Take a smidgen of Diner Dash, add a pinch of Cradle of Rome and season with just a hint of The Office and then stick it all in a blender. Congratulations… You’ve just gotten a small taste of what Champion Chef is all about. An innovative, click-happy puzzler that’ll challenge you to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously – serving uptight customers, stockpiling ingredients, competing against privileged rivals – we’re getting hungry just thinking about this surefire palette-pleasing favorite.
But first, a word of warning: Don’t be fooled by the brightly-colored, but low-quality cartoon aesthetic that colors the entire tale from menus to hands-on gameplay and mid-mission comic book-style plot interludes. Sure to be more mouth-wetting is the actual story itself, concerning new culinary school graduate Jenny’s dream to own her own restaurant, and subsequent entry into a $1,000,000 first prize-sporting worldwide cooking competition. But to claim the loot and makes her wish come true, the would-be kitchen kingpin will also have to outmaneuver several would-be opponents. Including, that is, one rich kid who’s already lucky enough to have inherited a master chef’s position at his family’s bistro.
To some degree, you’ll have to be concerned with the overall setup of the tournament. Put simply, it’s a knockout-style competition divided into several rounds, where your overall score at the end of 10 days determines who stays and who goes. Meaning that it’s not enough having to keep track of your progress on an overall campaign map as you journey from the US to Japan and Mexico, dishing up the goods at country-style eateries like Rocky Ranch or Tex-Mex joint Lemon Lime. Much more so than in any other time management game to date, you’ll also have to be concerned with your ultimate point total, because expert-level victories increase your overall standings – and general position in the tournament – way more than basic victory-earning performances.
So how does this bad boy play? In a word: Strangely, and at a hyperkinetic pace. To make a long story short, occupying the left-hand side of the screen, you’ll find a varying number of empty tables. Customers of different origins sit down at each to begin with, and after you’ve cleared away any tips. Each has a different personality type, such as businesswomen, who are impatient, but have lots of cash to burn, or tourists, long-suffering customers that, sadly, won’t do much to bolster your daily cash take.
Naturally, your job’s to complete their meal order – recipes vary throughout the tale, but range from lasagna to baked chicken, chile con carne, tempura shrimp rolls and sashimi – before they run out of patience. (Customer’s moods are depicted via cute little animations and heart icons that rest below them.) The faster you successfully turn over patrons, the more cash you earn towards meeting a minimum daily goal required for forward progress, with unattended customers eventually growing angry and leaving in a money-depleting huff.
But here’s where things really get interesting. The right side of the screen is reserved for a grid of icons shaped like different foods, such as pears, cheese, pineapples, chicken legs, chili peppers, ham and such. Within this playfield, you’ll click on one or more of each object to select it, with any matching icons that are adjacent instantly being grouped into one big chunk. Afterwards, you’ll click the mouse again on or drag objects over to a needy customer – predictably, cooking a meal for each requires differing amounts of multiple ingredients – to serve their repast. And, of course, pick up any bonuses that come in handy, e.g. sweets you can pass out that improve diners’ moods, icon-removing bombs or instant horizontal row-clearing extras.
Note that you can see what’s coming one row ahead – new foods are constantly being added to the bottom of the pile – but cannot serve ingredients like milk or pumpkins to someone whose meal doesn’t call for them. (Although you can unload many more of an item than is needed onto a customer who wants it, i.e. by giving a patron who ordered spaghetti with meat sauce 10 tomatoes instead of the five the recipe actually demands.)
Also worth recalling: Once used, food products disappear, letting higher-situated goodies drop down according to the laws of gravity, with any edibles touching the screen’s top subtracting from your score. In short, it creates a constant strategic balancing act, as you must decide whom to please and when; if you should burn stocks of a certain ingredient to clear the screen of debris or wait to see if they’ll come in handy seconds later; and whether it’s best to deliver food products in smaller batches, or attempt to create combos and hand them off in bulk.
Pull all these seemingly disparate elements together, and it makes for a suitably manic time, albeit one that mixes into one big tasty whole. We just wish success wasn’t so random – it’s possible to get stuck holding, say, too many tortillas or bowtie pasta links, just because that’s just what the game generated – and that it didn’t take so long to complete many stages. (Which tends to be a bit infuriating when you know, you eventually lose some and have to restart these levels from scratch…) But by steadily ramping up the difficulty level and constantly adding new recipes, bonuses, ingredients and customers, the game does manage to keep enthusiasts hooked.
We’re not entirely certain we were as blown away by the end product as obsessed with it – after all, it’s hard to concentrate when you’re simultaneously juggling 20 tasks and thinking on so many levels. (Hint: Remember that you’re not under brutal time constraints, so you don’t have to immediately clear tables and can therefore control when and how many people arrive at each diner, not to mention the amount you’re serving at once.) However, we can say that casual gaming enthusiasts starved for a little excitement are formally advised to give Champion Chef a look. Despite a few rough edges, there’s plenty to admire here, and besides… when it comes to fast-paced thrills, you (quite literally) never know what’s cookin’.