After years spent toiling away in the kitchen, Mama is long overdue for some outside time. In Gardening Mama, she heads outdoors to tend her fertile gardens (plural!) and reaps a full harvest of brand-new minigames that range from educational to dull, from amusing to downright preposterous. The game starts off calmly as you plant a variety of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, but once you've got a good number of plants growing, you'll find that there just isn't enough time in the day. You'll be running from planting bed to orchard, tending to plants that are wilting before they wither and die. Although this isn't exactly relaxing, it gives Gardening Mama a momentum that was lacking in its culinary predecessors. It retains the same supercute aesthetic that will charm some players and annoy others, and, despite its breadth, the action is quite shallow. Nevertheless, with newfound momentum and the satisfying reward of seeing your garden grow into a colorful, fruitful landscape, Gardening Mama is uniquely fun and playable.
When you first visit your garden, you'll be able to plant only a handful of flowers. Tulips, morning glories, and pansies serve as your introduction, though later you'll cultivate more exotic species such as dahlia, gladiolus, and freesia. As you progress you'll gain access to the fruit orchard, veggie garden, and rose garden, each with its own array of plants to grow. You maneuver easily around your gardens by steering a big icon around the screen with the stylus, which is a picture of Mama's head bordered by four heart-shaped arrows. Navigating this way is a bit odd, and it's disappointing that you can't maneuver Mama around herself. There are large icons next to each plant that tell you its status and clutter up the screen a bit, but the flowers are brightly colored and distinctly designed, so you can tell what the blossom of, say, an anemone looks like (it doesn't have tentacles). It's quite satisfying to watch your plants grow and bloom or bear fruit, and most will stick around for a while and let you appreciate the fruits of your labor.
You can also spruce up your gardens with gift items such as arbors, potting trays, and gnomes, allowing you even more decorative freedom in your garden. You earn these presents by doing well in the minigames that comprise the bulk of Gardening Mama's gameplay. To fully grow any given plant, you'll play at least 10 minigames, all of which are controlled with the stylus (with the exception of a few that use the microphone). Just planting corn consists of seven different tasks that generally last no more than 10-20 seconds each. This level of detail is initially appealing because it is interesting to see what kinds of things proper gardeners actually do when planting seeds. However, it does wear a bit thin when you're planting your fifth species of flower and performing the same planting action. Fortunately, the actions begin to diversify as each plant matures and requires unique treatment, resulting in a fairly robust and varied suite of minigames.
The minigames are generally easy once you learn how to do them, though more than a few require some tricky timing. When you complete a set of tasks, Mama will pronounce her verdict and offer you encouragement in her mildly grating, heavily accented voice. If you finish individual tasks swiftly and accurately, you can earn presents, which include the aforementioned garden-sprucing items, as well as new fertilizers, new screen icons, and new clothing for Mama. If you do poorly or fail, "Mama will fix it for you," but the fire in her eyes tells you she's not very happy about it. You can always retry for a better score, which is a great way to learn the ropes, and improving your performance will earn you a higher rating and more bonuses. Many of your tasks are mildly educational (unless you already know your way around the shed), but some are just preposterous. Blowing away the clouds so your veggies can get more sun? Braving a Category 5 hurricane to keep your dahlias from flying away? Come on, Mama. There are also some awkwardly contrived actions, such as trying to soak the roots of a young sapling by quickly dunking them into a bucket of water that is shooting across the screen. Though there is one particular task in which it is nigh impossible to accurately shovel the correct amount of dirt, the minigames are generally easy to master and quick to blow through.
No matter how quickly you make it through your tasks, each set of minigames feels much like a measured turn. At the end of each turn you are scored, rewarded (if you've earned it), and updated on the status of your garden. Here is where you'll learn that now you can plant cherries in the orchard, for example, or that the trailing rose in your rose garden is wilting. Plants can generally wilt for a turn or two before they wither completely, but you'd do well to prioritize them--better safe than sorry. Wilting means that you simply have to do the next action required for the plant's growth. As your garden grows larger, you'll regularly have one or two plants wilting at the end of each turn, forcing you to care for them before planting new ones or tending to your favorites (though everyone knows a good Mama doesn't choose favorites). This pressure makes things less relaxing than they might be, but it also provides a sense of momentum and purpose that keeps you wrapped up in the game. Sometimes you'll begrudge it and feel like you're just getting shunted along from task to task, but at other times you'll get caught up in a whirl of watering and pruning and feel an enjoyable sense of progress and prosperity as you shape your garden into a Better Homes and Gardens cover story.
You can take the gardening gloves off for a bit and decorate your grounds more extensively, wirelessly trade treasure items with a friend, or just freshen up Mama's outfit with your latest bonus presents. These elements fit in nicely with the "make it pretty" mindset, but the same can't be said for the multiplayer mode. Up to four players can use one game card to play a variety of different minigames, but any fun that you might have had with these just shrivels and dies outside of the larger garden context. This context is actually what makes Gardening Mama so successful. It provides tangible rewards for your progress and encourages you to keep getting your hands dirty. The shallow minigames and repetitive gameplay aren't likely to charm those who haven't enjoyed cooking with Mama previously, but the stronger structure and fresh setting provide the latticework that lets Gardening Mama reach higher than she ever has before.