesture that resembles the required action on screen, scoring points for how effective you are at replicating that action while learning a recipe throughout this process. Activities like cutting a steak or peeling a potato are repeated, teaching you to speed up as you learn the correct motions. It’s not a terrible way to simulate cooking. You spend most of the time doing the same things over and over. The Food Network’s Cook or Be Cooked! is one of the first cooking games to incorporate multi-tasking into the system. It proves to be just enough of a kick to make the game interesting to play.
The game begins with Susie Fogelson and Maury Thompson crawling through a television and into a virtual kitchen. After giving you the ability to bend time and space, they ask you to cook 12 different meals for them and rank you accordingly. The box’s claim of presenting 30 recipes is accurate in only the loosest sense, technically you prepare 30 different dishes but those are divided into the meals. All recipes come from the book How to Boil Water, which should give you an idea of the actual dishes that you’ll be preparing: lasagna, bacon & eggs, hamburgers, etc.
Individual actions in the game work like other cooking titles. You wave your hand in a gesture resembling the cooking action on screen. The various dishes that you’re making appear in the top left. To find out the next step, you just hold the remote over it and then press to start the process. What’s unique about the game design is that you get bonus points for multi-tasking. In order to make sure that the multiple dishes are all still warm, you’ll often have to cook things simultaneously. It’s a really engaging dynamic because it’s basically what you do when you’re actually cooking. Little clocks and times appear above all the activities, telling you how long they have to cook. While the water is coming to a boil, you can dash over to chop onions for the sauce or get your salsa ready. If you hit a lull while you’re waiting for something to cook (they are all timed realistically), then you can hit fast-forward and advance time.
Design encourages multi-tasking by awarding more points, and you’ll also learn to multi-task like you would in real cooking. The more complex the recipe, the more dishes with numerous steps you have to finish in tandem. This was engaging for me both in single player and multiplayer modes when you race off against another player. There’s another mode called “Hot Potato” where you just pass the controller back and forth while comparing points, but because these are based purely on the Wii-mote gestures, it’s a bit flat. Indeed, it’s the multi-tasking that makes this game fun.
The game is not without its problems. Susie Fogelson’s avatar has a bit too much eye liner, making it look like her eyeballs are coming from some sort of weird infinite universe. I’m comfortable believing a Food Network host has supernatural powers, but this isn’t really the best way to depict that. Most of the recipes are heavy on butter and oil, including the salads, making one wish they’d at least teach a few healthy alternatives. The game itself is short, it took me about 3 hours to plow through all 12 dinners, and it could stand a huge increase in complexity and difficulty.
While the time elements of the game are what make it fun, there are a few problems. I should be able to undo an action like turning the oven on or putting water on to boil if I realize that it’s screwing up the recipe. There also ought to be an overall timer for the host’s hunger to make things more interesting. The only clock gauging your progress is self-imposed, it would be a lot more exciting if you had to get the lasagna in the oven before company came over. Finally, since every cooking game seems to think chopping is the most fun activity to do with the Wii-mote, it would be nice if they bothered to show proper hand positions. Fingers in, knuckles out, thumb tucked. Someone imitating their actions in the game by wailing away at an onion and chopping their finger off could be prevented pretty easily with just a few animations.
Despite trying several Wii cooking games since the console’s release, I’ve never really enjoyed any of them. They were always more content than game design, more about pretending you’re cooking than actually doing anything relevant to the task. Food Network’s Cook or Be Cooked! is the first one that actually reminded me of the mind-games I play while cooking. It’s not perfect, but since the biggest flaw of the game was that I ended up wanting more, I don’t think it should be penalized too heavily for it. More recipes, more challenges, and a little bit more complexity in the time design are all this game really needs to be excellent.