Cooking Mama is one of those DS games that seems totally crazy when you first hear about it. Cooking probably doesn't strike you as something that lends itself well to video games, but if you try and imagine all the main tasks involved in preparing and cooking a meal represented as mini-games, you'll be close to understanding what Cooking Mama is all about. The end result is a fun game that makes good use of the DS' touch screen.
The game's structure is incredibly simple, presenting you with 76 real dishes that you need to prepare and cook as quickly as possible. There's no story or any mode that guides you through, so you're left to choose a dish and give it a go. Practice mode is available if you want to hone your skills without going for a high score, but the main game is simply about completing dishes and being awarded a score from Mama, the Chef.
Each dish requires you to complete a series of mini-game-like tasks, and these are repeated throughout each dish, with ingredients being the only things that really change. To start with you'll probably try and cook some boiled rice, which is about simplest dish in the game. Using the stylus you pour the required amount of rice and water into a dish, wash it and then cook it for the right amount of time.
Other dishes require chopping (tapping the on-screen knife at a speed likely to cause extreme RSI), peeling (moving the stylus up and down at insane speeds to control a peeler), draining (pouring liquid from a bowl through a sieve by slowly lifting the stylus), and more. Quite obviously there's also some cooking to be done, and these are probably the most advanced mini-games included in the collection.
Stewing is one of the most common forms of cooking, but all the different techniques use the same method of streaming instructions across the bottom of the screen. As each instruction reaches the edge you have to follow it, so if it says "Stir", you have to stir the pot, "Blow" requires you to blow into the microphone to simulate cooling the food, and so on. These actions all need to be performed in time with the moving instructions, and the speed will increase as the dishes become more complex.
Cooking Mama's main problem is that it all becomes rather repetitive after a while. All the dishes can be cooked within a few hours, and by that time you'll have played the same mini-games so many times that playing through each dish again to better your score won't seem like a thrilling prospect. A mode that lets you try each of the mini-games at their various difficutlties is available and offers a WarioWare-like succession of quick games, and there's the option to combine dishes to make new ones, but it adds little to the game.
It's worth pointing out that this isn't a game for budding chefs. Despite the game's claims that you'll be cooking real-life dishes, you never go into enough detail to be able to cook them in real life, and there are no recipes or instructions included. You're also limited to playing on your lonesome, with multiplayer modes limited to sharing a demo of the game with friends. Some kind of cook-off mode would have been a nice bonus, but it wasn't to be.
Presentation is very cartoony, but you're preparing and cooking food, so fancy 3D visuals aren't missed. Everything is big and bold, which makes the game ideal for novice and young gamers, and the audio is typical, inoffensive DS/GBA stuff. It's certainly a game not lacking in character though, and this more than makes up for the relatively basic presentation.
Cooking Mama is a very easy game to like. The core idea of turning cooking into a series of mini-games works well, and the gameplay is simple enough for almost anyone to enjoy. Sadly, a lack of variety does make it a game that won't be played much once the novelty factor has worn off, but seeing as it's been released at a budget price it's worth a look.