Cooking Mama was a DS title that I thought I would enjoy far more than I actually did, and while it wasn't exactly a bad game, it didn't really grab me and keep me involved beyond the introductory segment. Gardening Mama, the newest title from the creators and developers of the original, feels very similar to Cooking Mama. Unfortunately, this also means that Gardening Mama fails to hold my interest beyond the introductory segment.
In Gardening Mama, as the name implies, you're tasked with maintaining a section of land and developing the different flowers, fruits, vegetables, etc., contained within. You start off with a couple of basic flowers to grow, and as you complete the various tasks required to plant and maintain those flowers, your garden space will expand, eventually allowing you to branch out and create more types of plants, including a vegetable garden and a number of fruit trees.
The overall screen is like a map, and dragging the cursor along the screen will show you the different areas, but you have to back out to a menu to access the other different sections with the different types of plants, like vegetables and fruit. Since the screen is divided up in this way, it's annoying to back out to a menu every time you want to switch gardens, especially as the game advances and you need to pay more attention to maintaining your plants.
Starting off with the initial flower selections, you'll tap a particular area to begin the series of four or five mini-games that actually lead to the flower creation. These make up the bulk of Gardening Mama's gameplay, and it'll be pretty recognizable to fans of Cooking Mama, even if they involve slightly different mechanics. For instance, one mini-game involves cutting open a packet of seeds by making three small slits at designated spots on the bottom screen, and then using the stylus to tilt the on-screen hand and dump the seeds into the other virtual hand. The catch here is that the wind will kick in at certain intervals, and if you're pouring the seeds during this time, you'll lose some of them to the wind. There's always a telltale sign, usually by the background grass starting to move, and once you figure that out, it's pretty easy to earn a gold medal.
While we're on the subject, the grading system Gardening Mama works on a medal basis. There's bronze, which is basically a medal you get even if you've done an abysmal job on your task, and silver is granted for anything that's less than perfect. You'll only earn a gold medal by not screwing up, and there are certain mini-games on which it's pretty difficult to score one. When you finish all of the mini-games involved in the task you're trying to complete, there's an overall medal that's awarded based on your average, but once again, getting a gold medal is pretty much determined by your ability to gain gold in every other area, so they're fairly difficult to achieve. There are also bonuses that can be granted, and if you manage to get three bonus seeds from the mini-games, you'll unlock an item, such as a gardening tool or something cosmetic for your character.
Most of the mini-games work pretty well, and the majority of the game is controlled with the touch-screen. However, I had quite a bit of difficulty with anything that involved digging soil or measuring it. For digging, you typically have a shovel or spade, and the mechanic involves you sliding the stylus down at an angle to shove the device into the soil, and then pushing up with the stylus to dig the dirt. The trouble comes from some of the mini-games wanting you to dig a particular amount of dirt, usually in three different variations, but I could never figure out how to measure this, and it never seemed to be based on how quickly I did the downward or upward movement with the stylus. My biggest issue with the title is that the controls aren't explained very well. Sure, it's the same concept as Cooking Mama, but it's just different enough that a quick explanation would have been beneficial.
Another instance that I had a bit of trouble with are the mini-games that involved more or less "drilling" a hole, usually for anything involving the planting of trees. When you're presented with this, there's a shovel at the top of the touch-screen and the ground underneath it, and you're trying to dig a funnel into the dirt. On the screen, you'll see a demonstration of the motion to do this, which involves going down a bit, zigzagging back and forth with the stylus, and a final downward thrust. Good luck if you try to follow the motions with your stylus, though. The shovel won't budge most of the time, and you're better off just moving the stylus back and forth, left to right, which will end up providing better results.
What I'm getting at here is that not all of the touch-screen controls feel precise, and while they're fine for moving a hand, tipping a water jug, or switching on a lever, they're not nearly responsive enough for any precise movement, which is troublesome if you're trying to get the best possible results out of your garden. Thankfully, the game is pretty forgiving, and even if you fail an event within the creation process, Gardening Mama will move ahead and allow your garden to be built. The unlocking process is still heavily tied into your ability to ace certain events, and that's obviously going to be difficult to do if the controls don't work at intended.
The other thing I didn't care for is how often you need to maintain your plants after you've gone through the creation process. You'll get notifications that something is ready to be picked or wilted after nearly every event you finish, and once you get a full-blown assortment of items put together, you'll be getting tons of these. It becomes a bit much to manage these and constantly try to expand, and you even start to feel a little burdened as time goes on, which really sucked the fun out of the game for me. I imagine there are people out there that will enjoy the management aspect of this sim title, but for me, it was more trouble than it was worth.
It's still interesting to see the successful Cooking Mama formula applied to something else, and I have no doubt that it will appeal to the fans of the original game. However, as someone who was pretty lukewarm on the concept to begin with, Gardening Mama hasn't done much to change my mind, and the irritating controls went a long way toward making me dislike the game altogether. If you can get past that, then you might enjoy the sim aspect of Gardening Mama for the DS, but for me, it was pretty much a wash.
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