Panic Restaurant (NES) review
"Weird dreams? We've all had one or two. As far as their entertainment value goes, they lie somewhere in the middle. Certainly a dream as peculiar as playing soccer with a refrigerator, a talking warthog, and your third-grade teacher is preferable to the perennial nightmares of waking up late for an important midterm or witnessing the death of a relative, but it simply can't compare to those beautiful visions of paradise where you find yourself in bed next to Sarah Michelle Gellar smoking a fat c..."
Weird dreams? We've all had one or two. As far as their entertainment value goes, they lie somewhere in the middle. Certainly a dream as peculiar as playing soccer with a refrigerator, a talking warthog, and your third-grade teacher is preferable to the perennial nightmares of waking up late for an important midterm or witnessing the death of a relative, but it simply can't compare to those beautiful visions of paradise where you find yourself in bed next to Sarah Michelle Gellar smoking a fat cigar, or the executor of a distant relative's estate calls you and tells you you have a multi-billion-dollar inheritance waiting for you. Put up against something like that, even the strangest of strange dreams pales in comparison.
When I first turned on Panic Restaurant, I had to pinch myself almost to the point of mild bruising to make sure I wasn't having one of those weird dreams. You have to call into question the reality of a game that immediately accosts you with running turkeys, rolling pizzas, and kamikaze kebabs. Playing a dapper white chef who is brave enough to wear white after Labor Day, but only because the color white represents everything good and pure in these dark times, you must nudge your new competition out of town, a purple-skinned maniac with a crooked, unkempt mustache (note that crooked, unkempt mustaches always denote evil) named Ohdove. Instead of offering lower prices on his food or launching a massive advertising campaign, he's just decided to kill your innocent chef with an army of rogue French fries and apples. That doesn't sound too smart to me, but far be it from me to tell a psychotic chef how to run his business.
Funnily enough, Panic Restaurant actually does turn out like one of the weird dreams mentioned above. As novel or trippy as it is (pick one), it does not impress upon the brain as indelibly as something like, say, Super Mario Bros. 3 or Bubble Bobble (incidentally, Taito made both Bubble Bobble and this game), mostly because of a sense of desperation that the game reeks of. It's as though they were trying too hard to make it a screwball sleeper. Fried eggs that slither along the ground are cool, and so are power-ups like a giant spoon to whack enemies with and a fork-cum-pogo-stick. However, they don't come from the imagination; they come from a menu, and so there's little about them that feels truly inspired. When you look at games like Bubble Bobble, you think, ''Whoa, a dinosaur that blows bubbles out of his mouth! That came out of left field!'' Super Mario Bros. 3 elicits much the same response: ''He's got a raccoon tail, and he's FLYING! What's up widdat?'' I look at Panic Restaurant and only think that I could have created an eerily similar game if I had walked into the right fast food place under the influence of the proper mind-enhancing narcotics.
Even though PR's concept and presentation are fairly cookie-cutter - pun fully intended - the game does what it can to have fun with the source material. The game is broken up into six stages named after the courses of an average gourmet feast (Appetizer, Soup, Salad, Fish, Meat, Dessert), so it's pretty easy to guess what types of food you'll be fending off in each level. To ward off that niggling feeling that you haven't wasted your money, PR makes an event out of every level. There's always something unique about each stage, whether it's the giant deepfreeze full of precarious leaps and slippery ledges in the Fish level or boiling pots the size of a small lake in the Soup stage. Pouches of French fries will attack you by firing their contents at you in an almost machine gun-like fashion, and it's all you can do to bat them away with your frying pan. Bouncing apples will suddenly explode, letting their red delicious shards free to injure you as you try to simultaneously fight through hordes of hopping baguettes. Every enemy and boss in the game will elicit a smirk or chuckle from you, and though the game ultimately ends up a lukewarm experience, it certainly isn't for lack of trying.
Where the game becomes a hassle is in its level design, where several small factors add up to make the later stages a singularly frustrating experience. PR has a lot of problems with hit detection, and despite his plump stature, your chef is not easily dismissive of physical injury. Four hearts are all he has to last him through wave after wave of angry comestibles hell-bent on putting him out of business, and just one hit is enough to demote your weapon from Frisbee
plates of death to the standard skillet. Being a chef has made your hero slow on foot as well, so rather than retreat from the situation, it's best to stay in and fight for the long haul. Might as well anyway, since retreating even the slightest pixel causes enemies to re-appear. What results from all this is a ramped-up challenge that the game implements against its will, making it hard for the wrong reasons. This is especially evident in later levels, when you finally kill an annoying pest only to scoot back a bit out of some slight fear of what's ahead and have to deal with the same thing over again.
Somehow, Panic's visual style makes the whole ordeal a little less harrowing. Black outlines around sprites are usually a bad omen, causing them to take on a ridiculously cartoony look that doesn't bode well for several older games, but the style is executed with stunning precision here, and so the cartoon look doesn't feel so forced. The characters' personalities are emoted well through their movements, which also provide a good dose of much-needed humor as well. For some reason, it's extremely hilarious to see the main character go into rigor mortis after being bowled down by a pizza wheel or be turned into an ice sculpture by the subzero vapors of a walk-in freezer. The levels are designed with a somewhat mismatched palette, but the use of all the parts of the typical kitchen can be commended, as it makes for some rather interesting platforming.
PR is hurt most in its control; along with the fact that food returns from the grave to haunt you if you so much as step back for a power-up, it's your portly protagonist's lack of athletic skill that makes the journey ahead such a rough one. Weapons work well, but it's difficult to determine when they register a hit, especially on bosses such as the giant hamburger and the ice cream cone lady who drills out chunks of the ground below you. Any time you feel frustration with the game, it'll likely have something to do with the controller, such as when you're cursing the white chef's inability to traverse icy landscapes or when you're bemoaning the slowness of the flying pan he stands on in the final epic battle versus Ohdove (a battle in which the two of you take to the skies on airborne skillets and duke it out with eggs and carrots - believe me, I wouldn't be telling you this if the very mention of it wasn't so side-splittingly hilarious). These inferior features make the game more challenging than it needs to be, but fun can still be easily found despite these setbacks.
You have to have a pretty wide open mind to really enjoy Panic Restaurant. Many people are going to ditch this and find a better way to have a good time that doesn't require playing silly mini-games where you catch fish with a nifty extend-o-hand toy or try in vain to evade the advances of a seriously angry pan of Jiffy Pop. If you don't mind a little bit of wonky control and a game that would have seriously benefited from having alternately been titled ''Food Fight,'' this will fit the bill nicely. PR sees its best use as disposable entertainment that's best taken in small portions, like a Family Guy DVD or watching golf on television. There's definitely better to be had, but once the machine starts going, it's so easy to just kind of forget where you are and start enjoying yourself.
In a way, it's almost dreamlike.
Community review by snowdragon (March 11, 2004)
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