Cooking Mama stirs up the mini-game genre, adds a healthy dash of context, and bakes in a winning flavor sure to please.
The Nintendo DS and Sony PSP seem to be breathing some new life into Taito. The legendary developer/publisher has really taken to the handheld market as of late, and is quietly publishing some of the most innovative, quirky and fun titles to take with you on the go. The PSP's puzzler Exit and the DS's soon-to-be released Wi-Fi enabled RPG LostMagic are now joined by the overly cute and surprisingly addictive cooking simulation, Cooking Mama.
Actually, saying simulation would be a stretch. Cooking Mama fits quite well into the mini-game genre, albeit with a unique twist. The main mode (or main course mode as I call it) starts with 10 meals to prepare, with another 66 waiting to be unlocked. Each meal is made up of a series of tasks. Just like in real life, you'll have to prepare your dish's ingredients before you can cook. The preparation tasks are quite varied and all are preformed exclusively with the stylus, and will really test your prowess with the little plastic pen.
The game will have you doing basic things like chopping vegetables, slicing bread and mixing in bowls in addition to more complex ones like assembling a series of stuffed sandwiches or shelling shrimp.
I should point out that other than soups and one time that you make a pizza, you probably won't recognize most of the meals featured in this game, as they are decidedly Japanese dishes. The game is quite intuitive and easy to pick-up though, and you shouldn't be afraid of not being able to play it because of the language barrier or cultural differences.
The actual game play from task to task varies quite a bit. Some will have you simply slice an onion in two within 10 seconds or crack an egg into a bowl without spilling it, while others can last a minute or two.
The longer tasks are definitely the highlight of the game. All your preparation hard work pays off when you actually cook the meal. The focus of the cooking stages feels more like a slow rhythm game, again...just like real life. The sequence will slowly (compared to other rhythm games) scroll across the top screen while the bottom screen is where your pan, pot or wok is seen. In these sequences you'll be adjusting the stove's temperature, stirring and flipping ingredients, and even blowing on your soups to make sure they don't boil over. Other meals will simply have you assemble the meal on a plate.
At the end of each meal, you are judged with a raking out of 100. This is actually an average taken from how well you did on the meal's individual tasks. One missed slice early on can make the difference between getting a 97 (silver) or 100 points, the only "Gold Medal" score.
This instantly brings the game's value up high enough to warrant the import cost. While it's possible to limp through the main mode getting bronze medal scores in a few hours, it definitely takes much time and practice to get 100 on all of the levels.
As you progress, you'll also unlock what seems to be a challenge mode that will send the same type of task at you over and over, becoming more difficult every time. For example, one starts you slicing fresh bread, but ends up having you slice through a side of beef. There also seems to be a more focused mode, in which you are only judged with a pass or fail. Completing these stages doesn't seem to unlock anything though. There's also a DS to DS download play option that I haven't been able to test.
Cooking Mama had a distinctively fun, light-hearted Japanese look to it. Everything in the game is clean and easy to see. All of the graphics and textures are done in 2D. At first glance I thought it looked like something I could whip up in Flash, but after a while i noticed some photo-realistic textures on things like fish and shrimp. A nice contrast to look at, and it keeps the game from looking too cartoony.
All of the chops, stirs, bubbles and frying sounds are done well, and are dynamic also. when you stir something in a pan with chopsticks, there's a variety of clicks and such, instead of one stock "tool hits pan" sound. Definitely a nice touch, but the music gets to be quite repetitive after only a short time. It really doesn't hurt the game too much, but a little more variety in the tunes would have been nice.
All in all, I'm very glad I took a chance and imported Cooking Mama with no information to go on. It's a deceptively simple, surprisingly addictive and challenging game that would make a fine addition to the library of anyone who enjoys offbeat Japanese titles. If you're looking for the next big DS import after Jump Superstars! Ouendan! and Eyeshield 21, Cooking Mama will serve it up, hot 'n fresh.