Release Date: November 24, 2008
DS owners love to cook. They love to bake cakes, sizzle and serve diner food, toil in foreign kitchens, and imagine they're cooking with or without Mama. Instead of just using the DS to make imaginary food, players can now get help in their real kitchens with Personal Trainer: Cooking.
Personal Trainer: Cooking really isn't a game at all, but a recipe book and personal sous chef packed into a tiny DS cartridge. It's something along the lines of a homebrew application meant to expand the use of the hardware, but it's made by professionals and will cost you about $30 to get your hands on it. What it tries to be is a Wii Fit spin-off, where you check in every day to make a meal or two, get a stamp, and then pick something new and exciting from the 200 or so recipes it has stored on that little chip.
However, not even Touch Generations provides enough interest or handiness to the program to make it your go-to recipe book. Personal Trainer: Cooking's biggest problem is simply a lack of easy, tasty recipes that anyone can enjoy. It doesn't lack in a varied selection, but many recipes required me to go on a shopping trip and find some ingredient I had never heard of or seen before. I had to go to an Asian specialty store before I could find anyone who knew what the heck "sesame paste" was and what it looked like.
The game aims to expand your horizons and give you a sampling of cuisines from dozens of countries. There are curries from India, Chinese food, seafood delicacies from Japan, fish and chips from England, and … macaroni and cheese from America? Well, I guess America isn't known for its unique and classy cuisines ....
The problem with expanding the recipe selection is that there are going to be a lot of things that will sound strange and foreign, and the focus is diverted away from providing you with a bunch of things you can cook with the same ingredients. Out of the 200 or so recipes, I added about a dozen to my favorites and only actually cooked about half that. Then, out of the six or so I cooked, I honestly would make maybe two of the dishes again. Most recipes simply weren't that great.
To make matters worse, once you get beyond the sheer novelty of the title's applications, it becomes clear that the helpful "interactive" features aren't really all that helpful after all. As we would with a recipe, let's start with the ingredients.
At the introduction screen to every recipe, there's a tab that will take you to a list of ingredients. Beside each ingredient and the necessary amount is a checkbox. The purpose of this isn't entirely clear at first glance, but after a bit of experimentation, you can figure out that you're meant to mark ingredients you don't already have so that it can be added to your shopping list. This is fine and dandy, but the shopping list itself isn't so hot. Not even delving into the inconvenience of carrying around and flipping open your DS open every time you want to check your shopping list, there's the simple fact that it doesn't organize itself. If you've got a big shopping list for a few recipes, this means that you're going to have to scroll around and tally up for yourself just how much of a duplicate ingredient you need, and there's no way to edit them. Heck, there's no way to get them off your ingredient list without unchecking them from the recipe. All you can do is mark it as "acquired" on the list.
Say you are shopping for two recipes. Each one calls for garlic, and one of them actually calls for garlic for three separate steps in the process (let's say for a glaze, a marinade and the actual dish). This means that on your shopping list, if you checked every instance of garlic in your recipe, you will see three cloves of garlic, two cloves of garlic, some random ingredients, and three cloves of garlic. Then, if you scroll down, you might catch that you still need another clove of garlic for that other recipe. Sure, there's a calculator accessible at any time if you're too dense to add, but if you're just stopping by a grocery store after work, the odds are that you might forget to scroll down until after you've picked up eight cloves of garlic and moved onto some other part of the store. Maybe it's a nitpick, but it inconvenienced me on my trips to the grocer, and it seems like a function that anyone with an adding machine could do.
The other major problem I had cooking with the DS was the layout of the actual recipes. Not every chef sets out his or her ingredients in the perfect amounts ahead of time. Some of us like to get stuff together as we go, but Personal Trainer: Cooking does not accommodate. "Chop garlic," the calm male voice will chime, trying to be helpful, but all I want is a simple screen letting me know which garlic I'm chopping, and how much of it. Instead, I have to clean my hands, grab the stylus and click down to the ingredient list, scrolling through until I find it. What's the point of building in a slew of voice commands if you're going to have to get your dirty hands all over the DS when you forget an ingredient's amount?
It's not as if the voice commands are all that helpful either. In order to get the best use out of the voice commands, you have to find a spot to put your DS where no noise but your voice can meet it. This means you should not chop things, run water, or have conversations while near the DS, otherwise it might start skipping ahead, running backwards, or showing you videos of how to "chop finely." All of these are useful, but they have a time and a place, and that time and place is almost never when they actually pop up.
Even with that mountain of criticism heaped on it, though, it's pretty decent. For those with the disposable income and a taste for adventure, Personal Trainer: Cooking is an easy recommendation. It's full of helpful things like the substitute ingredients list, a kitchen timer, and detailed instructions on more complicated actions. It certainly gets the job done, and if you're prepared in just the right way, you can get it done in style. It's not the best of all possible cooking utilities, but I would love to see it done again, right. Having some chefs test and offer feedback would be ideal, and then maybe we could get the cooking assistant that the DS really deserves.
Personal Trainer: Cooking is perfect for bored housewives (or husbands — let's not discriminate) who have extra spending money and a passion for new flavors and tastes. The issues and narrow selection of easy recipes make you question the high price tag, since it feels more like a $10 to $15 download than a fully fleshed-out DS title. It's still a good start for a sizable niche, though.