While it may sound like a matricidal cannibalism simulator, Cooking Mama 2 is, in fact, a collection of cooking themed mini-games. The game is focused, with laser-like intensity, on a younger, female audience but can it offer anything to the older and/or male gamer?
We have to admit, right up front, that the game's reinforcement of cooking as something that girls and women do and that boys and men have done for them was mildly annoying. Even if that is the unfortunate way of things in the real world, we can't help but feel that a game aimed at younger players could at least entertain the possibility that Papa or a little brother can shamelessly pick up a saucepan once in while. The player is never specifically defined as female - though it is heavily implied through the relentlessly pink and frilly design of the game - but the conservative, 1950s 'woman-in-the-kitchen' vibe was a little disappointing. Yes, we're being nit-picky and uptight but it wouldn't have been that difficult to make it all little less gender specific. Just saying...
The game itself presents the player with around 80 different recipes to prepare. Each recipe consists of around three to eight different stages, with each stage playing out as a mini-game. So, for example, you might have to peel a potato, chop it up, boil it, mash it and finally combine it with certain other ingredients. Peeling will typically involve dragging the stylus over a vegetable until it's clean, chopping demands that the player trace over dotted lines marked on the vegie (or fish or fruit or whatever) while boiling requires constant, careful adjustment of a temperature gauge. Basically, every action you need to perform in the kitchen, be it kneading dough, using a blender or frying onions, is performed by doing something with the stylus on the touchscreen.
There's a good range of tasks to perform, some of them more enjoyable than others. For some reason we found that dicing things into tiny pieces by rapidly tapping the stylus on the screen was always fun. On the other hand, many of the actions required are extremely simple and repetitive. Scaling a fish and cleaning a cob of corn both involve simply scribbling furiously on the screen. Chopping up some ingredients requires nothing more than tracing a single vertical line - even for a game that skews as young as Cooking Mama 2, it's not exactly the most daunting challenge ever faced in a video game. Success is usually just a matter of doing exactly what the screen tells you, when it tells you to do it - draw here, swirl this, tap here. There are occasional difficulty spikes. A sequence involving a stove top, fluctuating temperatures and timely addition of ingredients proved to be particularly tricky and some mini-games can be frustrating until you work out exactly what you're supposed to do. Some recipes are an odd mix of extreme simplicity and total confusion, which can make the game feel, for want of a better word, a bit lumpy.
The various recipes are accessed via several different game modes. There's Cook with Mama, in which you'll gradually unlock new recipes. You can fail at certain parts of a recipes here and still progress to the end, thanks to Mama's intervention. If you want a Gold Medal though, perfection is required and Mama rather disconcertingly turns into a flame-eyed she-devil if you completely botch a recipe. More challenging is the Let's Cook! mode, in which you must prepare a meal for a friend with only minimal instruction. Fumble any step of the recipe here and you'll have to start again. It's generally a good idea to practice a recipe in Cook with Mama mode before heading into Let's Cook! Finally, there's Cooking Contest, which presents a number of very basic challenges, such as peeling as many potatoes as possible within a set time. Cooking Contest is the only area of the game that features multiplayer, which is a shame as it's also the most tediously repetitious. It just not that much fun to slice up a sheet of pasta - that is, drag the stylus vertically down the screen - as many times as possible in 30 seconds, whether you're playing alone or with friends.
Succeeding in Cook with Mama and Let's Cook! modes unlocks various gifts such as stickers, utensils, kitchen renovations, clothes and accessories. You can use these to spruce up the backgrounds and Mama herself. You also have a diary, in which you can put pictures of completed meals and the various stickers you collect. It does hint at a certain lack of confidence in the basic gameplay that the game feels a need to hurl new trinkets at you to keep you interested. The various touchscreen actions required to successfully complete a recipe are generally too simple to be really engaging, but there's an undeniable compulsion to see what gets unlocked next, or to add another Gold Medal to the collection. Boiled down to the basics, the routine is 'do this chore and then you'll get something nice' rather than 'have fun.' Not ideal for a game.
The fact that success is generally achieved through memorisation and rote-learning rather than creativity and puzzle-solving doesn't help. There are moments of quick thinking needed, but as we noted earlier, if you do what the game tells you to do, when it tells you to do it, you'll get through. If not, you'll fail. Cooking is - or at least can be - a creative endeavour, so it's a shame that the game doesn't ever let the player create their own meals or try to improve existing recipes. Cooking Mama 2 isn't interested in anything more than simple 'carrot and stick' gameplay, which is a shame on a platform as versatile as the DS. Simplicity can be a a great thing in video games - look at Peggle or Puzzle Quest - but Cooking Mama 2's shallowness means it gets old fast.
The graphics are pleasant enough, using bold colours and a cheerful, cartoon style. Everything is clear and whatever on-screen directions are present are easily understood. The soundtrack is bright and chirpy, with lots of tinkly piano and a slightly jazzy feel. It won't drive you insane immediately, but the DS' volume slider will come in handy, sooner or later. The voice work in the game could have used a lot more variety, being limited to the same few Japanese-English snippets played over and over again when you either fail or succeed. It very quickly grates and would have been best left out of the game entirely.
At best, Cooking Mama 2 is a reasonable distraction in short bursts. If you overlook its somewhat suspect gender politics, it's an entirely inoffensive game. The various new and exotic ingredients it introduces might just possibly spark an interest in real-life cooking but it's equally likely to leave the young and curious indifferent, and probably bored. It won't keep even the most culinarily inclined older gamer interested for more than an hour or two. Ultimately, you'd get better value by putting the money towards a night out at a good restaurant.