In 2010 I discovered Restaurant City on Facebook, and ever since I’ve always loved cooking simulators. Maybe it’s because my mother never taught me how to cook so the process seemed magical, or maybe it’s because I’m always hungry and ogling pixelated food is fun. Whatever the case, it fills me with joy to prepare entrees that please my virtual customers.
I first played Starbound in early access last year. At that time, it was focused solely on mining and exploration, earning comparisons to Terraria immediately. Even after its official launch in July, which added a main story and side quests, it’s been dismissed as nothing more than a 2D No Man’s Sky. However, it has a few features that distinguish it from other open world titles. You can find blueprints for biome-specific furniture, collect codices with extensive lore on each species, and learn new recipes.
One day while strolling through the Outpost, I noticed a cooking station. Curious, I opened the menu at the counter to see what foods were available in outer space. Since I already had a few potatoes in my inventory, the first thing I chose to make was mashed potatoes. This culinary venture unlocked the recipe for potato grids, and a little Steam achievement popped up commending me for practicing my chef skills. All this intrigued me. Were there more hidden recipes I could uncover?
Soon I started harvesting naturally-occurring crops on my planetary romps and returning to the Outpost to see what I could make with them. In the midst of the introductory story missions, I got hooked.
Suddenly I was keeping my eyes peeled during quests for merchants or refrigerators, both of which could be holding rare produce. I’d sprint over hills in the hopes of finding plants I could dig up. Instead of battling with the weapons I found in boxes and chests, I’d hoard them away and sell them so I would have money for more ingredients. As my boyfriend and I completed missions or prepared to tackle boss fights, I’d toss him a meal or two, wanting them to do something beyond simply rotting in my inventory.
Because really, what good is cooking in Starbound? Crafting health kits like salve is simpler than whipping up dessert on the fly. What’s the point of having food at all?
For one thing, you continue to heal a little over time when your stomach is full, while salve only heals in short, decided bursts. Eating may not replace using medical supplies, but it can supplement them very well. Not only that, but the treats you make can give you temporary conditions, like faster running speeds or boosted damage. They also sometimes set you on fire, but it never lasts long.
Above all else, though, cooking in Starbound is just neat. I hadn’t really noticed before, but most restaurant games don’t have much to do with food. They’re about managing funds, putting orders together correctly, passing health inspections, and surviving the lunch rush. Starbound is more concerned with attaching lore to different dishes, Avian breakfast cereals or Apex snacks, and the way ingredients combine with each other. There’s no urgency to beat the clock or achieve a certain customer rating–it’s just you, the pantry staples and alien fruits you gather, and your prep station.
There is some inventory management involved, and you have to make sure perishables don’t get a chance to rot before storing them in the refrigerator, but ultimately it’s all pretty relaxing.
Starbound created a food preparation system that feels very organic. Just like in real life, you have to gradually learn the building blocks of recipes. It only makes sense that you should have experience making a rice cake first before you try your hand at sushi, or that knowledge of how to fix pineapple juice will naturally lead to creating pineapple jam down the road. There are items you need over and over again–milk, eggs, sugar, wheat–and those that only appear once or twice in specialty cuisine.
Looking at the game purely through a cooking lens is incredible. It’s like the whole universe is my neighborhood and each planet is a marketplace. Much like making a grocery list, every now and then I will meticulously go through and catalog the ingredients I need to complete whatever recipes I haven’t tried yet. Yes, Starbound makes me turn to pen and paper; the obsession is that real. After tallying up my totals, I put some fuel in my ship and set a course for the next star system. Of course, I go ahead and stockpile some extras just in case, because you never know when preparing one simple recipe will unlock one that’s more complex.
The September update that added Collections gives you more incentive to grill, bake, or juice everything you can. It also acts like a cookbook, helping you keep better track of the dishes you’ve already mastered. Sure, it’ll take some time to make all the recipes over again and have them appear in the Cooking Collection, but I enjoy the process. Even though I’ve already brought every character back to the Outpost and finished the game’s story, the quest to grow just a little more corn and fix every last appetizer gives me a reason to continue exploring. I’m currently at 60 hours of playtime with no end in sight.
Through Glitch fortresses and Floran arenas, the thing that’s held my interest and often prompted my excitement the most has been the promise of a hot meal when I return to my ship. In some ways it’s not terribly realistic, as recipes may call for eyeball fruit or actual lava, but it all makes sense in context. Stepping into the shoes of an intergalactic chef, you start to get hungry for dishes that don’t even exist in this world.
Someday I’ll finish filling up my cookbook, feeling a mixture of pride in the accomplishment and sadness that the journey is over, but until then I’ll keep going back to water my crops and asking every merchant if they’re offering the elusive neonmelon.