For: Nintendo Wii
From: SuperVillain Studios/Zoo Games
Let’s begin by stating the obvious: Were it not for “Cooking Mama,” we wouldn’t be talking about “Order Up!” today. “Mama” made the cooking video game the unlikely phenomenon it somehow became, and “Up’s” core gameplay bears more than a passing resemblance.
But rather than merely hijack a ride on the money train, “Up” does what knockoffs should but rarely do: It contributes to the genre in ways that make sense, and it vastly outclasses the game that inspired its creation in the first place.
As with “Mama,” the core gameplay in “Up” centers around preparing food — flipping this, dicing that, sautéing the other thing and so on. Each recipe features a handful of steps to complete and ingredients to prepare, and you accomplish the various actions by mimicking them with the Wii remote.
But while “Mama” squares its focus on food preparation, “Up” unleashes an entire restaurant simulation that gives the gameplay a major injection of context and purpose. The storyline in “Up” stars you as a nobody chef with dreams of owning a five-star restaurant, and you work toward that end by opening a diner, building a reputation, keeping customers happy and funding everything from equipment upgrades to new restaurant ventures with the money you collect.
Everything ties back to your performance in the kitchen, but “Up” gives you enough freedom to stave off the inevitable repetition of preparing familiar recipes for a familiar cast of customers. You can order special ingredients from out of town, visit the black market for some rare recipe alternatives, and purchase and mix a surprisingly high variety of spices in whatever configuration you please in hopes of dazzling your clientele. “Up” even lets you hire assistants to share the load when balancing multiple orders. Managing your kitchen so that all meals go out hot and on time proves to be a surprisingly engaging challenge, and the way the story rewards you for a job well done is immensely satisfying.
“Up” endears itself further with a flat-shaded visual approach that masks the Wii’s graphical shortcomings while scoring some style points on the side. The game’s sense of humor is pretty sharp as well: How many other Wii games feature spot-on humor about income tax withholding, to name one example?
“Up’s” only major shortcoming, considering the system it’s on, is the complete lack of multiplayer. It doesn’t really need any — the single-player component provides plenty of value — but it’s worth noting for those who care.
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Twenty five years ago, a little arcade gem called “Track & Field” established the norm for what gamers could expect from Olympic-themed video games, ushering in a control scheme — mash buttons rapidly and repeatedly to make athletes go faster — that polarized gamers but also made sense given the context.
The trouble with “Beijing 2008” isn’t its refusal to revolutionize the formula. The scheme still makes sense, and as last year’s “Track & Field” revival on Xbox Live Arcade demonstrated, it remains viably entertaining if done right.
If done right.
Unfortunately, “Beijing” succumbs to temptation to tinker, and not intelligently.
Take, for instance, the start of most race events. Rather than mash buttons the instant the starter pistol fires, you must first massage one of the trigger buttons until a meter nearly but not quite fills up. Once the pistol fires, you must finish filling the meter, switch over to the race controls, and scramble to catch up to the other runners or swimmers who all had perfect jumps off the blocks. “Beijing’s” A.I. is pretty merciless, and convoluted steps like these, in events decided by fractions of seconds, only serve to put you at a greater disadvantage.
The ill-fitting controls get little help from “Beijing’s” vague documentation and tutorials, many of which simply pile on the confusion. Don’t be surprised if, during certain events, you follow the directions, execute, and still foul or fail for no clear reason. Often, the best way to figure events out and not get absolutely buried by the competition is through lots of unsatisfying trial and error. Unfortunately, “Beijing” is so finicky and demanding that by the time you get it down, your fingers are too tired and cramped to perform at the level the game demands. Sound like fun yet?
The sheer labor of playing “Beijing” is disappointing given all it does right. The game looks nice, supports online (eight players) and offline multiplayer (four), and features an appealing array of modes for pursuing personal bests and experiencing the surprisingly large (38) roster of events, which include everything from track to kayaking to judo to archery.
Unfortunately, the six events “Track & Field” trots out on Xbox Live are more intuitive and more fun than their contemporary counterparts. Gaming masochists will find strange pleasure in mastering “Beijing,” but if you need an Olympic fix and don’t wish to destroy your fingers to get it, the original remains — for another four years — the way to go.
Downloadable Game of the Week
Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Bizarre Creations/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: 800 MS Points
For the early adopters who embraced the Xbox 360’s Live Arcade service at launch, the reward — “Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved,” a gorgeous, addictive space shooter that reimagined a mix of “Robotron” and “Asteroids” and set gamers back a mere $5 — was immediate. “Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2” doubles the price of admission, but it’s worth it: In addition to the mode that constituted the whole of the first game, “GW:RE2” features five additional modes that emphasize such skills as evasion (Pacifism), time management (Deadline), poise under pressure (Waves), pattern memorization (Sequence) and forward planning (the brilliant, territorial-minded King). Those intimidated by the first game’s difficulty won’t find much solace here, but “GW:RE2” makes smart tweaks that allow novices to attain insane score multipliers without dumbing the experience down for seasoned players. If all else fails, you can enlist the help of friends in the new four-player co-op mode. Just make sure they’re within shouting distance: Fun though “GW:RE2’s” versus and co-op multiplayer modes are, they’re available offline only. Your interaction with online friends is, at least until next time, limited to pursuing their scores on the leaderboard.