Never let it be said that Eurogamer's review policies are remotely sexist - I undertook to purchase Cooking Mama entirely of my own volition, not because it was thrust upon me under the assumption that a female critic would be more appropriate (as has happened to me in the past with Barbie sodding Horse Adventures). Having now exhausted the DS' very first cooking game, though, it's inescapably apparent that this really is going to appeal to girls more than boys - not because of all the cooking, you understand, but because it's extremely cute and lovably simple. My mum adores this. So does my niece, whose adorable little sticky fingerprints are now all over my lovely new Noble Pink DS Lite. Unfortunately I'm not anything like as enamoured with it, and I'm guessing that if you're a regular reader of this website your sentiments are more likely to tally with mine than with those of a seven-year-old girl whose primary concerns in life seem to be ponies and how many of those candy bracelet things she can fit on her arms at once. Bless.
At first, though, I was just as taken with the novelty of chopping and slicing and tendon-removing as my miniature relative. Cooking Mama picked up one or two awards at E3, which is entirely understandable as it makes an excellent first impression. Brightly presented and perfectly intuitive, it presents you with seventy-odd unique dishes to make under the benevolent guidance of Mama, who wears a pink hat and is terribly nice (unless you mess up a dish, at which point she suddenly transforms into a flame-eyed she-demon). You can also combine recipes to make your own odd combinations like meat-pie-fried-rice or spaghetti-pizza, which offers a ridiculous number of questionable gastronomic possibilities. Initially, it seems like Cooking Mama is both extremely varied and unexpectedly substantive, which comes as a lovely surprise for a $20 game.
And through your first few culinary ventures, that good impression is maintained as the game's cheery, bright kitchen visuals and satisfying chop-sizzle-thwack noises charm you into submission and Mama rewards your attempts at boiled rice and grilled gyoza with shiny medals. The DS was made for this kind of simple and innovative little game; everything from basic grating and slicing to folding sushi, kneading bread and pulling the legs off crabs is done with the stylus alone, and each recipe is presented as a sequence of easy-to-understand mini-games. The fact that both my mother and my niece picked this up with no trouble at all is testament to how very accessible they are - only very rarely does any step in a recipe actually present a challenge. This doesn't matter at first, as there's a consistent stream of new cooking steps, but after your first ten or fifteen recipes you find yourself doing the same old chopping and grating and boiling and frying over and over again with marginally different ingredients and only the occasional surprise new mini-game (mackerel-fanning, anyone?) to liven up proceedings.
This inherent repetitiveness is worsened by the fact that there is no progressive structure to the recipes; they never actually become any harder or more complicated, and not one of them takes more than maybe two or three minutes to complete, which makes the prospect of working through all seventy-six recipes seem like a real chore (thankfully it only takes a little over two hours to get through every single one). There's not much incentive to replay each of the recipes for a perfect score, either, as there is so little differentiation between them in terms of gameplay that you are unlikely to form favourites. Cooking Mama starts to feel supremely pointless after about half an hour's worth of novelty value - with no real structure and no rewards to speak of, it's difficult to feel particularly enthusiastic about embarking upon the noble endeavour of chopping an onion for the 60th time. Crucially, there's no actual food on offer at the end of the whole process, which demonstrably makes the process of cooking an awful lot less rewarding. Indeed, at the end of a twenty minutes' worth of looking at bright, appealing pictures of food, you'll probably end up a bit hungry as well as a bit bored.
It feels a bit facetious to be bluntly critical of Cooking Mama's lack of direction and structure, though, because that is so clearly not what it's supposed to be about. This is an extremely simple game and it doesn't really concern itself with such practical matters - those first fifteen minutes of novelty-induced delight are all it aims for. Playing it solidly for extended periods at a time is perhaps a mistake, because taken one or two recipes at a time over a week or so Cooking Mama's repetitiveness wouldn't grate nearly so much. It is a very casual game, with a very casual approach to cooking (its recipes aren't exactly cordon bleu, but they do give you a vague education in the process of Japanese cooking and answers the age-old question of what goes into miso soup) and a very casual approach to fun. Younger players, especially girls, will love its cuteness and be entirely untroubled by its lack of difficulty or direction.
All that said, however, it would be a little difficult to recommend Cooking Mama at full price. Happily, it's a twenty-dollar game, which hopefully will translate to twenty quid over here if Taito ever gets around to releasing it, and when it's only about thirteen pounds on import it seems unfair to begrudge it for being a bit shallow and a bit short. Cooking Mama is a charming novelty game, well presented and simply and effectively executed. Just don't go expecting anything more than your thirteen pounds' worth.
Cooking Mama is out now for Nintendo DS in the USA, but there's no word on a European release just yet. (Unless you count those words.)
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