Cooking Mama: Cook Off
I can't cook to save my life (which is why I usually swim towards the light rather than sealing myself in pastry). Fortunately, the Wii's charm lies not in its ability to render activities realistically, but rather in its capacity to rend our preconceptions and deliver entertainment regardless of how skilled we might actually be in the activity we're performing. Little surprise then that within minutes of putting a flame to Cooking Mama I was chopping, peeling, frying and mincing with the best of them. Grilled bonito, pierogi, paella, lasagne, popcorn - when it comes to the console that makes surgeons out of tennis players, it's all in a day's wok.
Each of the game's many recipes is broken down into a series of preparations that utilise the Wiimote in different ways. To chop a vegetable, you first remove the ends by dragging the pointer across the area indicated on-screen, perform the same action to cut it a few times lengthways, and then chop it finely by drumming the Wiimote down on a virtual counter until the blade's run the length of the food. Holding the Wiimote horizontally and rotating it like the handle of a tombola allows you to mince beef, while moving it back and forth shakes a pan of frying onions, tilting it butters the inside of a pan, and moving it in response to directional prompts kneads dough to the correct shape and consistency.
Naturally you're not required to demonstrate any actual culinary ability, but you might learn a thing or two about what goes into the food you eat, or gain an appreciation of the timing and phases of cooking. It's in these areas that the game develops its simple premise of prompt-and-response into something more testing, as you have to click an icon to add salt, stir, and adjust the heat in an ongoing sequence. Having wrapped vegetables in meat and skewered them, another task has you fanning the flames beneath them and flipping them when you're prompted, or when smoke starts to gather - and having to act on different skewers at different times. Developer Office Create may or may not know its way around the kitchen, but it does a good job of harnessing certain activities' inherent tension in order to throw you off, asking you to resist the urge to pluck mussels from hot oil at the first sign of their golden innards, for instance.
However, while tasks become more elaborate, they only do so up to a point, and rather like a juicy hunk of meat that shrinks in the pan (or an elaborate metaphor whose returns diminish by paragraph four), the novelty soon wears off, and what it leaves behind is bland and rather repetitive. Increased speed and better timing are the only things that will improve your results in the kitchen, and since a great deal of your immediate attempts are already rated as highly as they can be, you've seen most of the game by the time you've unlocked the first couple of dozen recipes. The game's simple structure does it few favours, either, as even your progress through the menus, clicking through page after page of similar icons, colludes with the patchy gameplay to leave you cold. (Although in fairness, the game perks up a lot if you adopt my usual kitchen tactic of sharing the wine with the saucepan.)
Then again, as you may remember, much of this was the case when we looked at the DS version, and budding chef Keza remarked, "those first fifteen minutes of novelty-induced delight are all it aims for", deciding that it was charming enough if you accepted that you were merely getting what you paid just 20 dollars to play. It's a sentiment I'd be happy to echo here were it not for the bigger problem: the Wii version's poorly sprinkled garnish of motion-sensing. As has been a problem with early Wii games, it often fails to heed what you're doing, or misreads your strokes, with typically depressing results. Dough kneads in the wrong direction, stew goes unstirred for the duration of the game's twirly prompt, and - most annoying - the game mistakes small gestures for big ones, reading minor twitches as purposeful shakes and neutral twinges as thrusts in the wrong direction. Don't be surprised if rotating your wrist one way sends the food flying the other.
All of which skewers any hope the game had of receiving the same guarded recommendation it got last time. Whereas the DS game could be defended for ignoring significant depth for the sake of accessibility, Cook Off's controls are simply too ropey for it to earn any flavour of respect, and leave its repetitive, flash-in-the-pan mini-games open to assault. Still a novelty for the first half an hour (and one greatly intensified by the two-player mode), it boils down to a game that punishes you for the flaws in its own control system, with the result that it's not only an experience whose ingredients appear more appetising than the dish they're set to become, but one that simply burns you the way you've been burnt ever since you first wound up with a bad game. "Cook Off" seems like a decent place to leave it.