They say you should never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach; neither should you watch Food TV when you’re feeling a bit peckish. I’ve got another piece of sound advice to add to these pearls of wisdom: don’t play Cooking Mama – especially if the fridge is bare and it’s almost dinner time!
Originally released in 2006 for the Nintendo DS, Developer Office Create’s little gem of a cooking sim earned full marks for originality. Budding chefs could learn how to construct culinary masterpieces on their handhelds and even create their own, without wasting costly ingredients or risking personal injury. The Wii version has seen some additions and enhancements, the foremost of which is being able to challenge another player to a fast-paced cooking duel, to determine the speediest, most proficient cook in the kitchen.
The main (single player) game is Let’s Cook, in which you learn to make a selection of well known dishes from 10 different countries, from scratch. Opening cans, peeling vegetables, chopping, stirring, adjusting the heat, adding ingredients – nothing is omitted from the sometimes extensive preparation sequences. The initial menu features international favourites such as popcorn from the USA and mochi from Japan, which are simple enough to make since they require only a few straightforward steps to prepare. Mama will award your finished dish with points, and the successful completion of a dish will unlock another or increasing complexity.
Cooking Mama earns a big ‘thumbs up’ for pushing the versatile Wii remote to the max; you’ll find yourself swinging, shaking and moving it around in every direction as you attempt to chop, stir and cook your food. Unfortunately, this is also the game’s major drawback, since the controls don’t always respond the way they should. This proved particularly frustrating for younger (10-12 year-old) cooks. Some of the techniques can be tricky to master, requiring a good sense of timing and the ability to simultaneously execute small, controlled movements. Fortunately, Practise Mode enables you to work on your skills without the pressure of scoring. The apron-wearing tutor ‘Mama’ provides encouragement and passes comment on your efforts, but doesn’t really offer much in the way of instruction.
From an educational standpoint the game is not terribly practical. While it is certainly useful for budding cooks to know how to make a dish from scratch, life is far too busy for most people to realistically use such methods. For day-to-day applications we use numerous kitchen gadgets to expedite the process. I personally would employ a food processor for many of the chopping and mixing stages; and rather than make popcorn from scratch, I would simply whip out a bag of kettle corn from the pantry and pop it in the microwave.
If you’ve ever gone into an Asian food store and read the instructions on a packet of imported comestibles, you’ll understand what I mean by saying Cooking Mama is strongly reminiscent of a Japanese noodle packet. With the exception of the detailed and realistic-looking ingredients the game sports colourful, simplified graphics and the cutesy, doe-eyed tutor delivers simple – though not always clear – step-by-step instructions in ‘Japanglish’, while an inoffensive, catchy ditty loops in the background. Cooking sounds such as chopping and frying are very realistic; you can practically smell that steak sizzling in the pan!
One minor drawback of the game is that you’re unable to sample the fruits of your labour! As anyone who cooks well knows, the reward for all the kitchen drudgery is in being able to enjoy the finished product. Cooking Mama’s official website helps to address this issue by featuring real recipes for 10 international dishes… and while they work well enough (at least, the few that I tested did), the instructions are sometimes unclear, which novice cooks will find a little daunting. Still, it’s worth checking out and ties in neatly with the theme of the game.
All in all Cooking Mama is a pleasant distraction from your usual gaming fare. The novelty factor alone renders it play-worthy, although due to the control issues its long term prospects are not as healthy as they could have been. It’s a good choice of title if you have a keen, budding cook in the house. Be warned, though - it will probably appeal more to older kids with well-established fine motor skills, rather than younger ones who will tend to simply wave the Wii remote around (then throw it at the telly out of sheer frustration). As for the ‘grown-ups’ out there, by all means try out Cooking Mama, but you will likely gain more satisfaction from engaging in the real thing… at least you will get to eat the finished product!