"The real problem is a lack of consistency. A horizontal arrow might mean just a quick little shuffle for one task, while in another situation a huge sweep is mandatory. You just never know until you've tried a few times and gotten the hang of that individual process. The amount of trial-and-error here is staggering and each new complication is cause for trepidation rather than excitement. You can eventually overcome such obstacles, but the hassle involved isn't pleasant at all. This is supposed to be fun, not a chore!"
When the Cooking Mama franchise made its DS debut, people were surprised by how simple yet addictive it was. Who knew that a series of mini-games built around a virtual kitchen setting would prove to be so much fun? Gamers were able to chop, dice and bake without any mess to clean up afterwards, all to create the sort of recipes they would never even dream of attempting within their own homes. The refreshing design left players all over the world completely enamored. Sequels followed. Now, only a few years later, Cooking Mama: World Kitchen marks the fourth entry in the series to arrive on North American shores.
Perhaps you've played the previous installments and now you're asking yourself if it's worth trying this newest one. The short answer, unfortunately, is 'probably not.' While the ideas behind Cooking Mama remain solid, much of the appeal in such games comes from the sense that you're doing something different. World Kitchen may prove charming and addictive for people who have never met the adorable mascot and have never experienced the joy of slicing vegetables with the Wii Remote, but beyond that it doesn't bring much to the table beyond the usual Japanese charm that any returning fans will have come to expect.
At least the developers tried to add value. As the back of the box notes, there are more than 50 all-new recipes. These are taken from cultures throughout the world, which was a nice touch and justifies the World Kitchen subtitle. New recipes only go so far in a game of this sort, though, especially since fixing a club sandwich isn't terribly different (in digital terms) from constructing a hamburger. Updated three-dimensional visuals, a first for the series, fare little better. Sure, they're included and they look nice, but do they have much impact on how it feels to slice a digital onion? Not really.
A more significant change to the Cooking Mama formula is the introduction of Max, a dog who lurks about the kitchen--complete with a chef's hat, of course--and remains alert in case a chef happens to drop anything tasty. Cute though he may be, Max is really just there to participate in a mini-game. The minute you screw up badly enough that your chosen chef drops an ingredient, a race between Mama and the pooch is triggered and you have to wave the Wii Remote wildly in an effort to help her get to the goodies before her canine competition does. Three-second rule? Not in this kitchen!
The first time you watch Mama and Max race for the tasty treat--or witness any of several other similarly-themed diversions--it's amusing. After that, though, it stops being funny and turns downright frustrating depending how quick you are on the draw. That's because the mini-games occur more frequently than they really should. Cooking Mama games simply don't control as well on Wii as they do on the DS. You'd think it would be different, since the Wii Remote should easily be able to simulate a variety of movements relevant to the art of cooking, yet that extra freedom results in a variety of situations where you'll think you're doing everything correctly... then find out that you're not even close and that the dog is racing for a quick meal again.
As an example, one step used in some recipes positions a bowl along the right side of the screen. Your little chef stands just to the left with ingredients in front of him. Your job is to help him pick up various items and dump them into the bowl. However, this is anything but simple. An icon appears on the bottom of the screen indicating that you should hold the Wii Remote sideways like an old NES controller, and there are arrows indicating horizontal movement. Yet if you try to do what seems indicated, you'll probably accomplish nothing. Or maybe an 'X' will appear on-screen as Mama tells you with her charmingly thick Japanese accent that you're doing things wrong.
The real problem is a lack of consistency. A horizontal arrow might mean just a quick little shuffle for one task, while in another situation a huge sweep is mandatory. You just never know until you've tried a few times and gotten the hang of that individual process. The amount of trial-and-error here is staggering and each new complication is cause for trepidation rather than excitement. You can eventually overcome such obstacles, but the hassle involved isn't pleasant at all. This is supposed to be fun, not a chore!
All recipes involve several steps, meaning that there's at least some wiggle room if you need it while cooking with Mama. You might have only four tasks in one scenario--perhaps pulling away lettuce leaves, seasoning meat, dicing onions or catching falling bits of meat on a skewer--or eight on another. Unrealistically, you can totally fail portions of the recipe that would doom a dish to failure in real life, yet in the end pass with a decent rating because you did fine on everything else. Apparently, people who order a juicy steak don't mind if you burn the meat to a crisp, just as long as you really nail those garnishes!
If you tire of the main cooking mode, there are others that include preparing recipes--the same ones, of course--for friends without Mama helping you. Mistakes there can really ruin your day. Or if you prefer, you can practice the mini-games to get better at them or just to challenge your previous record. Such options are worthwhile, but in an off-hand sort of way they emphasize just how little variety there is available in the overall package.
The lack of depth is ultimately what kills Cooking Mama: World Kitchen, since the core idea driving the series hasn't really changed and didn't need to. It's difficult to recommend the game--despite its positive qualities--when there are similar but more robust titles such as Order Up! available in many of the same stores (and perhaps even with lower price tags). The original Cooking Mama was released when it had the market more or less to itself. With the casual games explosion, that's no longer the case. Now you need to do something significant to stand out from the crowd, something this game just doesn't do. Maybe next time, Mama.
Staff review by Jason Venter (November 22, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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