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Farm-fresh burgers, now with bad eggs: a Burgertime retrospective

If there is one self-evident truth to the history of the gaming industry, it would be that the early 80s welcomed utterly bizarre gaming concepts. Even more bizarre, though, were the ones based around food.

There was Mr. Do, a game in which a clown digs tunnels underground to collect cherries, all while avoiding dinosaurs and monsters that look vaguely like Cookie Monster. Or Atari’s Food Fight, wherein a kid must make his way to an ice cream cone before it melts, battling his way past angry chefs with a variety of ingredients. But Data East took the enchilada, so to speak, when it brought out Burgertime in 1982.

In this particular bit of nightmare fuel, you play as the chef, Peter Pepper, as he works to construct gigantic burgers that would seemingly become the video game inspiration for modern, record-setting, actual burgers. To accomplish this, Peter Pepper must violate health code regulations and stomp along the various parts of the burger, dropping them to lower platforms. Do this enough times, and the complete burger will have fallen to a plate waiting at the bottom of the screen.

Perhaps sent by the FDA health inspectors, or perhaps simply wanting revenge for crimes against their people, terrifying, human-sized ingredients pursue Peter Pepper the entire time: there’s Mr. Hot Dog, Mr. Egg, and of course, Mr. Pickle. Like some sort of edible Terminator, each villain (hero?) can only be stopped by having pepper thrown on him, and even then, this only stops him in his tracks for a few seconds. Peter Pepper’s only other avenue of attack, then, is to either crush the onslaught under these burger pieces, or, if you’re really good, catch each villain as it stands on said burger bits when you drop them. This latter technique is the key to any high score in the game, and to get more than even one foe at a time is a feat.

The game was initially released on Data East’s DECO arcade platform. Something of a precursor to SNK’s Neo Geo MVS concept, the idea was that you’d have a main board, and then the games would come along on data cassette tapes, which you could use to load them up. It was, in theory, cheaper than just buying all new arcade boards, but in practice would break down constantly due to all the moving parts. The game did see a release on a standard arcade board as well, possibly owing to its popularity.

Burgertime was something of a sleeper hit for Data East, and in little time Mattel Electronics, who held the Data East license for console ports (one of the few not already gobbled up by Atari) worked on getting the game out to multiple consoles. The game quickly spread to numerous other platforms, such as Mattel’s own Intellivision, Atari’s 2600, the Colecovision, and a variety of home computers. The Atari port was particularly interesting: due to limitations of the console, you had the villainous Mr. Breadstick replacing Mr. Pickle, while the egg was now a white block. Still, the fact that the Burgertime music would play in the background was enough to wow me as a child, and it quickly became one of my favorite titles. Still, given that it was Mattel’s flagship console, the Intellivision port was arguably the best one; though not necessarily arcade-perfect, it played to the console’s strengths and proved to be one of the finest games on the platform.

Burgertime had something of a small lasting legacy past the Golden Age of Arcade Games. The game eventually saw a port to the NES and Game Boy (as Burgertime Deluxe) platforms, and a Flintstones-themed version made its way to the Game Boy Color. Burgertime also featured prominently in the Midway Arcade Classics collection on the Playstation (as Midway was the US distributor of the arcade game), and more recently, the Data East Arcade Classics compilation on the Wii. It also became the subject of a homebrew port to the Atari 7800 and 5200, entitled Beef Drop. Aside from being quite accurate to the arcade, the 7800 version has the added distinction of being released in two versions, one with the built-in 7800 audio, and one with a POKEY chip added in to provide superior sound.

Attempts to recapture the thunder of Burgertime with sequels were hit-and-miss. Data East released a follow up for their DECO arcade system, called Peter Pepper’s Ice Cream Factory. The game was never very popular, however, partially due to the fact that the DECO system was rather unreliable, and partially because it just wasn’t very good. In it, Peter Pepper is now making giant ice cream cones by kicking balls of ice cream onto the cones. Notably, he can jump, and this is important to kicking balls of ice cream upward to higher platforms. However, falls will kill him, and your foes are both difficult to get away from and incredibly speedy. They apparently are also equipped with hoverboots, as those same pits that will kill Peter do nothing to them. Deaths come fast in this game, and making it past the first level takes a lot of practice and some luck.

Data East also eventually released Super Burgertime, a spruced-up version of the original which is generally considered inferior to it anyway. I’ve never played it! I can’t comment!

INTV, the successor company to Mattel Electronics, fared better with their follow-up. Mattel Electronics had a sequel titled Pizzatime in the works when the industry crash shuttered their doors, and INTV, seeking a sequel to a popular game that they still had the rights to, decided to repurpose a Masters of the Universe game that they had never finished. Diner was born, and is widely considered one of the best games on the Intellivision platform. Here, Peter Pepper is kicking “food balls” down a 3-dimensional world, while once again avoiding enraged hot dogs, cherries, bananas, and ultimately facing off with a root beer mug named Mugsy, the leader of this food army. The pepper returns as a stunning tool, and the added movement space, coupled with the peppy Diner soundtrack and (for the Intellivision) excellent graphics combine to make a game that is quite possibly better than its predecessor. Not finished, the INTV programmers also hid a version of Tron: Deadly Discs in another game, Dig Dug, renamed Deadly Dogs. It was for all intents and purposes the same game, but all the character graphics had been replaced by Mr. Hot Dog. Perhaps they were battling, gladiatorial style, to be free of Peter Pepper’s nefarious dungeon?

Burgertime fans have expressed their love for the game in a variety of ways. Intellivision Lives’ Keith Robinson has been known to don the chef outfit for photo ops, and Mega64 did a Burgertime based video. A bit closer to home, some acquaintances of mine made a 25-minute, documentary-style Burgertime: The Movie, shot at the Anime Central 2005 convention (which incidentally, took place the same time as the Hivemeet!).

As you can probably gather, this entire article is rather tongue-in-cheek. But the Burgertime series deserves that. Everything, from the premise right down to the characters evokes a degree of silliness rarely matched in any era of gaming. Burgertime deserves no less of a retrospective.

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