The snozberries taste like snozberries!
The story goes that a Japanese business man was riding the bullet train one day when he idly observed another man next to him who was playing with an LCD calculator, almost aimlessly, to merely pass the time. While we don’t know the name of the man with the calculator, we do know that the business man was Gunpei Yokoi, the man who would go on to design the Game & Watch series of handheld electronic games, and later, the mighty Game Boy. His initial creation, though, had its inception in the concept of an adult killing time between destinations.
In an interview in 1997, the year of his death, Yokoi was asked: “how do you feel about recent games?” He responded by saying:
There’s a huge variety of console games out now, but to me, the majority of them aren’t actually “games”. The word “game” means something competitive, where you can win or you can lose. When I look at recent games, I see that quality has been declining, and what I’m seeing more and more of are games that want to give you the experience of a short story or a movie.
This is most obvious with role-playing games, where the “game” portion isn’t the main focus, and I get the feeling that the developers really just want you to experience the story they’ve written. So when you ask what I think of games today, well, it’s a very difficult question for me. I end up having to say that games today just aren’t games to me.
The essence of games is competition, and I think that’s a remnant of our past as animals, and the competition of the survival of the fittest. I think you see it reflected all through human history, how people with wealth and power want to have harems, acquire women… that kind of thing is at the root of humanity.
More “game” than “video”.
I’d caution you against reading too much disgust into Yokoi’s words; as an observation, it’s acute, though as a complaint, it sounds codgy. Here we are all these years later, though, and you’ll have to decide for yourself how much of what Gunpei Yokoi believed to be true is actually true of the gaming industry. More specifically, the game under scrutiny in this article emphasizes the game (not video) in video game, and it also takes the form of some of Yokoi’s works in that it’s very much a handheld experience, appropriate for killing some time.
Cake Laboratory is a simple, mobile app-style tower stacking game developed by Square Heads Games and published by GrimTalin. We were supplied a review copy for this game and we previously reviewed The Adventures of Elena Temple on the Switch, which was developed by GrimTalin.
Under the watchful eye of the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest cake baker”, Antoine L’Eclair, the player is tasked with completing 50 levels involving stacking cakes vertically, with greater rewards awarded for precision and speed. It’s almost a kind of play on Tetris, only without the horizontal sensibility, though similar to games like Tricky Towers, with some de-emphasis on balancing physics.
A crane carries each tier of cake back and forth across the screen, and the player must press a button to cause the cake to drop at just the right time so it lands on the cake below it. Miss the target and the game’s physics will cause your tower of calories to collapse.
Awards include new baking options and room on the shelf for throwing together your own sweet delights. Furthermore, as you progress, different kinds of cakes will be unlocked to be used in the levels themselves.
It’s easy to dismiss all mobile games for certain business practices (microtransactions) or emphases of gameplay (addictiveness, lack of innovation, overall simplicity) but the fact remains that many of us would probably rather have something to occupy our attentions when sitting on a train other than an LCD calculator. See, there’s a kind of utility to Cake Laboratory. On the Nintendo Switch, it takes full advantage of and indeed relies on the hybrid consoles portability in order to be appealing.
Another aspect of its usefulness is as a children’s game. I’m currently introducing my son (Kal, aged 3) to video games. You may remember him from projects like Kidsplaining Nintendo Labo or our father-son critique of It’s Spring Again. He helped influence some of my take on the game overall and I’ll include some of his feedback below!
Colorful and simple are the words of the day for Cake Laboratory’s visuals, as is fitting for a title with mobile app-style gameplay. For a game like this, the graphics need to be useful. They’re not about realism or about cashing in on the pixel art trend; they are there to support the player’s access of the functions of the game. Notice the high contrast between the generally blue- and green-toned background with the bright red, pink, and purple elements in the foreground: menus, numbers and titles, dialogue boxes, and stars.
The customizable cakes are interesting, though not all of the shapes of icings and crumb are as visually compatible. I also ran into two visual errors with menus not appearing in the center of the screen. That chef is cute.
You can hear the game’s audio in the trailer below. There’s a simple acoustic guitar/xylophone ditty that plays throughout the game without fail, and the song is somewhat relaxing in a stress-relieving way, though it wears after just a little while. I kept the music on toward the end of the game specifically for stress relief on those harder stages.
A relaxing, zen-like experience… is Cake Laboratory once it gets hard enough. So I had my son clear the earlier stages up until they became too difficult for him, and then I finished up the rest. It wasn’t until the last four or five stages that the pace became fast enough and the cakes narrow enough that I really had to devote all my focus to emerge victorious. The 50th stage especially took me several attempts to complete and I achieved a meditative experience absolutely dialed in on that crane, my eyes darting from that pendulum to the sweet tooth target below. I could wish that the game became harder sooner and more of that kind of experience was prevalent, but as a time-killer it suffices.
Playtested on a 3-year-old and a 33-year-old, I can attest to the fact that Cake Laboratory is very easy to learn. “Pick up and play” is one of its officially described merits.
The crane begins traveling faster as you progress toward level 50, and the cakes themselves become narrower. The difficulty curve is very gentle and I found myself wanting more challenge, though the 50th level really brings the hurt.
Once the 50 stages are complete, there’s the matter of going back to try to clear every stage with 3 stars, though interest in doing so will certainly vary between individuals. Even so, Cake Laboratory doesn’t exhibit the kind of infinite gameplay that some puzzle-style mobile games do. This leads me to believe that it’s better for children, in that adults are constantly thinking in terms of completionism and checklists, whereas a child inhabits their experiences much more easily. My son still asks to play Cake Laboratory frequently.
So Cake Laboratory appears to be an adaptation of High on Cake, a casual, confectioner-themed tower-building mobile game also put out by Square Heads Games. Looking at comparative footage, the concept is the same, even if the execution is different. Cake Laboratory is more appropriate for a hybrid console to play on the go than for cellphones.
My Personal Grade: 5/10
Cake Laboratory may not have enough to it to entertain an adult for hours, beyond a commute, lunch break, or standing in line at the DMV, but it is great for short sessions of gameplay for my son. If anything, a game like Cake Laboratory increases the versatility, diversity, and accessibility of video games on the Switch for children. My own son enjoys playing it when I’m not using the system, so I’d say it’s kid-tested and kid-approved! Now to try it out on the Shinkansen…
Aggregated Score: 5.8
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