The main thing I have to say about Cooking Mama is that it pains me greatly to give it such a low score. The artwork is saccharine-cute, I love the offbeat concept, and the price is right-but, it's just too shallow and too repetitive to rate any higher. I hate to admit it (and I looked hard for reasons to give it a bigger number) but I couldn't do it.
Don't get me wrong-it's a fun, interesting diversion. As one would expect, Cooking Mama is all about preparing food and creating delicious, appealing meals. Although there are a few RPGs that feature cooking as side-quests or minigames, Cooking Mama is the first game that I know of to completely revolve around adventures in the kitchen.
Interestingly, the game is very faithful and accurate when it comes to the subject matter. I may not be a professional chef, but I am an excellent cook and I'm very comfortable whipping up anything from a light snack to a formal dinner. (Just ask my wife, she'll tell you.) Knowing the difference between a teaspoon and tablespoon and a leek from a shallot, I was impressed to see how much actual cooking technique was incorporated.
As a matter of fact, many of the game's 76 recipes could almost be followed step-by-step in real life. Naturally, Cooking Mama is not an electronic Rachael Ray, but with a little bit of real-world experience under a player's belt, simply following along with Mama would actually get you pretty far towards a nice lunch.
I suppose then, that this accuracy is a major part of the game's downfall. As anyone who cooks knows, a lot of time and effort goes towards the prep work. Slicing, peeling, chopping, grating and mixing are all necessary steps, and Cooking Mama doesn't dodge them. Using the stylus, players will do the grunt work over and over again in minigames and that simulate each step in the process. Make circles on the touchscreen to beat an egg, blow into the microphone to cool a sauce, and so on.
It's not that it isn't enjoyable to do these things, but once each minigame is learned, Cooking Mama is all about repeating these steps in various combinations to make different dishes. I feel awkward criticizing the developers for being so true-to-life, but chopping onions or shelling prawns the exact same way thirty or forty times doesn't exactly make for gripping gameplay.
Perhaps if there were other aspects to the experience, such as some sort of basic story mode or an Iron Chef-like competition, Cooking Mama would feel a little more energetic or purposeful. As it is, the only motivating factor is in trying to earn a gold medal by performing each step in a recipe flawlessly. It's little reward, and there are no larger goals or narrative to keep things moving. There aren't even any credits that roll after completing all of the recipes, and there's nothing to do besides the actual cooking-no restaurant management, no shopping budget, no characters to talk to, no places to go.
Although I do appreciate that the game was released at a budget price-point, I would have gladly paid top dollar if the developers had taken it further and build it up into something more substantial; possibly a Phoenix Wright-style graphic adventure or a basic RPG. The potential is clearly here for another out-of-left-field cult hit, but the charm of sautéing, stewing, and sometimes scorching wears off too soon, and there's nothing to fall back on to bolster the experience. More aperitif than main dish, some peripheral content and a slightly broader scope would have made Cooking Mama a richer, more filling treat.