A beef history of meat in games
Meat is the most valuable natural resource on Earth. We put it in our bodies and convert it into energy to do very important things. All of our best friends are made out of it and our skeletons live inside of it. Some of the first creative acts committed by humans, neolithic cave paintings, were depictions of the hunt and the animal to be consumed.
We are still addressing meat now in the current dominant medium, the video game. Let’s unpack some of the ways that popular gaming has used meat and take a look at how it has been utilized through the lens of some more obscure titles.
When Simon Belmont, the hero of Konami’s sidescrolling NES action game Castlevania, became injured by the waves of monsters and living dead that filled the castle of his enemy, he had only one recourse. He needed to eat a hot turkey or roast chicken. Intermittently throughout the game if the player attacked the wall with his whip it would break open to reveal a meat snack.
A lot has been made of the strange fact that there is meat in Dracula’s ancient castle walls. The only answer is these morsels were placed there by one of the endless flying Medusa heads, buoyed by the power of suspended disbelief. The fact that this discussion is even happening says a lot for the Castlevania Wall Meat’s status as an iconic meat health item.
While on the subject of meat as a basic health item, an honorable mention has got to go to Capcom’s classic beat-em-up Final Fight. The giant juicy steaks and pork chops that would appear when you roundhouse kicked an oil barrel were always a welcome and happy sight.
Moving from eating meat to serving it, in Taito’s Cooking Mama series you are tasked with preparing for what is ostensibly your family a meal. The accuracy with which you complete the series of food preparation mini-games is judged by a (your?) mother, with the ultimate goal being to surpass her homemaking skill.
No meat or food that is prepared is ever consumed as far as the player sees, but it has to be assumed it is meant for someone. What is she hiding? Who is this food for? This mystery is the metagame at the heart of Cooking Mama.
The Legend of Zelda
In the original Legend of Zelda you obtain meat from a cave vendor. This meat is fed to a hungry dinosaur and used as bait for enemies. Is Mama using the food you prepare as bait for her enemies? Is she poisoning the Salisbury steak I made and baiting a huge beast with it? Is Cooking Mama a Monster Hunter protagonist? It’s not for me to say.
In James George Frazer’s intensely interesting 19th century accounting of the intersections and lineage of mythology and religion The Golden Bough he lays out numerous examples of societies which had stories of hunters and shamans consuming the flesh of an animal in order to gain its essence. The meat imparts you with what it came from and changes you implicitly.
This is how meat works in the Bonk series for the TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine (the character was called PC Genjin in Japan and was a mascot for the system, with Genjin meaning caveman) and a handful of titles elsewhere. In the sidescrolling platformer that was intended to be Hudson Soft’s Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog you control a prehistoric man with a huge melon head. You headbutt rocks and lizard people with your big shiny dome in order to save your girlfriend/the planet from the evil dinosaur empire.
Bonk has a tiered item-based upgrade system similar to the Super Mario Brothers' mushroom/fireflower (Mario is a man of the earth and lives on vegetables). Instead of becoming larger or better equipped like the plumber, when Bonk eats a big hunk of raw meat that pops out of a smiling flower or gets headbutted out of the body of a dinosaur he flips out and transforms into a really compelling mutant.
Some of the games have you turn into an intense squinty-eyed chicken, others a furious dinosaur with a nuclear brain geysering mushroom clouds out of fleshy craters. The meat in the Bonk series is awe inspiring in its transformative powers and utility.
Sony’s Tokyo Jungle has as its setting one of the most pleasant video game post-apocalypses in recent memory. I would give a close second to Nier, which despite being really quite bleak, presented a slow sunset of humanity that was quietly beautiful. Tokyo Jungle has a leg up on Nier though by not including people at all.
You play a wide range of animals, from baby chicks to tigers and other large predators, in a Tokyo that has been taken back by nature for several decades. Trees burst through concrete and skyscrapers, and the only sounds are barking, fighting and eating. You need meat to survive and grow strong enough to attract a quality mate, continuing your lineage. This meat is obtained through hunting other animals living in the ruins of the city, including animals of your own species. As all of the animal sprites are identical, you are for all intents and purposes eating yourself. Unlike the previously mentioned titles, you yourself are the meat as well as the meat eater.
This abject acknowledgement that we are what we eat, and that we are made of meat, is a big part of what caused the fascination and outrage with the original Mortal Kombat's visceral fatalities. At the same time, it's a big part of the draw of the ridiculous and vaguely nauseating Surgeon Simulator.
Abadox: The Deadly Inner War
What if everything was meat? What if instead of experiencing a silent meditation on the food chain and our place in it you were trapped in an endless gory meat hell?
Welcome to Abadox. In this relatively late shooter for the NES you play a lone Gradius-esque fighter pilot with an awful mission. It is up to you to make your way to the heart of a bloody planet-sized parasite made out of the organs of a giant and blow it up. Notorious both for its crushing difficulty (I’ve never been able to get through it without cheating) as much as it’s grotesquerie, it stands out in an era of weird games as being exceptionally odd.
Earthworm Jim 2
A much more pleasant and appetizing iteration on the meat world theme is "Level Ate," the eighth level from the kind-of-disappointing Earthworm Jim 2. On the way to whatever MacGuffin they have set for you, a talking worm in a space suit, you find yourself trapped in an immense barbecue dimension. The floor is made of frying bacon, hot dogs, and grilling burgers, and it all looks fantastic. In a game full of surreal and goofy moments it is one of the most memorable and visually striking of them all.
So that's the beef on meat in games. Now go crack open the nearest suspicious looking wall and dig into a steaming hot turkey. You’ve earned it.
What's your favorite example of meat in video games? Let us know in the comments!