Developer: Office Create
Release Date: November 13, 2007
These days, it seems as though the Nintendo DS was crafted for the sole purpose of playing bite-sized gameplay experiences. Generally, the logic behind these collections goes something like this: Handheld games are portable, and portables are typically played outside of the home for short periods of time. Therefore, by the transitive property, handheld games tend to be played outside of the home for short periods of time.
As such, one would expect to play Cooking Mama 2: Dinner with Friends, a sequel to one of the DS' breakout hits, while you're on the go and amongst other people. There's one problem with that idea, however; CM2 isn't exactly a game that concerns itself with maintaining the player's dignity. It's one of those DS games that will have you emptying the contents of your lungs straight into the tiny speaker in the center of the console. That's not to say that it's a bad game, or that its quirkiness even hurts the overall experience — quite the contrary. CM2 is both fun and funny, but unless you telecommute, I'd recommend keeping it out of your DS during the daily trips to and from work.
You're probably thinking, "Surely breathing into the DS cannot be cause enough to ban Mama from the bus!" And you're right, but that's only the beginning. CM2's overall aesthetic is really quite charming. It's also very pink, flowery and glittery. Again, that's not a bad thing, since the game sports a clean, unified art style, but it's kind of awkward to tote around if you're older — and manlier — than the average Barbie demographic.
If you can get past that, however, you're in for a tasty treat. Unlike many of its ilk, CM2 manages to be both straightforward and varied. From stirring batter to grating cheese, everything is controlled via the touch-screen. You'd think that would lead to eventual repetition — how many foods can you poke, spin and cut before each recipe begins to run together? — but it really doesn't. Mama's quite the taskmaster, and just when I began to grow complacent, she'd have me whip up something so dastardly tough that I'd long for the days of culinary kindergarten.
But Mama's not so bad once you get to know her. Each time you add salt instead of pepper, egg yolk instead of cheese, or sugar instead of Splenda, Mama soothes your quiet sobs. "Mama will fix it," she says in dulcet, near-Engrish tones. As a result, even many of the more difficult recipes are quite doable. Thanks to Mama's mercy, the difficulty slips right into a perfect niche for both hardcore and casual gamers. Thus, Iron Chefs can opt to go for a gold medal (a near-perfect execution of the recipe), while mere mortals can aim for bronze.
Difficulty isn't the only area in which CM2 carves out its own little niche; pacing treads a fine line as well. Given the length and array of puzzles that one must complete, CM2 could be classified as a minigame collection, which typically fall into one of two categories: long (Rayman: Raving Rabbids) or short (Warioware). Like many great chefs, CM2 doesn't stay with established conventions and blazes its own trail by representing the best of both worlds. What it ends up with, then, is a bunch of Warioware-style microgames that allows budding chefs all the time they need between each step in a recipe. Realistic? No. Relaxing? Yes. Frantic? Most definitely.
CM2's semi-relaxed pace is accompanied by a soothing, primarily piano-based soundtrack that functions exactly as intended: background music. Once you get into your Zen cooking trance, you'll hardly notice the music anyway.
Quite frankly, if CM2 merely offered a smattering of recipes and a single mode, that'd be fine. The game is of such high quality that, even in a truncated state, it would still be worth playing. But Mama aims to please, and even though she's already teaching you how to cook, she still gives you gifts, complete with brightly colored wrapping paper and bow. You can use these gifts to decorate the already vibrant in-game kitchen and, well, dress up Mama. (I wasn't kidding about the Barbie thing.) Still though, Mama's somewhat self-centered incentives do a good job of creating a "just one more" mentality through a system that measures your progress toward a new gift. These "bonus stars" are handed out for exemplary performance, and once you accrue enough of them, you get to choose a new gift box. And really, who can resist the allure of a mysterious package?
Sadly, CM2 isn't quite flawless. For every top-tier task, like cracking an egg, which requires actual force to set the yolk free from its hard-shelled prison, there's a corresponding disappointment. Usually, this stems not from the concept, but from its utilization of the DS hardware. Unfortunately, the touch-screen isn't quite precise enough for, say, a DDR-style stirring session in which you also need to flick switches on the stove and add the correct ingredients to your stew. You'll find yourself dejectedly wondering why the spoon wouldn't budge, even though your stylus was resting right on top of the stirring spoon.
More egregious, at least for a game with the subtitle "Cooking with Friends," is the disappointingly shallow multiplayer. CM2's recipes seem like the perfect backdrop for a four-way cook-off, right? Well, for some reason, the game only allows players to compare their cooking prowess in single recipe, and there are no continuous contests. The setup is disjointed and badly paced, and like an actual chef, you'll spend nearly as much time waiting as you do cooking. It's an odd omission, too, one that causes you to wonder if the developers were merely saving a more sensible multiplayer mode for the inevitable sequel.
At any rate, quibbles with Cooking Mama 2: Dinner with Friends are fairly minor. You'll quickly shrug off the bad in favor of the good. Mama herself is a charming guide through the apparently one-room world of cooking, and each challenge she throws your way will have you poking and prodding until you're beside yourself with glee. Whether you play for five minutes or 50, you'll never be bored. At the very least, you should give CM2 a rental.