In the Best Possible Taste.
Think of a popular 1980s manga. Any one will do. Chances are that it probably got a video game adaptation, regardless of the genre or how effectively its themes may be tailored to an interactive medium. No action? No problem! Just make an ADV. No example is more obvious of this rule than TOSE’s 1989 Famicom adaptation of Oishinbo, the long-running food manga of the same name by Kariya Tetsu and Hanasaki Akira.
Running since 1983, Oishinbo (lit. “The Gourmet”) chronicles the culinary adventures of Tozai News journalist Yamaoka Shiro and his quest to compile “The Ultimate Menu” at the behest of his editor for the publication’s upcoming centennial anniversary. Partnering up with his fellow journalist (and eventually, wife) Kurita Yuuko, Shiro travels all over Japan in search of local delicacies. He frequently faces adversity in the form of his estranged father, Kaibara Yuuzan, a famous artist and a snooty gourmand who treats his son with nothing less than constant derision and hostility.
The manga may sound boring to some but it’s actually rather enjoyable, especially if you have any interest in food or cooking. Shiro’s journey sees him evolve from a disinterested and sleepy layabout to a sleepy layabout who also happens to be an excellent chef. Though it is kinda strange that Shiro has been working on Tozai’s hundred-year anniversary menu for 32 years now. Perhaps Tozai News is his Limbo, where he will remain until he can come to terms with his feelings about his father Yuuzan. Deep as that analysis may be, perhaps it’s best left explored in a different article by somebody else.
Anyway, this feature is about ADV, so enough about the comic and on to the game!
Oishinbo: Kyukyoku no Menu Sanbon Shoubu ("The Gourmet: Ultimate Menu Three-Course Showdown")
Publisher: Shinsei Bandai
Release Date: 25 July 1989
Fan Translation: Snark (Link to translation patch download)
Oishinbo puts us in the role of Yamaoka Shiro as he helps brainstorm for Tozai News’ upcoming VIP banquet. He meets with a trio of gourmands visiting his publication, one of whom extols the culinary merits of foie gras. Shiro is dismissive due to its ugly appearance (never mind the animal cruelty), causing a heated argument between the two. Filled with rage, Shiro heads back to his desk to try and come up with a dish that will blow foie gras out of the water.
It is here that the game begins in earnest, and the most familiar hallmark of the ADV genre begins to rear its head: busywork. The player needs to look at and interact with everything they possibly can if they want to make any progress, often multiple times. The lengths of which the game goes to to pad itself out is often ridiculous, such as when Shiro is only able to visit his own workplace cafeteria after reading a sign that informs him that it exists.
Shiro has a hell of a time navigating his office in search of culinary clues; Even though it’s the middle of a work day, everywhere he goes is deserted. The cafeteria is closed, the library is closed, his partner Yuuko isn’t at her desk and his boss Tanimura is AWOL as well. There are some staff working away at their desks, but these lost souls are so useless that they don’t even have faces, let alone anything to tell us.
After making enough circuits of the building, the cafeteria chef pokes his head out to throw in his two cents. Unfortunately, all he can tell us is that he slept through his college foie gras class. Channeling the player, Shiro shakes his head at how Kafkaesque the situation has become and leaves the chef to his devices.
After a hard day of achieving nothing at all, The Chimes of Westminster echo through the office to signal that the working day is at its end and Shiro can go home. He runs into Yuuko outside and the two go for dinner at Tenmoku, a local sushi restaurant. Listening in on their fellow diners, Shiro and Yuuko learn that monkfish liver is currently the hottest delicacy on everybody’s lips. The only problem is that monkfish is out of season and unavailable to purchase. That won’t stop Shiro though, who drags the long-suffering Yuuko on a trip to the port to try and catch some straight from the source!
Oishinbo, like many of its fellow 80s ADV, is often frustrating with its constant efforts to drag out the game as long as possible by wasting the player’s time. In an early sequence, Yuuko has something important to tell Shiro, but no matter how many times you attempt to speak to her, he won’t listen until you’ve looked at absolutely everything you can. This includes Yuuko’s empty desk, when Shiro knows she’s waiting for him in the hall! Most of these inane examinations have no bearing on the plot, and their vapid descriptions can’t even be described as flavour text.
Later, Shiro’s editor Tanimura sends you off to see Tozai’s owner Oohara, but Oohara promptly sends you back to Tanimura, who then informs you it’s Oohara’s birthday. So it’s back to Oohara to wish him a happy birthday, at which point he tells you to go visit a crotchety old man named Mr Sugiyama. But Sugiyama won’t talk without a letter of recommendation, so it’s back to Oohara to get one! These repeated chains of interactions serve no purpose other than to stretch what should be a thirty second task out to five to ten minutes.
Despite all of its time-wasting and padding, Oishinbo is a miniscule adventure that a patient player can easily complete over the course of a rainy afternoon. There are two more acts following the monkfish adventure, hence the subtitle "Three Course Showdown", but each shouldn't take more than an hour or so. The game generates a password when the select button is pushed, just in case you need to come back to it later.
Even if you’ve got plenty of time, it’s important to keep frequent passwords because ishinbo contains a high number of unexpected and unlikely game overs. Attempting to peep through the window of Restaurant Tenmoku after closing time results in an inescapable encounter with an overzealous policeman. In a parody of Dragon Quest, the player is presented with the option to fight, flee or chant a magic spell, but all three of these end with Shiro being carted off to jail.
Later situations arise in which Shiro must avoid a game over by determining how much sake he should allow Captain Genzo of the SS Centipede (?!) to drink while sailing the open waters. Too little sake and he’ll turn the boat around, potentially ending the game if the player has wasted too much time. Too much, and the game will end, declaring that Shiro’s dreams of monkfish drowned in a sea of sake. I guess this means Genzo wrecked the ship and they all died at sea, which is pretty morbid!
These are all fairly amusing fail-states, but the most entertaining of the lot are when it’s time to cook the monkfish liver. The player is given a variety of options to prepare and cook the fish, many of which will end the game outright if selected. Choosing to beat the fish will inform you that you’re too limp-wristed to have any effect as Shiro cowers in shame. Similarly, choosing to drop the fish from its hook is taken too literally, and the game ends as Shiro “drops out of society”. It’s weird, it’s cute, and it’s worth keeping a password (or a *cough* savestate *cough*) so you can mess around and see them all.
More-than-likely created on a small budget, Oishinbo's soundtrack consists entirely of chiptune versions of public domain music, both Western and Japanese. This ranges from Mozart’s Turkish March to the folk song Sakura, Sakura and everything in between. This makes for some wonderfully hilarious music for certain scenes; There’s nothing quite like scouring the town in search of culinary leads to the 8-bit tune of Yankee Doodle.
ishinbo is not a "good" game, and it’s difficult to determine who it was made for. The source material, though family-friendly, is obviously not aimed at children, and I can’t imagine Oishinbo fans would be excited to play a game based on it. But despite its many shortcomings, it may be one of my favorite Famicom ADV titles. It plods along at a lazy pace, the stakes are low, the whole thing just feels very relaxed. The extra layer of weirdness provided by its ill-fitting music and many bizarre game-overs brings a lot to the table, transforming what would have been a mediocre adventure into a very entertaining romp. It’s obvious that TOSE had a lot of fun making the game, and you’re sure to be laughing with them when their surreal sense of humor starts peeking at you through the game’s cracks.
If you’re interested in reading Oishinbo's manga for yourself, Viz published 7 English-language “best of” volumes in 2009, which are still fairly easy to track down. Each of these volumes contains a different recipe featured in the book with full-color instructional photographs. It’s fun and informative!
Interestingly, Oishinbo recently faced backlash from the Japanese government when the comic dared to provide speculation on the negative aftereffects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. Angered that a popular comic dare sabotage their fastidious whitewashing campaign, numerous governmental offices put pressure on Oishinbo's publisher Shogakukan to halt publication of the comic in early 2014. As of May 2015, publication has sadly yet to resume.
Thank you for reading, and join us next week for another installment of ADV in Adventure!