Video Games About Restaurants: A Brief History
Video games take many forms. We see adventure games, sports, puzzles, and more, vying for our attention through bright graphics and addictive gameplay. With an established history going back a few decades, it’s not uncommon to see video games reflect fantasy worlds and sci-fi sagas. It’s also not uncommon to see them reflect the contemporary careers of the day. We’ve seen games centered on hospital surgery, piloting, city planning, military service, plumbing (teehee), and of course, video games about restaurants. There are many restaurant video games.
Capitalizing on their fast-paced work environments and ubiquity in society, many savvy developers have found ways to turn restaurant concepts and ideas into video game profits. Let’s look at the way these pioneering programmers have represented restaurants, and the hospitality industry at large, in video games.
Note: Before we go on, this will not be an exhaustive list. There are far too many! But please, don’t hesitate to comment on any that we missed.
The Arcade Years
The dawn of the video game age saw a rash of simple, inventive games designed to be played with joysticks and buttons on coin-operated decorated cabinets. These games featured primitive graphics, tinny sounds, and challenging gameplay, all aimed at stealing more of your quarters. Though rudimentary by today’s standards, they laid the foundation for what was to come, and many of them hold up as undisputed classics today. Even from its most primitive origins, developers have used restaurants as a backdrop for video game entertainment.
Burger Time (Data East, 1982)
Burger time, originally licensed through Bally Midway as an arcade, allowed players to control Chef Pepper through pits, ladders, and platforms, to assemble burgers. When Chef Pepper touches an ingredient, it falls to the bottom of the screen. When the player has collected enough items to finish the designated number of burgers, they move to the next stage. As the levels progress, enemies like walking hot dogs, eggs, and pickles threaten your efforts.
An early entrant into the pantheon of restaurant-related video games, Burger Time, has been ported to numerous commercial video game consoles and holds a legacy of critical acclaim. It’s also spawned a legion of copycat titles (BurgerSpace, Burger Boy, and Burger Builder, to name a few), all featuring slight variations an identical premise. It’s a game that endures because the idea is simple, and the gameplay is addictive. Furthermore, it metaphorically illustrates the frenzied nature of working in a kitchen, with hazards and distractions at every step in the workflow.
Tapper (Marvin Glass & Associates, 1983)
Also released as arcade, Tapper (AKA Root Beer Tapper) lets players control a bartender tasked with serving scores of thirsty patrons, collecting their mugs, and securing tips. Building upon some of the mechanics popularized by space invaders, patrons enter and slide up to the bar, slowly advancing to the end. Tapper must placate these patrons, who continue advancing, by correctly timing and sliding them a mug of root beer. Upon receipt, the patron drinks and returns the empty mug. Tapper loses a life if a mug slides off the bar without going to a guest, if he misses a return mug, or if a guest makes it across the bar without service. With a heavy emphasis on speed of service and guest satisfaction, Tapper highlights the frenetic energy of high volume hospitality.
Adventures in Platforming
Advancing technology, an market crash, and the subsequent rise in the home console market created a brand new avenue for video games, popularized by Mario and its ilk: Platforming. Instead of traveling to arcades, consumers could bring the action home with them, utilizing their TV and a console to play games. Platformers feature far more expansive worlds than the arcades before them, encouraging multidirectional paths through dangerous levels, to reach the end. With new energy and game mechanics in the industry, programmers fused platform action with food-centric storylines to create many inventive platform video games about restaurants.
Avoid the Noid (1989, BlueSky Software/California Merchandising Concepts)
It still happens on occasion, but fast-food chains have projected significant promise in licensing their brand and characters to video games. Domino’s tried this with Avoid the Noid, featuring their titular character. The Noid appeared in their “30 Minutes of Less” marketing campaigns, as an obnoxious critter who’d disrupt delivery drivers on their routes. The game takes a similar track, wherein players control a pizza delivery boy who must complete timed tasks while…(sigh)…avoiding the Noid.
Developed for home computers like the Commodore 64 and MSDOS, the game offered maniacal insight into the challenges of off-premise dining and delivery. Still, critics quickly called foul on an advertisement barely disguised as a video game, and many noted the poor controls, simplistic premise, and harsh difficulty as significant impediments. These critiques, along with the dissolution of the character, habe relegated this game to “obscure novelty” status and little incentive to seek out. For those sadistic enough, however, you can play it online here.
Panic Restaurant (Taito, 1992)
Panic Restaurant came to Japan before being localized for a western audience for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). In the game, players control a chef named Cookie who’s restaurant has been cursed by a rival chef named Ohdove. (Note: the name is a result of a mistranslation from Japanese, intended to be Hors d’Oeuvre). Cookie must use a spate of kitchen utensils, like pans and rolling pins, to battle food monsters before a showdown with Ohdove in the final level. The game generally received favorable reviews upon its release. Though it doesn’t employ many simulated restaurant mechanics, it plays with the idea of the industry’s crowded market and competitive nature.
M.C. Kids (Virgin Interactive, 1992)
Dominos wasn’t the only restaurant chain to see promising pixel profits. McDonald’s got into the video game licensing business early on, beginning in 1988 on a Japan-only release for the Family Computer (Famicom) before moving to western shores with the M.C. Kids title for NES. Set in the McDonaldland universe of the era, the game featured protagonists Mick and Mack, a colorful fantasy world and a quest to retrieve a magic bag from the Hamburglar.
Though critics were quick to point out its mechanic similarities to the Mario games that preceded it (and it’s blatant advertising), it’s stayed in the conversation based on sharp graphics and smooth controls. Trying to recapture the magic, McDonald’s released a few more platform games in the decade; namely, Global Gladiators (1992) and McDonald’s Treasure Land Adventure (1993) for Sega. These titles received far more mixed reviews.
Is This is a Simulation?
By the late ’90s, the newness of Personal Computers (P.C.’s) had worn off as they became staples of the American home. Where once reserved for elite scientists in dedicated labs, everyday people were using computers for the internet, shopping, design, and games. With expandable memory and massive leaps in graphical bandwidth, P.C.’s opened the door for more “open-world” gaming experiences that didn’t bind players to strict narratives, but gave them a story, tools and concepts to develop on their own. A legion of business simulator games entered the market, affording players a chance to test their mettle in various industries. It should come as no surprise that this concept translated very well into creating simulation video games about restaurants.
Lemonade Stand (1972, Mecc)
Though we’re talking about the mid-late ’90s and ’00s, there’s no discussion of restaurant business simulators without Lemonade stand and its legacy. Through a simple text-based display, the player moves through several rounds of running a lemonade stand, beginning each round making choices dependent upon their profits, stock, prices, and advertising. Each round’s results are randomized based on the player’s inputs. If the player can keep the stand running for 12 rounds, they complete the game. By 1979, developers ported the game to the Apple II computer, where it came free with the purchase. By the mid-2000s, an updated version of the game with graphics and sounds made it’s way to online flash sites, and since then, it has found its way on to virtually every gaming platform in some fashion.
Fast Food Tycoon (2000, Software 2000)
The “Tycoon” games might be the most recognizable force in business simulators, with numerous developers producing a vast catalog of titles, covering everything from managing theme parks to building casinos to constructing a dinosaur island. Fast Food Tycoon traces its lineage to 1994’s Pizza Tycoon, which centered on maintaining a pizza restaurant. With humor and cartoonish graphics, the game offered a built-in “morality play” in which players could call upon the local mafia to sabotage competitors, launder money or even deal drugs and weapons.
The game’s scope eventually broadened beyond pizza, birthing Fast Food Tycoon for P.C. It built upon the same premise as its forebearer, but with more restaurant concepts available, it provided over 800,000 outcomes for the player. The series would spawn a sequel, and though it’s not been on shelves for years, its influence reverberates through virtually every restaurant sim today.
Restaurant Empire (Enlight, 2003)
Though the core tenets of most restaurant business simulators are the same (make money, keep customers happy), each of them offered unique ways to achieve it. Restaurant Empire took a much more serious tone than its Tycoon equivalent, ditching the subversive humor and offering players a story and sandbox mode. True to form, the character must create an American, French, or Italian restaurant, competing against a global multinational called Omnifood. Through sound business acumen, the player can make investments, expand the franchise, and eventually go to-to-to with the evil competitor. The game saw a sequel in 2009, Restaurant Empire II, which offered more restaurant concepts, including German!
Overcooked (Team 17, 2017)
Not all simulators aim at replicating business. Overcooked opted for a cooperative multiplayer game centered on “boots on the ground” restaurant work. Players must control a team of chefs through kitchens littered with hazards to prepare precise orders within a time limit. It focuses heavily on food consistency, as well as keeping guests happy, despite their bizarre orders. Overcooked II hit stores in 2019 and builds upon the same premise, offering more levels and exotic locales.
The proliferation of internet connectivity and smartphone technology make the video game playing field as vast as it’s ever been for players and creators. Without bulky hardware or expensive consoles, mobile players can play on the morning commute or in line at the grocery store, sneaking in gameplay throughout the day. Mobile games typically expand on the proven video games concepts in years past, but with updated mechanics that favor screen tapping over traditional button controllers. Video games about restaurants abound in mobile formats, too, touching on all the concepts mentioned above.
Papa’s Pizzeria To Go! (2014)
This title began its life as a web-based flash game before finding a home in the mobile sphere. Instead of taking a management angle, Papa’s Pizzeria To Go centers upon a brand new restaurant employee tasked with helping Papa manage his high demand. It focuses on cooking and keeping customers happy, and the player receives tips and rewards for completing orders within a tight time frame.
Chef’s Quest (The Binary Mill, 2016)
Chef’s Quest is the first game in our list that features puzzle elements, which have become a staple genre of mobile gaming. It features tile-matching as outlined in games like Dr. Mario and Tetris. Ingredients fall from the top, and the player must match them in groups of 3 to free up space. When the screen fills up, the player loses. What makes this title different than a Candy Crush clone is that it also offers a management simulation component. Upon completing puzzle levels, you unlock new accouterments for your restaurant, which attracts more (or higher profile) guests. The hybrid quality injects a uniqueness to the game and helps break up the pace.
Food Street (Supersolid LTD, 2018)
Available on Android and iOS operating systems, Food Street plays into the restaurant business simulator model, offering some more granular opportunities. Within the game’s universe, you can design, layout, and decorate your restaurant, creating your concept from scratch. It even allows the player options like planting vegetables (instead of purchasing produce) and try out any number of combinations to manage restaurant inventory, stay in the black, and keep your customers coming back.
Through the ages, we’ve seen developers recreate the restaurant experience through video games, honing in tighter and tighter as the technology has evolved. We know this list is far from complete, though. Do you know other video games about restaurants that might have we missed? Let us know in the comments below!
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About the Author
Dylan Chadwick is the Content Marketing Manager at QSR Automations. The first video game he ever completed was Metroid in 1993. He graduated from Brigham Young University with an English degree and journalism focus and loves to write, draw and paint. When left to his own devices, he enjoys loud music, adorable dogs and documentaries about the aforementioned.