Cook-Off! is a very brief game riffing on cooking game shows: you have half an hour (notionally) to prepare a three-course meal for a panel of four judges. For each course, you are allowed to pick a main recipe (salad? soup? chowder?) and a seasoning, such as sugar, salt, soy sauce, etc. The main dish and seasoning combine into a new final product: eggs plus sugar to make a sweet omelet, for instance. Meanwhile, an AI also prepares three courses (more or less at random, as far as I could tell), and at the end of the round, the judges taste the dishes and your scores are compared.
The judges also have their own preferences, hinted at during the opening of each round, and this allows the player to target specific tastes. Sam Ashwell’s review on IFDB suggests that these judges are drawn from a particular JRPG. I’m not familiar with them myself, but there was just enough detail here to suggest a very quirky judging panel indeed, including warriors and magic-users who have come in for a bite to eat.
I really like to see IF pieces that branch out and explore genres and styles that aren’t heavily featured already, and the Japanese cooking game-show certainly qualifies. I especially enjoyed the text produced by the game’s commentator, which created food-specific remarks on what you were supposedly cooking during your frenzied half hour of prep time. The gameplay was distinctive, very much unlike most IF puzzles: the game appealed to the part of my brain that enjoys casual cooking games and puzzles of aesthetics; I have a soft spot for mechanics where you combine X and Y to make a slightly surprising object Z. And because winning or losing is iterative and is determined by your score relative to the score of the AI chef, you’re not so much seeking one right answer at a time as you are gradually getting a feel for the system.
Cook-Off! is the first experience I’ve had playing with TADS 3′s online capabilities, and that worked extremely smoothly. When I clicked through from IFDB to play online, I was offered the option to let other players join my play session — not something I did on this occasion, but it’s a possibility I would like to explore sometime. I hope more authors will take that TADS functionality for a spin.