Welcome to Gamer Week, in which The Takeout will be celebrating the edible side of video games all week long.
I have loved video games since I was a kid, and I’ve torn through a shitload of them during the pandemic, too: Outer Wilds, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, Hades, Mass Effect 3, Doom Eternal, and way more than I can possibly think of offhand. I just started Octopath Traveler. But aside from the hilarious Cooking Simulator, which I am still mentally processing, very little of my pandemic gaming has been food-related.
While I searched the internet for video games involving food, I stumbled upon something curious: once upon a time, Jamie Oliver had a video game called What’s Cooking? with Jamie Oliver, released for the Nintendo DS. This blew my mind. It was released in 2008, and I’d never heard of it. I am pretty sure Jamie Oliver does not want you to know about it either, because it got some pretty gnarly reviews. IGN gave it a 4.9 out of 10 (which, if you can’t already tell, is rough). Our sibling site Kotaku was a little nicer about it.
I asked my fiancée if she knew where her Nintendo DS was. I heard her rummaging around in the closet and after some muttering, I heard her muffled voice say, “I found it!” If there’s anything that rivals my enjoyment of regularly making terrible food, it’s playing terrible video games. I had to try this.
Copies of the game were going for $5 on eBay. If a game sinks that low in the resale market, you know that it has a sad past that very few people want to revisit. Because I wasn’t sure how long an eBay order was going to take to get to me, or what kind of condition it would be in when it arrived (remember all the hair that came on my Eggstractor?), I settled on a new, still shrinkwrapped copy for $8.95 from Walmart. It arrived quickly, probably because the Walmart fulfillment center was happy to get rid of it. I wonder how many boxes it was buried under.
When you first fire up the game, you’re greeted with some cheerful cheesy synth tunes and a photo montage of Jamie Oliver along with some food. A grainy, terribly bitcrushed audio clip plays of Oliver saying, “Good morning, let’s have some breakfast.” You know what, Jamie? I’d love some breakfast.
The game has two modes: the cookbook and the test kitchen. The cookbook isn’t a game, it’s just a cookbook, and it has a large amount of recipes in Oliver’s signature breezy cooking style, like pan-baked chicken with white beans and chorizo, a summer pea and watercress soup, and a handful of breakfast and dessert recipes. They’re all solid, straightforward, and look great.
The cookbook even has a shopping list function, in case you were planning on going to the grocery store in 2008 with your Nintendo DS while everyone watched you scroll through the list with your stylus. Nintendo is here to make your whole life better.
Really, though, what’s most important is the cooking mode, where the game (and this part actually is more of a game) teaches you how to chop, stir, cook, and assemble ingredients in order to make some of these dishes. In theory, this is a wonderful idea, especially for those who are timid in the kitchen and are afraid of real-world failure. But I just couldn’t wait to ruin every single dish I created.
You do nearly everything with the stylus on the touchscreen, which could be pretty fun, but the technology isn’t perfect, so things get weird fast. My first attempt at cracking an egg resulted in the egg completely disappearing. Chopping ingredients is tedious; it’s sort of like swiping at fruit in Fruit Ninja, but way less fun. It’s also really easy to add too much of one item to a mixing bowl because the meter indicating how much of a single ingredient you need can go from too little to too much in only a few shakes.
Stirring stuff is mildly entertaining, though. All you do is pick up a spoon or a whisk, drag it to a bowl, and move it around in a circle until all of your ingredients are blended. A heartwarming activity for all.
But then there’s other things. A basic tutorial involving shrimp and watermelon was baffling, because the recipe referred to a watermelon that was nowhere to be found in the kitchen. I know because I rifled through everything for it, including the oven. If you accidentally drag an ingredient to the wrong station, hunting around the kitchen to track down the lemon you somehow lost is a real chore. And just like in real life, countertop space is limited, so once you’re done with something, you need to put it away immediately.
Plating is also emphasized, but it doesn’t appear to have any bearing on the star rating Oliver gives you at the end of each recipe. In fact, almost nothing seems to matter when you finish any recipe, because if you did a good job or bad job, the game doesn’t really say. You get a rating out of five stars, but if you screw up, the game doesn’t tell you what you might have done incorrectly. In fact, you can actually get away with not doing entire steps and you can omit ingredients seemingly whenever you feel like it, and he’ll still accept the dish in the end.
Apparently in Oliver’s kitchen, you also can’t burn anything. I tried putting some brownies into the oven for hours, and there wasn’t even a hint of smoke. Pan frying onions for way too long just makes them a little more brown but they never get blacken. Goddammit. I want pandemonium. I want to chop off my virtual finger. I put chicken thighs, a whole knob of ginger, cilantro, a chili pepper, whole uncracked eggs, rice, soy sauce, and vegetable oil into a pan and let that shit rip. There were no consequences.
This was the end result. A weird tall stack of whole eggs in the shell, chicken, and herbs, all in liquid. I did not arrange them like that, this is just how they poured out of the pan into the bowl. To be fair, Jamie Oliver only awarded me with one out of five stars for this and told me I could have done better. I want tasting notes, goddammit.
Hey, at least the soundtrack rips. There’s a radio with 12 or 13 songs on it. They all sound like cheap karaoke backing tracks, but that’s okay. Some have soulful names like “Horses in the Wild,” “A Little Bit of You,” “The World Can Be Nice,” and my favorite, “The Life of Ian Stone.” There is no mention of who Ian Stone is. He must be pretty cool.
As far as I know, Jamie Oliver has stayed far away from the gaming world since What’s Cooking? with Jamie Oliver. But as a badge of honor, in addition to all the wonderful video games I’ve conquered through the pandemic, I can proudly add this one to the list.