"Cooking is like making love, you do it well, or you do not do it at all" – Harriet van Horne
Time Played – 3 Hours :: Completed? – Nope :: Hungry While Playing? – YES
To say that I'm a bad cook is an understatement of the highest degree. Other people joke about burning toast, while I hang my head in shame. "There's a knob on the toaster," my girlfriend will say, while staring at the blackened slices of bread in front of her. "It's only got a few settings. How can you consistently pick the wrong one?"
It's not a flaw, I tell myself. It's just a very useless talent.
So for someone with my culinary prowess, playing Cooking Mama is almost like a journey to another world. A world where putting a cutting board and a knife in my hand doesn't lead to a trip to the emergency room, where all the vegetables are fresh and never have a strange smell to them. It's escapism of the highest form, a chance for me to experience the joys of cooking without the heartbreak of reality creeping in. Or food poisoning.
The other reason to play Cooking Mama is that it's portable. Once again my job, evil thief of free time that it is, has enveloped me in its icy, corporate embrace. I don't have these fancy next-generation consoles the kids yammer incessantly about, and have no time to rock out with Guitar Hero 2. I need something to play in-between TPS reports, and so far this hits the spot.
Click to enlarge.
The first thing to note is that Cooking Mama is weird. Leave your preconceptions at the door. This is one of those niche games whose concept must have seemed weird on paper, and it certainly wouldn't have made it past that stage on any platform other than the Nintendo DS. Reviewers have described the game as a collection of minigames, and there's truth to that. But much like cooking in real life, the good stuff is in the sum of its parts.
Your hostess is Mama, what I imagine a cute anime version of Aunt Jemima would be like. She may have enormous eyes and a big toothy smile, but beneath her youthful visage hides a talent for down-home cookin'. I guess. You never actually see Mama make anything, since you spend the game doing all the hard work. I imagine that Mama and the Floaty Zombie Doctor from Brain Age get together on weekends for drinks and cheap stabs at our old brains and shoddy cooking.
The game works like a culinary class at a community college. Select a recipe and Mama will walk you through the preparation steps. Each step is a minigame; chop this cucumber, boil this stew, mix these ingredients, grill this meat. The minigames are all built around the stylus, making steps like shaping meatballs or slicing tomatoes feel a lot like you're using your hands. Mama will grade your progress after each step, and then your final dish will receive a score and a medal. Wash the rice perfectly and you'll put a twinkle in Mama's eye. Burn the pork chop and Mama will fly into a rage, evidenced by fire in her eyes. "Don't worry," the game says. "Mama will fix it."
Apparently, Mama gets angry when she has to cook. Mama is lazy.
The minigames that make up each cooking step range from duh-inducing to obtuse. Chopping an onion with the stylus is easy enough to understand and feels gratifying. Weighing meat for meatballs, on the other hand, has turned into a frustrating experience. Mama throws 600 grams of what I can only assume to be hamburger on the scale, and tells you to remove some of the meat by circling small portions. Make your circles too small and you won't remove any meat at all; too big, and you lose too much. If you don't get it exactly at 300 grams, the wrath of Mama flows like the blood of the infidels, and I'll be damned if I can accomplish it. Sometimes I think Mama is too demanding.
There's also a heavy focus on Asian cuisine, although that shouldn't be a surprise. I've unlocked such American staples as the sandwich and pizza, but the majority of recipes involve making rice, slicing bamboo shoots, or yanking the tentacles off squid. I'm a fan of Asian cuisine, and nothing says yummy like sliced octopus, but I'm not sure my mother even knows what udon is, let alone wants to eat it. Scratch that Christmas present off the list. I've only spent a few hours with the game, and there's 76 recipes total, so I know I'll get around to making the Salisbury steak soon. It's just that all of the sushi and stir-fry adds even more to the heavy Japanese influence, which may turn people off.
Go on, click me.
Not me, though. Cooking Mama is a title I plan to enjoy. In many ways it's the antithesis of a Final Fantasy game "… you don't spend hours with it, but minutes. Most of the recipes I've finished have resulted in silver medals, with spurs me on to keep trying for the gold. Cooking Mama is a lot like WarioWare, another game I'm unabashedly in love with, in that its simplicity is its draw. I may not spend ten consecutive hours with this game, but I wouldn't be surprised if I keep coming back to it a year from now. Cooking Mama may not turn me into the next Julia Child, but it'll keep me feeling like a gamer when I'm drowning in paperwork.