Growing up you wouldn’t catch me dead with anything pink. Pink meant girly, and girly — I was convinced — meant weak. From a young age, I insisted on jeering at anything soft or sparkly. It only got worse when I started gravitating toward stereotypical male-coded hobbies, namely video games, which brought so-called “girl games” onto my radar of things to despise. Except for one: the Easy-Bake Kitchen CD-ROM Playset. Hasbro released it in 1999 and it blew my fucking mind.
The late ‘90s and early 2000s were practically the golden age of funky children’s gadgets and this bizarre amalgam of a traditional physical playset and PC game stands testament to that. You play the game by interacting with a plastic, miniature kitchen that you strap over your keyboard. Looking back, it’s embarrassingly low-tech for how much it impressed me as a kid. Physically opening the oven or using the blender pushes out a plastic piece on the bottom of the contraption that strikes a particular key, triggering the corresponding action in-game. All its nauseatingly cutesy green-and-purple packaging does is disguise the fact that you’re really just playing by hitting keys like you would in any PC game.
As far as 7-year-old Alyse was concerned it operated on pure magic.
The thing wasn’t even mine, technically. My mum bought it for my little sister, who would have been around four at the time. And while I refused to touch a real Easy-Bake oven, I was mesmerised by this tiny kitchen that seemed to blur the lines between the physical and virtual worlds. My mum thanked me for offering to help my sister figure out how to play, but really I just wanted an excuse to get my hands on it.
“Turn your computer into a kitchen full of fun!” the playset’s box promises. “No Waiting! No Mess!”
You bake in-game treats by messing around with the playset’s eight components: a blender, a measuring cup, a piping bag, an oven that opens and turns on or off, a knife, a rolling pin (the only detachable piece of the playset, which we always managed to lose somehow) to flatten a plastic glob of dough, and an egg you “crack” on the side of a bowl.
The game has about half a dozen game modes, most of which I’d forgotten about until I stumbled on a playthrough by Lucky Penny Shop, a vintage toy channel on YouTube, while writing this. There’s a bakery where you follow along with an animated guide, who looks like something out of a Disney mockbuster, to create cakes, cookies, pretzels, and other baked goods from scratch. It has a few mini-games that cleverly use the set-up, including a “Where’s Waldo” style hunt for gingerbread men and a speed-baking competition. My mum eventually banned us from playing the latter because the playset’s plastic pieces would clack up a storm when we frantically slammed them down to beat our personal fastest scores.
My sister and I easily spent the most time in “Mixing Bowl” mode, which I suppose is as close as you can get to a sandbox-style baking game. It’s a virtual free-for-all where you cycle through random ingredients and can bake anything your little heart desires. We’d waste hours trying to break the game. Blending our likely inedible concoctions until the batter splattered all over the countertops. Seeing how long the game would let us leave pastries to cook in the oven, finding it hysterical when they shriveled to a burnt crisp and the kitchen began to fill with smoke (Note: kids are freaking terrifying.) There was also something weirdly satisfying about watching the chaos we’d wrought magically disappear with the click of a button. Hitting the mop icon made everything sparkling clean again as if our culinary experiments never happened.
You could serve what you created to animated pals at a virtual tea party, but I drew the line at that. My threshold for “girliness” was already at its limit given all the heart-inscribed cooking utensils and pastel colours assaulting my eyes, so I never bothered with it other than to occasionally watch my guests gobble up carrot-filled cookies, pies topped with spaghetti, and whatever else weird shit I could make. And when I say gobble, I literally mean gobble: Though I rarely tinkered with this mode, I distinctly remember how the characters would disappear into a cartoon dust cloud as they descended like a ravenous mob to devour their treats.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one that this scene stuck with either. Femicon, an online museum of 20th-century electronic toys and software marketed to girls, spoke with indie games journalist Jupiter Hadley about her memories of the game for its virtual exhibit.
“I use to really enjoy getting all of my favourite items baked to perfection for the giant tea party,” she told Femicon. “But I do remember being quite upset when everyone ate the foods so fast leaving a huge mess of crumbs! I was always so upset that they ate it too fast leaving a mess for me to clean up.”
You can print out recipes for some of the treats too, though I don’t remember ever bothering to. My mum, God bless her, has never been much of a cook, and even if I had tried to recreate one of my virtual treats at home, that playset probably had a wider range of cooking utensils than our kitchen did. That it demystified the cooking process was probably one of the reasons I found the game so mesmerising. Throwing together eggs, flour, and other ingredients to ultimately make something edible seemed just as magical a concept as the playset.
It should be noted that even with my nostalgia glasses on, I still realise how inherently gross it is for Hasbro and other toy companies to market their products based on gender. In reality, there’s no such thing as a “girl game” or a “girl toy” since they’re meant to be enjoyed by anyone. Though that fact can turn nostalgia into a mini existential crisis for anyone who grew up visiting toy stores that were strictly bifurcated into blue and pink. We end up asking ourselves, “Did I genuinely like [insert childhood plaything here], or did I only like it because I was told I was supposed to?”
Femicon founder and director Rache Weil says that this kind of reconciliation with the commercialisation of girlhood is at the heart of the museum’s mission, and the Easy-Bake Oven CD-ROM playset embodies many of those themes.
“The unlikely combination of a baking toy with home computer software asks us to reconcile commercial notions of girlhood with the unmistakable fun of baking your own cookies! with the questionable choice of migrating this fun to a computer simulation,” she said in an email to Gizmodo.
As I said before, the late ‘90s and early aughts were a crazy time for kid’s gadgets, and while writing this I learned that several other hybrid PC/physical toys came out around then. Personal computer ownership was on the rise, and Hasbro and its rival toy company Mattel raced to be the first to cash in on what was quickly becoming a household staple: the shared family computer. Mattel teamed up with chip-maker Intel to create a line of games that interacted with the hottest new gadget at the time, webcams. Meanwhile, Hasbro created a dedicated subsidiary, Hasbro Interactive, to push out PC versions of its board games like Monopoly and Scrabble and come up with key-top playset games for its other properties. This included the Easy-Bake kitchen my sister and I played with as well as a PlaySkool cash register to operate a virtual store and a version of Clue playable with a magnifying glass peripheral, among others. The concept proved so popular that even Star Wars eventually got the home computer playset treatment.
“We carved out a niche in the interactive toy category by delivering low-tech, easy-to-use toys that interact with CD-ROM software at a competitive price and families responded in a very big way,’’ said Hasbro Interactive president, Tom Dusenberry, in a 1999 interview with IGN.
Tragically, Hasbro Interactive would become one of the dot-com bubble’s many victims. Just two years later, Hasbro pawned off the floundering company to the French software firm Infogrames after its stock tanked. Kid-friendly gadgets kept right on evolving though as the prevalence of smartphones and laptops quickly turned the idea of a shared family computer into a cultural relic. Relatively low-tech toy designs like keyboard playsets phased out in favour of touch screens, app-enabled features, voice recognition, and other examples that will no doubt eventually become antiquated themselves.
After all, the life cycle of tech is short and only seems to be getting shorter these days. Which I imagine is why we find it so fun reminiscing about childhood gadgets and how they managed to mesmerise us when their inner workings seem so obvious now. As I type this blog on my pink keyboard with my matching pink mouse in my pastel-themed office, it’s funny to think how vehemently I rejected the “girly” aesthetic as a kid. I think Hasbro’s Easy-Bake playset helped set off that domino effect. That’s why I remember it so fondly despite some queasiness — it was the first crack in my prejudices about femininity and strength, though it would be years before I began embracing everything femme with the intensity of someone making up for lost time.