Out To Lunch
by Ant Cooke

Out to Lunch is a bit of an oddity on the SNES. Released in 1993 by Mindscape, it's quite unlike the adventure and RPG games that the system's renowned for. It goes right back to the basics, and comes across as a very distant relative of Sega's arcade/Mega Drive platformer Flicky- grab lots of stuff and take them back to a specific part of the level- but with a cooking motif that serves as an excuse for some atrocious culinary-related jokes in the manual. Fortunately for you lot, I'm pudding in a lot of effort not to pepper my review with cooking puns, because that would be a frying shame. Let's give Out to Lunch the definitive taste test.

The completely irrelevant plot goes something like this: Pierre le Chef's ingredients (who all have giant googly eyes, which makes you wonder if Pierre cooks them while they're alive) have gone rogue, and they've escaped from his fridge. Now they're running around for absolutely no reason other than to annoy you, and you need to get them back. At the start of each level, Pierre's got nothing to hand, and all he can do is run and jump, so you'll need to grab a few things before you can start hunting for ingredients. First, you'll need a net (which, on the early levels, is usually near the starting point- on later levels, it's craftily hidden) to catch the ingredients with, and you'll probably want to grab one of three available secondary weapons, which can stun the enemies and make them easier to catch. You can pick up a sack of flour which acts as a projectile, a bottle of Tabasco sauce which lets Pierre breathe fire (?!) and the manliest of weapons, a wooden spoon, which Pierre uses as a sword.

Hell yes, this is the best weapon ever!

Once you've found your equipment, you can start hunting for ingredients, which you'll find wandering around each level- just stun 'em (either by jumping on them or hitting them with a weapon) and net 'em. The food never really offers much resistance, as they'll just potter about, waiting for you to catch them, but if they touch Pierre, he'll get dizzy and drop a few of the ingredients he's carrying- fortunately, they can't kill you outright. Catching them is easy enough, but each stage in Out to Lunch is a huge, vertically-scrolling nightmare, so actually finding the bastards can be a bit tricky. Once you've bagged the required number (shown as a big number in the corner of the screen) you need to find the cage (like the net, this is sometimes in an out-of-the-way hidey-hole) and Pierre automatically shoves the ingredients in. You can either bring each one to the cage individually, or bag as many as you can before taking them down to get a better score- exactly like Flicky- but whichever way you do it, meeting your quota reveals the stage exit- again, this is sometimes devilishly tucked away.

At the beginning, the game's really fun- tracking down the ingredients and catching them is pretty entertaining, and like all good arcade-style games, it gradually adds more interesting elements to the mix. By Stage 5, just as you're getting the basics down, you get thrown stuff like Le Chef Noir (he'll appear from time to time and open the cage to free the ingredients, unless you stop him), teleporters, hidden springs that make you drop ingredients, and the dreaded bacteria and wasp enemies, which infect any roaming ingredients, meaning that they'll kill Pierre on contact- if too many get infected, you'll have to forfeit a life and start the stage again. There's also a slew of secrets, mostly in the form of bonus stages that are uncovered in many different ways- the most memorable is the one where you need to play a set of bells in the right order. Clever! The fact that the game looks and sounds pretty good (even if there are only 2 songs per world) also helps the game. Admittedly, they're not the most amazing 16-bit graphics you'll ever see, but they're nice enough, and have some weird charm to them.

Unfortunately, when you're about 7 stages in, the game starts to get pretty boring. Seriously, first impressions of the game are good, and actually made me want to play the whole thing, but by the time you get to World 2, the game feels like it's overstaying its welcome and just becomes dull. Even if you pick the Advanced option to skip ahead to World 3, the exact same thing happens- it's fun for a few levels, but gets boring quickly. It's a shame, as the concept is really interesting, but it's probably because each level is so big that it takes far too long to beat each one, dragging the game's length out a bit too far. The only thing helping to curb this is the timer- you really can't piss about here, you've got just enough time to get your quota, get to the cage, and get the hell out. You'll often meet your quota of ingredients, and run out of time while desperately trying to find the exit... Or, more painfully, just as the exit's in sight.

To make things worse, as soon as the enemies that can kill you by touching you appear, the game teeters on the brink of falling apart. Pierre seems to slip and slide around a lot, and while this isn't a huge problem for grabbing ingredients, this makes avoiding the bacteria and wasp enemies that show up later a little too tough- they move around so erratically that, more often than not, you'll lose all your lives very rapidly (in the grisliest ways possible, too- the bacteria eats Pierre alive!) and it's often sheer luck that lets you survive an encounter with these assholes. Since both these enemies also infect the ingredients, you'll often be completely surrounded with no chance of escaping alive- sacré bleu! You're not allowed to continue either- you get one set of lives to complete the game with, and when they're gone, they're gone. The only thing that resembles a 'continue' is selecting the Advanced option to skip Worlds 1 and 2, but even so, since there's 48 levels to beat (32 if you skip ahead) actually finishing this game is an order even the toughest of chefs won't be able to fulfil.

The tragic fact is that out to Lunch starts out to be really fun- as I've said about 3 times now- and there's nothing completely broken about it initially. The levels are a bit sparse, perhaps, but there's nothing terribly wrong with the first 6 or so stages. If the rest of the game stayed as entertaining as this, it'd be worth at least 3 and a half socks. It's just pretty boring after then, and it starts to get a little unfair, that's all. I really wanted to like it, partly because of the goofy premise and the charming graphics, partly because of the promising start, but I couldn't muster enough enthusiasm to give it a better score. The basic premise is a really neat spin on Flicky, if only it didn't get so boring! At the very least, it's worth a try, because there aren't that many games like this on the SNES, and you should definitely look into it if you like the concept- who knows, if you've got the patience of several saints, you might be able to look past the frustrating difficulty and have some fun with this one.


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