If you’ve played a JRPG in the last ten years, you may have noticed a food fixation. Games are determined to ensure parties aren’t set out with empty stomachs. Level-5’s Fantasy Life allows a player to go through the game as a chef, cooking up 105 dishes while also exploring and saving the world. Sorcery Saga: The Curse of the Great Curry God sends its heroine out to dungeons in search of legendary ingredients to save her favorite curry shop, allowing her to cook Curry on Demand in dungeons. There are even games like Rune Factory and Time and Eternity, where food can be tied to affection.
Making tasty dishes have snuck up on us, becoming a JRPG staple. Without even realizing it, they’ve become an essential gameplay element that can not only provide a health boost, but also buffs, permanent stat improvements, and means of getting closer to characters. Our heroes and heroines have been cooking cuisine and fusing foods for years, but when did searching for ingredients and perfecting recipes become as important as finding ultimate weapons.
1994 is the answer. That’s when two JRPGs decided to deal with cooking. With Nihon Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes II: Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch and Capcom’s Breath of Fire II, players found that preparing food could become an important part of the exploring experience. Both proved to be unique and crucial to further game development in their own way.
The Legend of Heroes II showed that cooking could enhance the story of a JRPG. Chris goes through an Ambish Cooking Contest to win prizes, with players able to make meals like Bouillabaisse, Borscht, Braised Beef, Seafood Curry and Tomato Stew. Depending on the dish made, a different reward can be earned. A similar mechanic would later appear in Suikoden II, where players could compete in Iron Chef-inspired mini-games to prove their prowess and earn rewards.
Breath of Fire II took things in a different direction. Players could cook meals to permanently raise character’s attributes. Think of it as the true forerunner for feasting before fighting. This was the first JRPG where food could make a difference to a character. Though the more permanent alterations wouldn’t be seen again until Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire in 2002, where players would be able to make Pokeblocks from berries. These could be fed to Pokemon to permanently alter attributes for improved contest performances, even allowing the ugly duckling Feebas to get a high enough beauty stat to evolve into Milotic.
Neither of these games are likely the ones people think of when it really comes to JRPGs foodie forerunners. People would probably think the Tales series did it first. While that series is one of the front-runners, Star Ocean sent party members into the kitchen first in 1996. Each character had his or her own cooking stat, which could be improved through practice and books. Prepared meals could then be used to heal or sold for extra money.
“But wait!” I imagine you’re making this exclamation right now. “I played Tales of Phantasia and remember my characters cooking up a storm!” You’re not wrong, but it wasn’t in the original Super Famicom release. It was only added in later for the 1998 PlayStation version of the game and retained for future releases.
With all this talk about cooking, it’s easy to forget that there have been other means of creating food in JRPGs. Magic is a pretty prominent element in all of these games, so it stands to reason that there could be unconventional methods of making meals. The genre covered these fairly early on too, with Gust taking the lead with alchemy.
In 1997, Atelier Marie: The Alchemist of Salburg showed that our avatars could put together provisions without things like a stove or oven. All you needed was a handy pot. Marie paved the way for unconventional cooking methods when cheese, wine, and tea found their way out of her pot. Later, Square Enix would borrow the same idea for Dragon Quest VIII and it’s cheese-producing Alchemy Pot and Gust would return to the idea for the Ar tonelico series’ fusions. Unfortunately, the latter’s Dokkoi Parfait, Natural Ice, and BBQ Soda didn’t sound as pleasant as the former’s chunky cheese.
But what happens when our JRPG heroes and heroines aren’t into the culinary arts? Not everyone is good at cooking or baking. What then? Fortunately, developers had such characters covered. Some games made it possible for the party to be involved in the process while not getting their hands dirty.
Vanillaware made it possible before it even was Vanillaware. George Kamitani was with Atlus when he created Princess Crown, the game that would later inspire Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade. Princess Galadriel, the titular princess, probably never had the opportunity to spend much time in her palace’s kitchens, so when she’s out in the world she gathers ingredients like meat, vegetable and spices to take to cafes. Chefs cook them for her to enjoy.
Monster Hunter is another example of JRPG characters benefiting from others’ creations. In 2005, the Monster Hunter G expansion added the cutest chefs in gaming. The Felyne Kitchen’s Palicos are always waiting in the players’ hometowns to fix a dish. But it isn’t only about restoring health. When someone grabs grub, it provides buffs that make a character more effective on the next mission.
But there’s one other thing that food can do in JRPGs. We talked about how it can heal or give someone an edge in certain situations, but meals can help form bonds. In Neo Angelique, a 2006 otome game, Angelique is a Purifier with the ability to defeat Thanatos alongside a group of gorgeous guys she can date. She gets to eat dinner with them in the evenings and collecting dessert recipes is key to improving relations. The right treat can please one of the bachelors, earning their praise and extending the conversation.
Food is an important part of our daily lives, so it it only stands to reason they’re in our virtual ones as well. JRPGs have evolved over the years to integrate cooking, both conventional and unconventional, into our adventuring experiences. Our characters are as skilled with katanas as they are with kitchen knives, and they’ll surely continue to expand their palettes in the years to come.