Nickelodeon's most prolific Porifera tempts the kiddies to dabble in the culinary arts with SpongeBob vs. The Big One: Beach Party Cook-Off (from THQ for the DS, $29.99).
It's not hard to believe that this squishy, optimistic buffoon has spent 10 years tickling the funny bones of cartoon fans thanks to hilarious stories and emphatic voice-over work by Tom Kinney, who also adds to this virtual world.
One of SpongeBob's passions happens to be his work at the Krusty Krab, and the game gloriously exploits his labors within the ever-expanding genre of the cooking video game.
Twenty-five types of short-order activities are offered in a dramatic tale that pits Mr. Krab against his rival restaurant, the Chum Bucket, in a cook-off to see who gets to cater Jack Kahuna Laguna's Big Beach Party. Naturally, Krab won't be doing the actual cooking, so a player assumes the role of SpongeBob and must assist Plankton's pint-sized relatives in preparing more than 100 recipes to impress patrons, food critics and, of course, Laguna.
The young cook is thrown quickly into a kitchen to monitor four areas — prep, grill, fry and plating. Red lights go off when his assistants are in trouble and the player jumps in to help through a first-person perspective.
He might have to arrange, batter, garnish, juice, melt, grate, roast, slice and whisk away as he prepares such delicacies as the Bubble Bass Special or Krusty Krab Brulee. The efforts are nearly all timed and graded from Bad to OK to Perfect. Get at least an OK to move on to more shifts and collect some cash for the workload.
The DS touch screen and stylus are exploited liberally. The player will get hand fatigue from tracing a chaotic mix of patterns with circular, slicing, tapping and dragging motions.
Minichallenges are thrown in to test skills on particular dishes, such as creating an order of sea yam fries in 90 seconds for a stranger who looks a little like Plankton — that sneaky devil.
It's not just about the in-kitchen experience. A player uses his accumulated wealth to buy new recipes, must rotate menu items and can even redecorate the Krusty Krab.
Amid the frenetic, timed chaos of most activities, the game suffers from a painful amount of repetition — if I had to flip one more Krabby patty I was going to flip. Also, a general feeling "what the heck am I doing and who is benefiting from this?" crept in about the 50th time I sliced up a tomato as the story line got thinner and thinner.
Learning Time: Working under pressure, long hours, monotonous labor — welcome to life at the Krusty Krab, brother. Heck, welcome to life.
The activities give the player a little noggin exercise, but none as exhausting as the speed memorization of stacking burger parts. It's a constant battle to succeed and stay sane every shift.
SpongeBob always encourages and spreads the spirit of teamwork among the staff from "Turn that frown upside down" and "Let me help out" to "I got it, little guy."
I understand the game is just for fun, but developers could have thrown in some real recipes or at least offered a bit about the actual items and more explanation about the culinary terms used in the preparation process.
Age range: The 9-year-old enamored with SpongeBob's antics will most appreciate the character's ridiculous, trademark behavior in the game. While the activities can get tedious, the game works well for short car rides, especially when a pair of pals (each with a DS and cartridge) compete in a cook-off. Up to four players can simultaneously challenge one another.
Final advice: SpongeBob fans won't appreciate the grainy video clips and lack of depth but will relish the hero's silly remarks and their existence in a virtual Bikini Bottom. Sea Shells and Cheese anyone?
• Joseph Szadkowski's ROMper Room is a place for children and their parents to escape the world of ultraviolent video games and use that gaming system or computer to actually learn something while having fun. Send e-mail to email@example.com.