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Publisher: PlayFirst    Genre: Action
Min OS X: 10.4    CPU: G4 @ 800 MHz    RAM: 256 MB    Hard Disk: 34 MB    Graphics: 800x600

Cooking Dash
January 27, 2009 | Richard Hallas

Click to enlarge

Cooking Dash title screen
If one series of casual games has become popular almost beyond sense over the last couple of years, it's the Dash series. The original Diner Dash set the trend and has been followed by numerous direct sequels, and the basic game format, which involves chaining actions together in the correct sequence as efficiently as possible, has been hijacked not just by various similar spin-offs but by a range of copycat games, all of which are trying to cash in on the same basic formula.

These spin-offs and copycat games vary greatly in quality, from ones that rival the quality of the original (Sally's Salon) to others that plumb the banal depths of the format (Nanny Mania). Cooking Dash, I'll say from the outset, is happily one of the spin-offs that works, and is well worth playing.

I do wonder, though, how much longer the current glut of Dash-style games can continue; there must surely come a time when the range of humdrum everyday activities that have formed the basis of these games is exhausted. I mean, Cooking Dash is all about cooking, unsurprisingly enough, and there are other similar games about babysitting, keeping fit, washing your pets, parking your car... just how tedious can the core material become before it's time to call it a day? I have to wonder whether I should be anticipating the imminent arrival of Weeding the Garden Dash or Unblocking the Toilet Frenzy. But I digress...

Cooking Dash is a direct spin-off from Diner Dash, and once again stars Flo and her Grandma, the central characters from the Diner series. As with all the previous Diner games, there are five scenarios comprising ten levels each, for a total of fifty, with a range of upgrades to buy between levels and a story to tie everything together. (There's also an 'Endless' mode for when you've finished the fifty story-based levels.)

The story, it has to be said, is quite exceptionally banal and improbable. Presented in a series of comic-like pages, interspersed between the five scenarios, it purportedly accounts for why Flo has to keep changing her place of work, and has something to do with Cookie, her regular chef, starring in his own TV show. But it really doesn't hang together at all; I found it almost incomprehensible, frankly, and couldn't be bothered to reread it to try to make sense of it. So, forget the story; it's the gameplay that's important.

Gameplay: On the other side of the counter
The big difference between Cooking Dash and the Diner Dash games is that it puts you in charge of the actual preparation of the food, rather than merely serving it. You do still have to serve it as well, but only to a bar-style eating area that comprises five or six seats.

This does have an effect on the game dynamic and actually limits it somewhat. The point is that, in Diner Dash, you had to worry about where to seat your customers in order to optimise their position and minimise their mutual interference level. For example, the loud young executives with cell-phones (let's say iPhones, shall we?) would have to be seated at tables as far away as possible from customers who were sensitive to noise, whereas the youngsters with headphones, who didn't care about noise, could be useful buffers between noisy and quiet customers.

Some of these considerations do still exist in Cooking Dash: there's still a wide range of customer types, and the iPhone-guy and headphones-kid are both still there. But with a maximum of six seats available at any one time, there's rather less strategy involved in deciding where to seat them. It's more about simply trying to serve everyone as quickly as you can, and especially on getting rid of the elderly and bookworm customers who take forever to eat up and vacate their seat.

So the business of seating customers is a little less involved than in the Diner series. To counterbalance this, there are lots more things that Flo has to do in terms of picking and serving food. Every restaurant in the game has a range of different types of food: tubs of ice-cream, various cooked main courses with optional sauce, fruit smoothies, sandwiches or pizza slices, desserts and cakes. Customers will not order multiple courses, unless they're in a very good mood, in which case they may order a cake to finish with. So in general you don't have to run through a full menu of starter, main course, dessert and drink for each customer; they will just ask for one primary item and then want to go. But nevertheless, the cooked main-course items take a few stages to prepare.

The main courses consist of one or two items on a plate, which have to be cooked separately, and perhaps a dab of sauce as well. You'll have two or four cookers at your disposal, and later in the game you'll be able to buy turbo upgrades for them to make them cook faster, but you have to place the food on the cooker, wait for it to be cooked, and then collect it before it burns, and the cookers can generally cope only with a maximum of two orders at once. When you've got a full set of customers seated, and a full row of standing ones who are clamouring to eat, keeping track of what food is cooking, and which customer it's for, is a big contributor to the frenetic nature of the game.

Flo earns money as she works, and between levels it's possible to spend it on restaurant upgrades. The majority of these are purely for decoration, and serve no useful purpose in the game, but a subset (i.e. the ones you'll want to get as soon as you can) are useful things that will help you to play the game better. There are upgrades to make Flo move faster and Grandma to make sandwiches more quickly, a jukebox to keep waiting customers happy and coffee machine to perk up seated customers who are having a wait. Most usefully, there are also upgrades to double the number of ovens and make them cook faster, and buying these in time can be critical to your success with a level. I discovered that early on, after making a wrong upgrade choice: I found one level almost impossible to beat until I restarted it with a second cooker installed, and then I found it dead easy. The one annoyance with the upgrades shop is that it continues to appear even when there's nothing left to buy. You'll generally have acquired all the upgrades by around the seventh level within each scenario, but you'll still have to keep dismissing the upgrades shop between the remaining levels, even though there's nothing left to buy in it.


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