I’m always going on about Pharaoh, the Impressions city builder from 1999 that’s lodged itself in my psyche like a toy soldier in an alsatian’s paw. And every time I mention how good it is, some forlorn soul in the comments mentions Emperor: Rise Of The Middle Kingdom, it’s successor-but-one (after Zeus: Master of Olympus) from 2002, as being better. And you know what? They’re right. Pharaoh will always be my favourite because I’m just so into the theme, but Emperor was by far the better game, and is arguably as good as historical city builders ever got.
I could go into great detail about all the various ways in which E:ROTMK refined the Impressions formula into something magnificent, with its sweeping progress through thousands of years of Chinese history. But these retrospectives are short, fleeting things, and so I want to focus on one particular facet of nostalgia: the fact that every time I go back to replay Emperor, it makes me really, really hungry.
Like most of its ilk, of course, the game tasked you with keeping your citizens fed, by either harvesting or importing din-dins, and then distributing them through housing districts from a market. And brilliantly, if you clicked on the market, it would tell you what was on the menu on any given day, based on what ingredients were available. And what chefs my little imaginary citygoers were!
Sure, at the start of a settlement they’d be slinging bowls of steamed cabbage and meat-slice soup – nothing to write home about. But much of the game was about coaxing in fancier and fancier immigrants by offering finer and more complex wares, and food was no exception. To get real la-di-da aristocrats to move in, you’d have to offer foods conjured from multiple ingredients, and your markets would start to sell crab siu mai, pot-stuck dumplings and luoyang Duck. It never failed to make my mouth water.
What’s more, you can have a salivate yourself without even having to boot up the game, as there’s a full list of the (104!) possible market recipes listed here. Just imagine it’s a takeaway menu.