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Kyoto has a long-standing reputation as a center of traditional culture, justified by its numerous significant temples and shrines, not to mention the artwork they house and their surrounding gardens. However, the city is also home to a site of great importance to modern pop culture: the headquarters of video game maker Nintendo, responsible for many of the titles that shaped modern gaming.

There’s a saying in Japan, though, that you can’t win a battle on an empty stomach, and that goes for designing great games, too. We recently visited the restaurant that powered the development team of one of Nintendo’s biggest hits ever.

The photos in this article can be viewed in 3D. The MPO (3D data) zip files can be downloaded here for viewing on a Nintendo 3DS or 3D-capable TV or PC.

In 1985 and through the first half of 1986, Nintendo was hard at work on Metroid, the innovative exploration-centered title that would go on to spawn 11 sequels and spin-offs. Before all that could happen, though, the company needed to finish making the first game in the series. Video games were a much smaller industry in those days, which meant fewer developers on each team, and the Metroid crew had a problem.

They were hungry.

But with barely enough time to make their looming deadlines, no one on the team could afford to go out for lunch. And while Japan has an awesome system where some inexpensive neighborhood restaurants will deliver food to nearby homes or offices, there were hardly any that offered the service near Nintendo’s office in Kyoto’s Higashiyama district.

Thankfully, there was one restaurant, Benkei Shokudo, that was willing to transport sustenance to the developers’ workplace. “If it wasn’t for Benkei, I don’t know if we’d have been able to finish Metroid,” commented one member of the team.

The restaurant’s location is particularly appropriate. In the Metroid series, players traverse mysterious, sometimes dangerous alien worlds. Likewise, Benkei is situated on an unusual narrow strip of property sandwiched between the train tracks of the Nara and Keisei Honsen rail lines.

▼ Right next to Tobakaido Station

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Benkei’s owner says she remembers the busy days of Metroid’s development clearly. “That was almost 30 years ago. Someone would call from the Nintendo office and put in a huge order for food every day. Of course we couldn’t carry that much food at once, so we had to deliver it in batches as we cooked, making several round trips back and forth to fill the whole order.”

▼ The interior has an old-school vibe

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▼ With the exception of the 1,100 yen (US$11.35) freshwater eel bowl, everything is under 1,000 yen

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Our interest piqued, we asked what the developers’ favorite item on the menu was. “I think it was probably the pork cutlet bowl,” she told us. Well then, that’s what we were having! We may not be legendary video game designers, but no way were we passing up the opportunity to at least eat like them.

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Benkei’s owner says she hasn’t altered the recipe from the one the Metroid crew loved so much, and we don’t blame her. You don’t tinker with something that’s already this good. The breading has no stiffness at all, blending perfectly in the mouth with the egg and tender, juicy meat. Call us traditionalists, but it tastes just like a pork cutlet bowl should, with no needless embellishments. It is a little smaller than we’d expected though; we could imagine a hungry programmer tearing through this pretty easily.

▼ If you stare at it long enough, with its gentle curvature, it does start to look a little like a metroid.

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▼ So if pork culet bowls are called katsu-don in Japanese, does that make this a Ninten-don? Or a Metroi-don? (Okay, we’ll stop now…).

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Benkei’s sukiyaki udon is also a big enough hit that the restaurant’s menu board includes a note that it’s recommended by members of the Nintendo staff. Unable to resist this endorsement, we put in an order for one as a chaser to our pork cutlet bowl. Our server placed the noodles before us, still simmering in their pot. Despite the amount of steam coming off them we couldn’t resist, and after the first delicious mouthful, we couldn’t stop until we’d eaten whole thing.

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▼ So hot, but so good

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▼ The one-two punch of udon and egg sort of reminds us of Metroid bosses Ridley and Kraid

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▼ Mouth-watering meat, soaked in egg and broth

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We didn’t have room to try anything else, but even after just two skillfully crafted dishes, we could see that Benkei’s cooks put their heart and soul into everything they make. It’s really no surprise that a team from Nintendo’s golden age would be kindred spirits who could appreciate that. As a matter of fact, Nintendo even included a message of their respect for the restaurant in Metroid’s ending.

Most gamers remember the game’s ending for the twist where main character Samus strips off a suit of powered armor to reveal that she’s a woman. But gamers sharp-eyed or stoic enough to not be distracted by the heroine’s swimsuit may have noticed “BENKEI” listed in the credits.

“If we were able to help out the Nintendo staff, I’m glad,” remarks Benkei’s owner. “But at the same time, there were really good customers for us, so we owe them a thank you, too.” We’d personally like to thank everyone involved, for the great game and the great food. It may not have boosted our creative powers enough to produce a masterpiece of our own, but it definitely kept us full enough for a speed run of Metroid after we got home.

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Restaurant information
Benkei Shokudo /弁慶食堂
Address: Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward, Fukuine Shita Takamatsu-cho 73-1
Open 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Closed Saturdays

Photos: RocketNews24
[ Read in Japanese ]