Nom Nation Review—Nommy Dearest
Growing up in the ’80s, I found educational video games quite common. The Oregon Trail, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, Leisure Suit Larry, and so forth. That has apparently disappeared since gaming now seems to be dominated by consoles and handhelds, devices typically not found in schools, except I guess on dedicated educational platforms like Leapster. So it was something of a surprise to see an educational game like Nom Nation get released in the Minis program.
Actually, from the trailer, it is hard to tell that Nom Nation is an educational game. It’s a platformer full of crude humor. It’s developed by Playerthree at the behest of something called Channel 4, which, if I can believe Wikipedia, was the fourth national TV channel on the air in the UK. I have no idea if that is the UK equivalent of PBS or Fox. Based on Nom Nation’s style, it seems like a combination of both, the not-so-subtle humor of, say, Family Guy, combined with the preachiness of Sesame Street.
So, I was expecting Nom Nation to be something of a disaster, to be honest. Instead, it’s quite a surprise. While the preachiness is there, as is the not-so-clever humor, at its heart Nom Nation is a very solid puzzle-platformer, where you must figure out how to complete a level, with a good deal of depth.
You control a pixelated chef named “Chef” who must recover 10 pages from a recipe book, in a possibly offensive backstory (it seemingly parodies Eastern religion). Each page is on a separate world or level that you must complete, which in turn unlocks the next level. At the end, you confront the head of the fast food place, which is an evil clown.
The basics are the same as most platformers—Chef moves to the left or right with the D-pad or analog nub and jumps with a press of the X button. He’s not at all floaty like a certain sackboy, and you can control him somewhat while he is in the air. He does have a number of special moves he can do, some as the result of power-ups (he eats food with a press of the Triangle button), others by manipulating objects or the environment (Square button for that).
Power-ups are gained by eating food. There’s a huge range of foods in the game (it is meant to educate people about food, after all), and they do a lot of different things, like making Chef fat (eating a cheeseburger) or giving him the ability to punch (steak) or even a strong case of flatulence, which can let him fly (I’m just grateful that Sony didn’t incorporate odor technology into the PSP).
These power-ups are required to progress further in the game; for instance, you might have to be fat to break through a bridge (have to also jump from a certain height) which will let you go through an underground tunnel. Or you might have to use the punch ability to knock down a fragile wall. But sometimes you need to interact with the level itself, like grabbing hold of a stunned enemy to glide, or throwing him at other enemies in order to clear a path.
There’s really an incredible amount of things that Chef can do. Along the way, you get advice on just what he can do from helpful rats, chickens, TVs, and cows. When you pass over them, a word balloon pops up and displays information that is generally relevant to what is being introduced on that level.
Of course, sometimes this advice isn’t as clear as it could be. I got stuck very early on because I was told to drop something heavy on a weakened spot to break through. This seemed to be phrased so as to be misleading, since it’s actually yourself that you dropped (and it wasn’t so much a weakened spot as simply a wooden bridge). They also added a red herring, a throwable object nearby, so it seemed to imply that you should drop it on the bridge. While that sort of chicanery is okay in a game, it shouldn’t be on the first level.
That’s really my only complaint with Nom Nation—it can be maddeningly frustrating at times. You just can’t figure out how to progress, so rather than throw the PSP through the window, you power it down and take a break . . . only to return later and have to go through the whole level until you get to that part you got stuck at to try again. While there is a checkpoint system, it only works until you exit the game. Being able to save a game in progress would have been a godsend.
Along the way of navigating a level, you want to grab all the food you can, as well as grains of rice (this game’s equivalent of Mario’s coins or Sonic’s rings). As part of the educational nature of the game, at least I guess that’s the reason, you see the food Chef eats in a virtual stomach. The food also affects a virtual heart; eat too much bad stuff, and he gets a heart attack and dies.
Once you finish a level, you get a nice recap. Then you can go into a special level that displays all the stuff in the game you’ve encountered, as well as read more about the foods you’ve eaten, both their in-game effects and their real-life effects.
Graphically, it looks very nice, pixelated by design and very colorful. A lot of times, pixel art games look dull, which is probably more accurate, but ugly to look at. So it’s nice to see such a vivid game. The first couple of levels look the same, but later on, the terrain becomes much more varied. The same effort went into the sound as did the graphics. Catchy music and surprisingly detailed sound effects. I don’t like retro music much, but this is excellent.
Nom Nation is a brilliant and well done but frustrating game. Quite honestly, it’s the most difficult game I’ve played since I started writing reviews here. Generally I can beat (or at least play enough of) a game in a few days, letting me write a review within a week. That wasn’t the case here; even The Impossible Game was less challenging. At least there it was just a matter of practice. Nom Nation requires a lot of thinking, which is exactly what an educational game should do.