COOKING MAMA / Taito / Nintendo DS
Let me preface this review by saying that I am most definitely a fan of quirky Japanese games, and I'm all for giving them a shot in Western markets. The Phoenix Wrights, the Katamari Damacies, all the titles that usually don't get a chance in the English-speaking world without significant fan demand and petitioning.
Thus, it pains me a bit to criticize Cooking Mama. But I have to be honest - this game is hella boring. It's like Wario Ware with all the fun removed, leaving a series of rote repetitive exercises that offer little entertainment and little payoff.
The setup is that you are some nameless chef apprenticed to the titular Mama, a noseless culinary master who tests you in your ability to prepare various dishes (and who usually looks a little bit high). The game starts out with about 15 different dishes that you can cook, and as you perform well at preparing them you'll unlock additional dishes. That's all there is to the game - no story, no levels, no real sense of progress outside of trying to unlock all the possible dishes, then trying to get the maximum possible score of 100 at each of them.
Preparation of each dish consists of a sequence of mini-games. You'll tap the screen rapidly to chop vegetables, follow instructions to mix a stew, and so on. Many of the same activities are re-used for different ingredients, so there's actually only a relatively small suite of things that you do - for example, regardless of what you are chopping, you'll either be tapping as fast as possible or slicing along particular lines. Aside from getting old fast, the games can be very hard on your DS screen, particularly at the advanced levels where things move very fast. From reading about on forums and such it seems it's not uncommon to slash too quickly when trying to cut and accidentally dice up the DS touch screen rather than the ingredients! And then some of the games are just pointless, like preparing Instant Ramen by simply stopping a water faucet when it fills the container to the right level.
The touch screen control is fairly good considering how reliant the game is on it, but there's a couple of incidents (particularly when trying to rotate things quickly) where it's finicky and fickle. And for those of you that don't enjoy blowing into the DS in public, a few of the stew-based recipes require you to blow or you fail them instantly (what is this fetish with putting token but mandatory "blowing sequences" into DS games anyway?)
The graphics look like a particularly well-drawn Flash game, but they are clean and pleasant and I have no problems with them. Music is mostly incidental to the game, consisting of pleasant but forgettable ragtimey piano pieces.
One redeeming feature of the game is the price - even if you find it boring you can't really get burned too bad on it, as it's retailing for $15 new now. Players may be disappointed to find out that the game really won't teach you much about cooking, however - if you're a total kitchen newb you might pick up a feel for the ingredients you need, but that's about it. There's no listing of quantities used and sometimes crucial real-life steps are skipped. If you're OCD and just want a comforting repetitive experience with nice shiny rewards you might dig this, but otherwise I'd give it a skip.