Release Date: September 12, 2006
Some things are obvious choices for game ideas. Action movie plots, fantasy settings, endlessly cascading waves of abstract objects, and ancient civilizations are all common sources of game design materials. However, in order for a game to be truly unique in its setting, it has to think outside the box. Majesco is extremely successful in picking up titles so outlandish and unusual that they naturally warrant closer looks. One example is one of 2005's highest rated games, Psychonauts, but more recently is a somewhat obscure, quirky little Japanese kitchen game by the name of Cooking Mama.
All you cannibals in the audience, put down your bibs – this is not a game about cooking mothers. Likewise, in no way do you play as a mama that cooks. No, instead, the Cooking Mama in question is a kind of mentor and overseer of your own cooking prowess, there to praise you when you do well and there for her eyes to spontaneously combust when you do poorly.
At its core, Cooking Mama is a string of mini-games arranged in an order to allow you to prepare recipes. If that sounds a bit like a culinary Wario Ware, that's because it really is. Almost identical in control to the earlier DS title Wario Ware: Touched!, Cooking Mama uses the stylus and touch-screen exclusively for its control, save for a few moments where blowing into the microphone is necessary.
Instead of stages, Cooking Mama divides your play sessions into recipes – 76 of them, to be specific. Each one consists of a handful of short, five- to 10-second tasks, drawing from a communal pool of possibly 30 mini-games total arranged into the general order one would have to do such things to prepare dishes. Somehow, even though there are anywhere from three to 10 mini-games per dish, the game's unique quality keeps all but a few from being repetitive and boring.
There are a few, however, that quickly grow tired and annoying; you'll find yourself chopping onions and cucumbers and the like constantly, and even though it's only in four recipes total, Cooking Mama performs an admirable feat in making peeling potatoes even more tedious and difficult than in real life.
In addition, at the end of practically every dish, you're required to cook, stew, bake, or otherwise finish the food you'd spent the rest of the time preparing. Almost a separate set of tasks in and of itself, these mini-stages follow a Simon-Says method of following directions at the correct time, such as changing the heat on an oven, adding ingredients, and stirring your dish.
Each stage is graded in two ways. Firstly, after you complete a particular task/mini-game, you're graded in a bronze/silver/gold method, where performing flawlessly will net you a gold medal and totally botching up will net you often humorous results, a bronze medal, and the fiery-eyed wrath of Mama. Secondly, after a dish is fully finished, you're scored up to 100 points for how well you did during the entire deal. Naturally, a perfect job will get you a gold medal for the dish, whereas a very poor attempt may net you a bronze medal or even nothing at all. These serve no real purpose other than bragging rights, however, so don't get too upset if you can't figure out how to separate egg yolks.
Much like its spiritual predecessor Wario Ware, Cooking Mama's instructions are often vague, and the touch-screen occasionally spotty in its reception of commands. While the game is intuitive a good 90% of the time, that remaining 10% will foul up a perfect dish time and time again. Most annoying are already-tricky tasks like peeling vegetables, measuring meat, and separating egg yolks. Thankfully, the more difficult tasks are far less common, and as such, the learning curve on them can be overlooked, given that each dish has a mode where you can practice individual steps to your heart's content.
In addition, certain skills (typically the more common ones, but there are some obscure tasks interspersed as well) have their own replay mode similar to that of Wario Ware's single-game fests; you may have a set amount of time to see how many kebabs you can cook, or see how often you can mix together increasingly complicated sets of ingredients. Again, this is mostly for bragging rights, as completing one of these challenges gets you a gold chef hat and a flashing "Clear!" but little else.
Sadly, the controls aren't the only things that are occasionally vague. Unlocking new dishes can be as easy as pie or as difficult as soufflé, depending on how much attention you're paying to the game. Often, dishes will open up upon completing another dish; preparing fried eggs will open up the opportunity to make eggs sunny-side up, making boiled rice will allow you to create fried rice, and so forth. However, many dishes can only be discovered as offshoots of other recipes; while you're working on making that pork cutlet, you'll get a screen asking if you'd like to make deep-fried pork kebabs instead. It sounds easy enough, but it makes remembering which dishes lead to other dishes a headache, especially if you're looking to unlock all 76.
Thankfully, that's pretty much the only real problem with Cooking Mama. The entire experience presents itself with such an air of simplicity that it seems intentional, as opposed to half-baked. The game boasts the epitome of cartoon graphics – thick black lines, bright colors, plenty of contrast – and it works perfectly well. In fact, it helps take off the sting a little bit; burning that omelet is less embarrassing when the only penalty is a cartoon housewife grimacing foully at you.
Sounds, likewise, are extremely simple, though immensely effective in getting the point across. Quite the opposite of the cartoon-like visuals, the sound effects in Cooking Mama are incredibly realistic, from the sizzling of meat cooking on the stove to the sound of a knife hitting a cutting board as you chop vegetables, all of the effects sounds as if they were taken from a real kitchen somewhere in Taito's offices. The music is thankfully low-key and non-offensive; a game like this works best with simple, yet perky ditties that keep energy high without pulling too much focus away from the simple tasks.
Cooking Mama isn't the perfect meal of a game; its incredibly limited base of tasks and the very nature of the mini-game-driven title make it too sparse to be a filling entrée, especially for the hardcore gamer known to binge itself for hours at a time. It's a fantastic appetizer or after-dinner mint, however; if you need a game for those five-minute playing sessions or if you're looking to get a gift for someone who has less time in their lives to play, Cooking Mama could just be the Chef's Special.
Okay, I'll stop with the cooking puns now.
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