There’s fish burning in a fryer and I’m too busy washing plates to stop it. Meanwhile, nobody is cutting potatoes and the paraplegic racoon in a wheelchair just slipped and fell into an icy river while holding a full plate of french fries ready to serve. The fryer goes up in flames and the tabby cat rushes for the extinguisher. We still need to cut potatoes. This is a normal level of catastrophe in Overcooked, a wonderfully chaotic local co-op cooking game that gives real power to the words “too many cooks spoil the broth.” At its best, a team of four players look like a beautiful mix of a ballet and an assembly line. At its worst, they look like one of Gordon’s Ramsay’s nightmares. And either way it’s an absolute blast to play.Overcooked is a race against time as you and your team try to make and deliver as many dishes as possible in four minutes. Burgers, pizza, and other dishes all come together in a similar way: chop ingredients, cook ingredients, put cooked ingredients on a plate, and serve before time runs out. Simple enough, but very rarely that straightforward in practice. It’s not often that I sit down to play a video game with my significant other. Oh sure, we’ll play through Until Dawn together, taking turns to steer characters to their deaths, or turn into a crack crime-fighting detective duo to solve the mysteries of Her Story. But there’s only so long that you can sit and watch another person play a game before it gets, well…boring.Worldwide, simultaneous online multiplayer might have made playing games a more exciting experience for the lonesome couch competitor, but for the guy or gal that wants to sit and play a game with someone in the same room, the options are a tad limited.Which is why I’m so enamoured with Overcooked. It is the quintessential couch co-op experience, a game with a simple premise that’s easy to pick up and play, and that brings out the absolute best and worst in those who play it. Oh sure, you’ll start out as best friends, gently encouraging each other as you laugh off early mishaps. A dropped onion here, a mishandled plate there—who cares right? But then the washing piles up. No one is chopping lettuce. There’s a batch of french fries in the deep fat fryer that a certain someone was supposed to be watching and now they’ve caught fire. Tempers fray, panic ensues, expletives are hurled.
You don’t truly know a person until they’ve screamed bloody murder at you for failing to add a slice of tomato to a virtual burger bun.At its core, Overcooked is a simple assembly game. You’re given a recipe, a list of orders, and a time limit to complete them in. You pull the appropriate ingredients from a container, chop them up, cook them, and then serve the finished dish on a plate to hungry diners. There are only two buttons to deal with: one for picking up items, and another for chopping things up. It’s a simple premise, but one that allows for a surprising amount of complexity.Where Overcooked really shines, and where the vast majority of its challenge comes from, is its level design. They start simple—an outdoor kitchen with random people walking through your path, a pirate ship that tilts and moves your tables back and forth—but quickly escalate until your kitchen is split across three moving trucks or on shifting islands in a lake of lava, testing your team’s communication more than anything else. There are two ice river levels, mentioned above, and they’re some of the hardest in the game, but they made me keep coming back for more, trying to get a three star rating.Suddenly we were driving back across Overcooked’s charming level-select map, tracking down and tryharding any levels we only had two stars on. It’s easy to “complete” a level, as the one star requirement is generally low—except for the final set of levels which ramps up dramatically. There’s no way to “fail” entirely, which I actually disliked as it removed some of the pressure when time was about to run out on an order. But to get three stars for most levels requires a gameplan and a coordinated team. We would often pause a level right at the start just to plan our strategy and assign roles to each person. As I played with the same group of people more, we all fell into regular roles. For starters, up to four to players can work in a kitchen together, allowing you to divide up the work. But who does what? Do you stick your best person on chopping duty, or is such a menial task best left to the guy that’s barely capable of button mashing? Do you even assign individual tasks? Maybe it’s better to just let everyone roam free than try to attempt to produce a sophisticated assembly line system for cranking out onion soup (spoiler: if my girlfriend and I are anything to go on, it’s most certainly not).
Recipes start out easy; an onion soup requires three chopped onions to be boiled in a pot before they’re poured out into a bowl for serving. A tomato soup is much the same, substituting onions for tomatoes. But then you’re asked to make both at once, with orders coming in at random. Suddenly, you need to manage what gets chopped up first, tomatoes or onions, and which to stick in the pot. In the heat of the moment it’s all too easy to accidentally stick a chopped onion in the tomato pot, ruining the recipe, or forget to take a batch of soup off the stove before the kitchen timer runs down and it bursts into flames.
Manage those recipes—and get handy with the fire extinguisher handily placed on each level—and the difficulty ramps up further. There are burgers that are made up of tomato, lettuce, patty, and bun, or any combination of them, depending on the order. There are fish and chips that require deft timing with a deep fat fryer, and overstuffed burritos made up of an extremely ambitious list of ingredients. Cleverly, not only do the recipes change, but so too do the environments in which you make them. A silly but thankfully short narrative sets the tone, with a giant spaghetti-and-meatballs monster with an insatiable appetite sending you hurling back through time to the 1990s in order to travel the world’s kitchens and learn to cook properly.Overcooked just isn’t as much fun alone. Playing solo, you control two chefs which you can swap between, and chopping ingredients takes a lot longer than while playing multiplayer. This let me start chopping an onion with one chef, swap to the other to start another task, then swap back when the chopping was done. Instead of being about adapting to the level and sharing tasks, Overcooked becomes more like StarCraft—a game of micro and finding the optimal order to complete those tasks.
It’s a harder game, and a significantly more frustrating one with no one but yourself to blame for mistakes, but it’s actually easier to progress while playing alone. The less people you have, the fewer points you need to reach two or three stars. So while you can get more done with four people, I often found it easier to reach three stars on a level with only one or two players because the bar was set so much lower. It felt like a cheap trick in order to progress when I was stuck, but everything seems simpler when there are fewer cooks in the kitchen.
With four players gathered around, Overcooked is hands down one of the best couch party games ever made. It’s the perfect balance of chaos that can be conquered with skill. With two or three players, the game gets a little easier and much more strategic, with room to see what your doing and think about what needs to be done. With one, it’s all about challenging yourself, and a lot of the whimsical fun of shouting at the screen is lost.