Developer: Keen Games
Release Date: October 21, 2008
I like to cook, and I'm rather good at it, but as with any skill or talent, there's always some room for expansion, and you usually look up to those who've been in the field much longer than you for advice. Cookbooks are one of the major ways that this comes across; celebrity chefs and television cooks spam the market with culinary guidebooks on how to do this technique or work with that meat or not kill all your guests at once with the canned salmon. Now that books are becoming a passé technology, the movement is on to bigger and better things, like electronic cookbooks on your Nintendo DS. Why hasn't anyone tried this before, you say? Well, Johnny-Talks-to-Web sites, if What's Cooking With Jamie Oliver? is any indication, it's because it's just not a good idea yet.
For those not in the know, Jamie Oliver is a television cook of some renown in England, while his presence is much smaller in the U.S., restricted mostly to a short run of "Jamie's Kitchen" on the Food Network and a small cult following (and the fact that Gordon Ramsay hates him). Basically, Oliver cooks simple, bachelor-appropriate food for the 24- to 30-year old set, sometimes spiced up with a bit of gourmet flair. Regardless of his food and popularity, the DS program (I choose not to call it a "game") is exactly what you would expect based on the title: a collection of Oliver's recipes, collated for easy use by the chef in question. These things are not a new idea — the idea is all the rage in Europe right now — but they're just now becoming an idea in the U.S.
There's really very little to be said for the product, and it's quite difficult to review it outright. The package is split into three separate segments: the cookbook, a "test kitchen," and a cooking challenge. The entire thing smacks of a low-budget presentation, using simple static menus, small voice samples, and very plain music for the primary interface. There's also some tinkering with the controls that seems unnecessary, like switching the top and bottom screens back and forth to scroll through the pages of the recipe. The stylus support isn't usually very precise, especially when going through numerous scroll boxes with rather small entries in them. Additionally, the inability to turn off the atrocious music is a severe oversight; you can switch between awful tunes, but you can't disable them entirely.
The cookbook is nothing to write home about. As one would expect, it's a collection of recipes, with all of the requisite instructions. The issue is format and interface, for while a normal cookbook consists of big pages with easily readable fonts, the DS screen is, in every way possible, not. There is a very limited amount of information that can be shown at once, and you'll need toat least one hand, if not both, to scroll through short pages. The decision to use the DS in its normal orientation rather than the "book orientation" used by many of the productivity applications was likely so that text could be on longer lines, but it makes for such extremely small sections that it's harder to use than it should be. Not much is brought to the table here that would give you any advantage over a traditional cookbook, other than perhaps a quickly browsable index of more recipes than would traditionally fit in a book. One interesting feature offers to take "what you have on hand" and show you recipes in the index that you could make, but it's a minor chore to use — you need to pick each individual ingredient from a giant list of ingredients — and it doesn't change the overall austere nature of the "book.".
The "game" side of the cartridge is The Cooking Challenge, a sort of Cooking Mama "lite," where the player can go through a series of recipes from the cookbook and put them together slowly based on the provided instructions. Between this and established titles, this is more about giving you a series of gesture-based challenges. Jamie Oliver gives you nothing to start with but an empty kitchen and a huge list of tools, dishes and ingredients. It's up to the player to then go through static lists and retrieve what he wants, putting it in the appropriate area in the kitchen to continue preparing. For instance, if you need to mix flour, water and butter, you'll need to go into the Dishes menu to bring a measuring cup to the sink and a white mixing bowl to the counter. You'll also need to bring a mixing spoon to the counter, as well as butter and milk from the ingredients list.
At the sink, drag the measuring cup to the sink and hover over the sink to start filing the cup with water. Stop, drag the cup from the sink to the counter icon, and click the icon to go to the counter. Add the water to the bowl, then the milk, then the butter, by dragging each individually to the bowl and holding them there until the meter tells you there's enough. Drag the mixing spoon to the bowl, and you can start mixing by spinning the stylus until you're told to stop.
Now, manually put away the materials that you no longer need by dragging them to a trash icon (you can only hold four ingredients, one tool, and one bowl at the counter), and move on to the next part. It is slow, unengaging and fairly boring to go through, particularly when your rewards are limited to a complimentary comment from Jamie and a rating on your performance. As there's also no timer, unlimited ingredients, and the ability to retry parts of a recipe over and over again, the "challenge" may as well not exist. Finish it off with a low-rent 3D graphic engine that serves little to no purpose and droning synth music that can't be disabled, and you'll long for Cooking Mama.
The last option, The Test Kitchen, is essentially The Cooking Challenge without any pretense of a goal. The player is let loose with all the ingredients and tools, and allowed to go hog-wild. Ostensibly, this is so the player can put together recipes experimentally and see what comes about. This doesn't work in practice, though; the laws of reality are bent, with nothing stopping you from pouring a hundred gallons of ketchup into a ramekin and baking it with onions and blueberry jam for the next 10 years at 500 degrees Fahrenheit. On top of that, the whole point of a test kitchen in the real world is to create new recipes, see how they cook and taste them. This doesn't come across in a virtual kitchen at all, so there's no real valid point to the mode at all.
I will be honest: I think using the DS for purposes such as this is a fabulous idea, and something that should be thoroughly explored. What's Cooking With Jamie Oliver? is not, however, more than a token effort, using a simple and bland system to accomplish little more than a real cookbook and kitchen would bring. Tying in a half-baked (ha ha) clone of a years-old game that's been aped a dozen times brings no additional value to the fold. You are better off in almost every way by using your money to purchase a cookbook or a culinary lesson, or perhaps going out and having a bite at a restaurant.