Another year, and another Cooking Mama game has arrived on the DS, bringing back some quirky Japanese style charm to a particular offshoot of mini-game collections that fans seem to love. We've also seen a spin-off series in the previous year with Gardening Mama, but depending on your love for the series at this point, Cooking Mama 3: Shop and Chop doesn't really dilute the overall fun you'll have, even if the formula hasn't changed enough to make a big difference in the gameplay.
Cooking Mama 3 introduces a couple of new modes, one of which will be obvious just by paying attention to the subtitle of this particular release, but longtime fans will instantly feel right at home with the gameplay. This isn't a perfect release, and there are still some issues with the DS touch-screen interactivity, the sensitivity of the stylus, and how the game responds to your movements. It feels a little more polished this time around, but I was disappointed to see that some of the previous issues I've had with Cooking Mama have not been ironed out.
As you can tell from the full title, Cooking Mama 3: Shop and Chop implies that you might make your way out of the kitchen this time around — and you do. The majority of the gameplay is still focused on putting together recipes, combining items and coming up with the best version of the offered dishes. This hasn't changed a lick from the previous games, and while you get quite a few new recipes, most of the motions and tasks seem to be the same. The title offers more than 80 recipes, so there's at least plenty here to keep you busy for a while. There's a small multiplayer component for up to four players on different DS machines, but it serves as a small distraction from the main game and only makes use of events that are already available elsewhere in the single-player game.
The Cooking with Mama mode is the crux of the game; it gives you a few recipes to cook from, and you can compete against the clock and yourself to score a medal. There's Gold, Silver, Bronze and the dreaded broken medal, meaning you're an awful cook and should probably stay out of the kitchen. Everything can be retried, though, so even if you screw up things royally, you'll be able to go back and give it the old college try once again. The Cooking with Mama mode allows you to practice before taking the graded run on a particular dish, so you can hone your skills a bit before worrying about medals. It's a standard mode that's been present in all the prior Cooking Mama titles, and anyone who's played the series before will be instantly familiar with it. It's also the main way of unlocking new recipes, so you'll be spending a lot of time here.
Once you've had some time with the recipes, you'll probably want to check out two additional modes, Let's Cook and Let's Match. Both of these modes tend to be harder than Cooking with Mama, as they take away your ability to practice and force you to rely a little more on your memory of creating the items. Recipes are still broken down into various steps, and the content of the recipes doesn't seem to change, but taking away the practice mode means that this will be harder for new players. The Let's Cook mode has you cooking recipes for friends within the game, and you must make things according to their tastes. There's not much difference between this and winning medals in the Cooking with Mama mode, so the character personalities don't really tie in with the types of dishes you create. This is also the main mode for unlocking additional playable characters, but at the same time, the characters do nothing to change up the gameplay other than a visual change. The Let's Match mode is more interesting; it has you using of a number of ingredients and matching them together to make unique dishes. You'll typically pick two items from a list and see what comes of that. There are not a huge number of combinations here, but it'll take more than a couple of games to check out everything.
The brand new shopping mode, titled — you guessed it! — Let's Shop, is the newest and biggest addition to the series. It's also a little bit of a throwaway experience in that it doesn't really impact things in a serious way; it just serves as a slightly new collection of mini-game events that rarely involve any cooking. Basically, you'll be presented with a top-down view of aisles in a supermarket, and you'll need to guide you character through the aisles to pick up ingredients that Cooking Mama has requested. Along the way, you need to dodge other customers and workers, but if you run into them, you'll initiate a mini-game event that you're required to finish. You have a set number of hearts displayed on-screen, and if you screw up an event, you'll lose a heart. Lose all of your hearts, and you'll be kicked out of the store and forced to start over. The problem with this mode is that the chance of getting a mini-game seems to be kind of random. I'd often run into someone and instantly have a heart taken away, so I couldn't figure out which events would trigger a mini-game and which wouldn't. There are only a handful of mini-games available, so you'll find yourself repeating the same ones over and over within a play session or two. I like the idea of the mode, but it is definitely lacking in fun and content.
There are a few other things to check out in Cooking Mama 3, though I found most of them to be pretty arbitrary and uninteresting. There are time trial events in Cooking Contest, and there are some dress-up entries in Let's Get Fancy and Let's Design. Both of these make use of the various items you win throughout the game, which in turn lets you change up the look of your kitchen and Cooking Mama. Some of the things you'll unlock are pretty lame, like color palette swaps of items, so I'm not sure if anyone over the age of 10 will enjoy either mode. Finally, there's the in-game diary, where you can store snapshots of the dishes you make and deck them out with various stickers. Once again, it's not a mode that I'd ever really use, but I can how it may appeal to designers — or sticker lovers.
My biggest issue with Cooking Mama 3 is with the controls. If you've ever played a Cooking Mama game before, then you already have a good idea of what I'm going to complain about. If not, then let me set the stage a bit. The entirety of the game is controlled with the stylus and, to a lesser extent, the microphone. I'm all for stylus-only games; in many cases, it works quite well, and I can't imagine playing something like Cooking Mama without a touch-screen. With that said, I really, really wish that it would: a) tell me what I'm doing wrong when I can't figure it out and b) recognize what I'm doing or for the love of [insert deity here], be a little more forgiving. A lot of this comes from some of the more basic and frustrating simple stuff, like stirring a pot. Intuitively, you know what the movement should be so you trace a circle on the touch-screen, but for whatever reason, the game registers this about half of the time.
The rest of the time, your spoon is stationary until you figure out the rhythm or exact movement that the game expects you to already know. Having played three of these titles by now, you'd think I'd have it down pat, but I still screw this up. Granted, there's a practice mode, but it does little to explain the exact movement you're going for, other than a couple of unhelpful words that don't really amount to an explanation or tutorial. Most of the control issues I have are from the user end, but at the same time, Cooking Mama 3 could do a far better job of explaining exactly what it expects you to do. It's been a problem in the two prior titles, and it's still an issue here.
Because of that, Cooking Mama 3: Shop and Chop doesn't transcend the previous releases. The shopping mode is cool in that it's nice to have something new, but there's not enough content in that addition to make this a must-have title. If you've played the two prior Cooking Mama titles until you could play them blindfolded, then by all means, pick up Cooking Mama 3. You'll probably love it. However, if you've grown bored of those two titles due to frustration or lack of interest, Cooking Mama 3 isn't going to reignite the interest. It's a fun, quirky little game, but it's the same fun and quirky little game we've been playing for a while now.
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