Version tested: DS
Of the DS' major rhythm-action games, only Jam Sessions has made it to Europe with relatively little fuss - Ouendan took its sweet time, and the venerable Daigassou! Band Brothers never made it at all, despite rumours that it was in development for Western audiences as Jam With The Band. Shame, then, that Jam Sessions is ultimately the weakest of the DS' music games, although it's not without its uses. Where traditional rhythm-action games are essentially reflex tests, Jam Sessions is essentially a synthesiser instead, letting you make your own music instead of playing along to preset patterns like in Guitar Hero.
The game maps eight chords to the D-pad at a time, arranging them according to key, and then... well, that's it. You stroke up and down on the screen to play the chords however you like, and apply effects chains to mess around with the sound. Theoretically you can play anything you like, as long as it's all chords instead of crazy solos, and doesn't change key suddenly halfway through. It comes with a reasonable selection of song tabs to play along to - including German ones, hooray! - but really the idea is to experiment, imitate or compose on your own. It even comes with a trainer designed to help you recognise chords by ear.
As a concept it sounds pretty liberating, but in reality, the fact that there are no preset challenges actually limits Jam Sessions in terms of actual playability. You can figure out how to play whichever song you like, and sing along with yourself as you play, but the novelty of doing so soon wears off - presumably, most people with the sort of musical inclinations to figure out keys and chord transitions would be perfectly able to experiment on an actual instrument. Jam Sessions is a toy guitar, good fun to play around with, but it doesn't imbue you with the sense of accomplishment that something like Guitar Hero does, nor does it have the variety or adaptability of a real guitar, which means it sits uncomfortably in the middle ground between instrument and game, without the clear advantages of either. But as a music tool it's definitely worthwhile, especially as a portable diversion for guitarists or an easier option for those with no time to learn.
Game publishers! Why does USD 20 in the US still translate to GBP 20 even now that a dollar is actually worth less than 50p? 10 quid would be excusable for an extremely casual, averagely-designed little puzzle game like this, but 20 just isn't, especially when you can play Diner Dash for free online. Cake Mania is very much like Diner Dash - you take and fulfil customers' tasty cake orders, prioritising according to their personality types. Schoolkids get bored fast, businesspeople demand speedy service, students don't really care, and so on and so forth. It boils down to creating cakes of different shapes and colours in sequence, queuing up chains of actions with the stylus and multi-tasking as your cake kitchen gets ever bigger and more complicated.
As a concept it's fine - it's passably addictive, and rewards extended play with increased complexity. The problem is that Cake Mania will almost certainly frustrate its intended audience with its very sharp learning curve and necessary repetition. It doesn't move quite fast enough to keep the adrenaline going - mostly you're clicking on four or five things with the stylus and then waiting about a minute for your cake waitress to carry out the actions. Past the fifth level or so there's little incentive to keep playing, especially as the extremely average presentation imbues it with precious little personality or spark, which gives it yet another disadvantage next to other DS puzzle games. Ultimately, Cake Mania is too expensive, too slow and too limited to excel in this overcrowded field.
Imagine: Happy Cooking
My, Ubisoft has been busy releasing casual games for the DS recently. Following hot on the heels of a series of brain trainers, this one was released very much on the down-low, the first of a low-budget 'Imagine' series of games about cooking, fashion and cute little animals, and appears to have been picked up for distribution on the cheap from somewhere Far Eastern. Admittedly this particular line of games was not designed to come under the scrutiny of a mainstream audience, but having once been one, I feel that little girls deserve good games too.
Imagine: Happy Cooking is a version of Cooking Mama wherein the characters never shut up. You have to tap through reams and reams of by-the-numbers dialogue - acted out by strange, Korean-looking wonky cartoon characters, without the usual bonus of amusingly poor translations - before you get to cook anything, and there's usually a whole lot of chat in-between recipes too. It follows the Cooking Mama formula of different steps in each cooking task, but slows things down by making you choose the right cooking implements beforehand. There's no room for imagination, except in the garnishing step, and even that's graded according to some random invisible system -anything more extravagant than a single sprig of parsley usually earns you minus points. It's colourfully presented and passably executed, but, like Cake Mania, it's lacking in inspiration, and the fact that Cooking Mama has done it all before definitely counts against it.
If you have a little girl who's been bored of Nintendogs for a while now, for God's sake get her Mario or Phantom Hourglass or something similarly stimulating and worthwhile, not this depressing, mildly exploitative, focus-group-designed shelf-filler. It's not a terrible game, but it's the ideas behind these market-researched casual games that make me balk. This might keep your daughter happy for an hour or so, but she deserves better.
Touch Detective 2
How the original Touch Detective escaped Eurogamer's critical eye is beyond me. It's exactly the sort of odd, well-written Japanese import that typically gladdens the hearts of this site's contributors, specifically those of us with a weakness for handheld adventure delights. Touch Detective leans more towards 'classic' point-and-click than Phoenix Wright, bringing with it the classic pixel-hunting, back-tracking and illogical puzzles that sometimes define the genre, but it's a considerable improvement upon the first, and it feels a little hollow to criticise an adventure game for, well, being an adventure game. That said, Touch Adventure's puzzles are sometimes obscure almost to the point of parody - you wonder whether the game is taking the piss out of itself as well as you.
Touch Detective 2 continues the adventures of Mackenzie, a pint-sized detective struggling to achieve recognition in the field. She handles a variety of increasingly insane cases - without wanting to spoil anything, the first involves investigating who has stolen the colour from her friend's pink noodles - in an excellently-designed, completely bonkers world that reminds me of Gregory Horror Show for some reason. Touch Detective's excellent music and visual style complement a selection of well-written, unfailingly amusing characters and situations. Where the bottom screen shows what's actually going on, the top shows Mackenzie's thoughts, accompanied by ever-changing facial expressions, which both add colour to proceedings and often provide handy hints - Touch Detective 2 is considerably less difficult than its predecessor, and the intended path is often slightly easier to pick out, if no less random.
The only issue here is that though Touch Detective 2 is better than the original, it does assume prior knowledge to an extent. It's kind enough to ask you at the beginning if you ever played the first game, but I'm not sure how your answer actually influences proceedings - there are numerous in-jokes and running references that shoot straight over the heads of uninitiated players. Nevertheless, this is a meaty (ten hours!), funny and very well-presented adventure title with superb aesthetics, and despite its zany-for-the-sake-of-it puzzle design, it will find a place in the heart of any fan of the genre.