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.