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Playing with Your Food: Fast Food Videogames

There are many strange subgenres in the increasingly vast world of videogames. One of the strangest -- and oldest -- has to be the fast food video game. Usually a marketing tie-in, these games are rarely popular or fun, but the burger congloms, ever in a frenzy to reach their target market (a demographic who also happens to like videogames), they keep making them. Here are some of our fast food faves.

Burgertime

Unlike most titles on this list, this game is a genuine classic. Popular in arcades when it was first introduced in 1982, Burgertime quickly emigrated from Japan to the US and from arcades to home consoles. The player controls a chef, Peter Pepper, who must construct a burger while avoiding his three mortal enemies, Mister Pickle, Mister Egg and Mr. Hot Dog. (Some people like pickles and eggs on burgers, so I'm not sure what the animosity here is all about.) In terms of gameplay, Burgertime is clearly a close relative of Donkey Kong, but its sequels didn't do nearly as well: most people have played Donkey Kong Jr. and the ubiquitous Mario games, but Burgertime follow-up Peter Pepper's Ice Cream Factory didn't exactly catch on. Here's a nostalgia-inducing (for some) commercial from the 80s for Burgertime:

McKids

Perhaps trying to capture some of Burgertime's magic, the 1993 Nintendo game McKids was a poorly-conceived entry into the game market and yet another Super Mario Brothers 3 rip-off. You play a kid who's entered into the magic McDonald's fantasy world in a quest to retrieve Ronald's magic bag, which was stolen by the Hamburglar. McDonald's reportedly wasn't happy with the game, and dampened their own sales by refusing to market the game properly.

Fast Food

Another vintage food game, Fast Food was released in 1982 for the Atari 2600. You control a pair of disembodied lips which move frantically around the screen trying to consume as much flying fast food as possible. The objective is to get fat, but if you eat too many rotten purple pickles, you barf up all the food you've eaten and have to begin again. A truly strange game. Here's a funny review, which includes a NSFW word or two, FYI.

Burger King Games

As part of a recent marketing campaign (which seems to revolve around their company's mascot being strange and creepy), Burger King released several small-scale videogames featuring The King. You play The King, who beams down into the world in order to feed hungry people -- not starving orphans in Micronesia, but already-plump Westerners with insatiable cravings for fried meat. And you do it with a kind of burger-tastic Jujitsu. I don't know if they sold any more hamburgers for having made this game, but it's definitely entertaining.

Ronald McDonald, Street Fighter

I can't quite figure out what this is, but I do know one thing: it's wonderful. It appears to be some kind of Japanese game hack, using definitely-not-licensed characters like Homer Simpson, Ronald McDonald and KFC's Colonel in a Street Fighter kind of milieu. Fast-paced, violent, and full of nonsense pop culture references. Genius!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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