Review: Personal Trainer: Cooking (Nintendo DS)

Personal Trainer: Cooking
Developer: Nintendo Touch Generations
Publisher: Nintendo of America
Genre: Cookbook
Release Date: 11/24/2008


As 2008 winds to a close, we have seen an odd trend with the DS. The system is loaded with cookbooks. As a person who used to use cooking as a massive stress reliever and way to be artistic since I can’t draw or paint like Bob Ross, I’ve really enjoyed this trend. There’s only one problem – all of these cookbooks have been connected to mediocre (at best) games. Hell’s Kitchen and What’s Cooking w/ Jamie Oliver? No thank you, but at least the cookbooks are well done.

So enter Nintendo with Cooking Guide: Can’t Decide What To Eat? or as it has been re-named here in the States, Personal Trainer: Cooking. PT:C is a pure cookbook featuring nearly 250 recipes from around the world. You’ve seen the commercial with Lisa Kudrow using it to cook with her niece and the game is already out of stock in most places. I picked this up on Cyber Monday for a mere nine dollars. How could I not?

As this is not truly a video game, but a pure digital cookbook, we can’t truly review it as such. This is not like reviewing the differences between say a normal book, and a version that can be downloaded to Amazon’s Kindle. This is Nintendo taking a huge step and creating the first true non-game for the DS. Let’s see how it fares when reviewed by a person who had a weekly cooking column for two years and has reviewed more video games than sanity should allow.

Let’s Review

1. Modes

You might be surprised by the amount of modes in this game. Let’s break down each one for you quickly.

Recipes. Not sure what you want to cook? You can sort through all the recipes here by region of the world the recipe originated from, caloric intake, difficulty, length of time to make and specific ingredient. I could choose say, “mango slices (canned), hit okay, and the system would give me the two recipes that fit that description. You can also do a keyword search, but for those of us with doctor handwriting, it’s best to stay away from this bit. Finally, there is the ability to mark a completed recipe as a favorite for easy access.

Shopping List. Remember in my review of the Jaime Oliver game, where I complimented the cookbook and shopping list feature and wished this was in something that wasn’t attached to such an awful game? Well here it is. The shopping list in PT:C is wonderful. It stores all the ingredients you need for a dish or dishes, and as you can adjust the recipe to the number of servings you would like, the shopping list will do the same. Just use the stylus to check the box next to the specified ingredient once you’ve purchased it, and you’re good to go.

Cooking A-Z. This my friends, is worth the price of admission. There are ten different choices in here, each of which is fascinating regardless of if you are a long time cook or have never even stood in a kitchen before.

Ingredients gives you a list of all the ingredients in the game along with a description of each one. This is also divided into categories like meat, fruit & veg, seafood, and more.

Substitute Ingredients is a wonderful idea. Here it gives a list of hard to find ingredients for Asian Cooking and what you can use as a substitute if you don’t have a nearby Asian grocery store.

Utensils is a brief overview with pictures of various kitchen gadgets.

Preparation is a must read as it shows you how to properly prepare foodstuffs for a recipe. Food safety baby!

Chopping and Cutting shows you different techniques for the different ways to use bladed objects on different types of food. Mincing garlic, chopping carrots, and so on.

Terminology is just that – a dictionary for specific cooking terms and food slang.

Helpful Tips are simply little things rookie cooks will want to know.

Homemade Ingredients is a great idea. This shows you things how to make pasta sauces from scratch or homemade tortillas. This way, once you’re comfortable enough, you don’t have to used pre-packaged products as ingredients in the larger dishes. You can go 100% homemade!

Important Points This talks about calories, portion sizes and other aspects used in the creation of PT:C.

Example Videos was easily my favorite piece of this amazing package. My friends and I watched video footage of how to properly gut and clean a rainbow trout and even how to de-ink a squid. These videos held nothing back and it was impressive to see how detailed the game goes into the preparation of these various foodstuffs. I was also very impressed with the video quality displayed here. Generally a cartridge has grainy or pixilated video footage, but these were DVD quality videos. Even long time cooks can sit down and watch these instructional videos and walk away impressed.

Oh. And then there’s the actual game walking you through the recipes…

I couldn’t have asked for a better package here. I’m still blown away by all that PT: C offers in this one little cart.

Modes Rating: Unparalleled

2. Graphics

There’s really not a lot to speak of here graphically. Almost all of the images are static photos of dishes, menu icons or video footage of things being prepared. When it comes to photos, the dishes are all made to look appetizing and each recipe has multiple photos. These photos are a visual representation of the steps in the recipe , which complement the cookbook and the audio chef perfectly.

As mentioned earlier, the video footage is amazing and easily the best I have seen on the DS to date. Real life footage is always a tricky thing to pull off on a cartridge and the quality here is as good as anything I’ve seen on the Food Network. Well, not that the Food Network actually shows real cooking anymore.

The little animated chef is cute, but nothing amazing, and although it’s nearly a quarter of a century old, the unlockable “Chef” from the old Game & Watch handhelds is re-created quite nicely. More on how to get that bonus at the end of this review (Don’t go scrolling down!).

Overall, this is the best presentation of a cookbook I’ve yet seen on the DS. The visuals of everything are well done, and the real world footage makes cooking a snap for young kids or casual chefs alike.

Graphics Rating: Great

3. Sound

The main track to the game running in the background sounds like something you’d hear in a movie showcasing a stereotypical French Bistro. Truthfully though, the music is a throwaway. What’s most important here is the virtual chef who helps you out throughout all your recipes.

The chef’s voice is crisp and clear, lacking any sort of regional accent. This makes him very easy to understand. You can also adjust the speed at which he talks, so Mid-Atlantic users can speed him up to their usual speech patterns, while the deep south can so him down to the laid back rate that they use down there.

You won’t have any problem understanding the chef at all, so you’ll have precise directions on how to do the recipes while your hands are full. In truth, as we’ll see in the next section, you can complete a recipe without ever looking at the screen.

Sound Rating: Good

4. Control and Gameplay

This is where things are a bit odd seeing as you don’t actually “play” Personal Trainer: Cooking. You read it. In this respect the stylus and touch screen interaction is perfect and there are lots of helpful hints and information to help you become a better chef. Gameplay is another matter, seeing as you do interact with the game in a rather unusual way.

We’ve all played games with voice interactive software. Hey You, Pikachu!, Lifeline, and many other games involve you talked to the game in order to proceed. In this respect, PT: C is no different. The virtual chef will read you each step of the recipe at the speed you earlier programmed him to speak at. If you are ready to move on to the next step, just say, “Continue” and the recipe moves on. If you need the step repeated for whatever reason, you can always say, “Repeat.” “Last Step” moves the recipe well, back a step. The voice recognition is amazing and I never once had a problem navigating through the recipes we tried out in this fashion.

There’s also a built in time to the game which is automatically programmed with the time you need for each specific step. The DS does a great job of alerting you when time is up and it helps to make PT: C an all in one gadget for your kitchen. If you have a long wait for something to cook, say 15-30 minute, you’ll be able to play the aforementioned classic game, Chef. You’ll have to actually use the timer and complete a recipe once before this is unlocked however.

At any time you can also call out “More Details” for a more in-depth description of a step or foodstuff, but this is not a constant.

Finally, once you’ve finished a recipe, you get a coloured stamp to put into the game’s internal calendar. This lets you keep track of what you’ve cooked and when. Think of it as your first step to food blogging.

In all, this game is very well done with the best voice recognition software I’ve seen outside of a language tutorial program. You do have to speak in a louder tone than normal at times to activate the command, especially if your back is to the DS, but this is a minor quibble. With some very easy recipes in here like British Fish & Chips, the virtual chef and the voice prompted actions can teach ANYONE to cook. This is exactly why I’m so high on Nintendo these days. They’re stepping outside the box and making games for non-gamers. As we get older, we don’t have time to spend 40 -60 hours on say Panzer Dragoon Saga or Persona 2: Eternal Punishment. Something like PT:C works exceptionally well and can be enjoyed by anyone, whether they are a “hardcore” gamer, or merely have purchased a DS for titles like this and Brain Age.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Unparalleled

5. Replayability

With 250 recipes, each with varying difficulties and ethnic origins, you can get a lot of use out of PT: C. I’ll admit I’d only ever make about half of the recipes in here as things like egg tart and shepherd’s pie are not products I would willingly imbibe. Still, the fact PT: C introduces people to dishes from Hungary, Peru, Vietnam and my beloved France means that this little DS cart is a gateway to breaking your kids (and adult friends) or their more finicky habits. Pizza and hamburgers get OLD. I was quite impressed by the variety of dishes included in PT: C and it should keep anyone who buys it coming back for more, if only to try something they’ve never tasted before.

Replayabilty Rating: Good

6. Balance

Nintendo did a great job of balancing this game for cooks of all ages and skill levels. You can sort recipes by difficulty, which will reassure parents that little six year old Jimmy won’t be reaching for the deep fat fryer any time soon. Health minded or vegetarian cooks can use the exclude ingredients option to make sure they don’t select a recipe that has say, lamb in it.

With 250 recipes that are can be sorted in different way, an easy to navigate layout and a helpful virtual chef, Personal Trainer: Cooking is neither difficult nor pabulum. It’s a wonderful fit for all ages and even the regions of the world are nicely balanced, even if the regions of Italy, France, and China make up over a third of the recipes.

Balance Rating: Good

7. Originality

This is only the fourth DS title (I can’t call it a game) that features a digital cookbook. Of course all four have come out this year, so this particular genre is more saturated than you might imagine. Two of the other three games (Hell’s Kitchen and What’s Cooking are saddled down with cooking based video games that really aren’t worth your time, or the price tag attached to them. Gourmet Chef from Ubisoft however is a really fun game that features an adorable story. The only problem is that the entire cook book is gourmet French cuisine. While this suits me just fine, I realize that the average American isn’t a big fan of French food save for baguettes. Personal Trainer: C ooking is the first game I’ve seen that offers a balanced cookbook that is easy to use along with some very helpful instructions on how to properly prepare your chosen dish. It’s also the first to offer real life video footage of prep work and a huge glossary covering everything you can imagine related to cooking. Okay, not everything, but you will be impressed.

PT: C is the first title for the DS that really showcase cooking as both entertainment and an art form. It’s no wonder Nintendo is putting a lot of PR money behind this, because there’s never been anything truly like this before. Yes, there have been attempts, but never with this much depth.

Originality Rating: Good

8. Addictiveness

This is a hard category to write. After all, no matter how much you enjoy PT: C, you’re not going to play it for hours on end, just randomly making recipes and dancing to the voice of the virtual chef. Nor is anyone going to make all their meals just with this cart or even a meal a day every day for 250 days. Well, I suppose the latter is possible for a blog challenge, but Cthulhu have mercy on your soul if you try it.

This is a fun little thing to break out to show off to your friends, especially if they’re the type of person who prefers to eat out multiple times a week. It’s also a fun way to introduce a child to cooking, as what child doesn’t like video games? Mutant zombie Nazi children, that’s who! It’s also a great thing to use once a week or month if you’re a relatively inexperienced cook to help you learn. If you’re an experienced cook, it’s fun to see how Nintendo’s recipes stack up against time-tested ones from your own cookbook collection.

As much as I’d like to say people will still be using t his in a few months or that the title will live up to the hype it’s been getting, the truth is that this will be just a fad for gourmands, gourmets, foodies, and their friends to pick up, have fun with and then discard as the next food fad comes up. My household will probably be no different. Between us all we have over a hundred cookbooks. Most chefs and cooks aren’t really ready to go fully into the digital age of recipe writing and recording, although PT:C makes a wonderful first dip into the virtual pool.

Thumbs in the middle due to both the reality of how often one could feasibly use this and the likelihood that people will after several weeks of owning it.

Addictiveness Rating: Mediocre

9. Appeal Factor:

There’s a current backlash towards Nintendo amongst the faux hardcore gamer. You know the type. The ones who say Nintendo is just for kids or has sold out because they are thinking outside the box and making games for the casual gamer. Meanwhile they’re playing a system with mind blowing graphics that pretty much only offers two to three different genres of games – all of which are the third or fourth sequel to something that exists on the last generation of consoles. That’s not hardcore. That’s being afraid to expand and try something outside your comfort zone. That’s being exactly the type of gamer that sits on an internet message board screaming profanity at anyone that has a difference of opinion with you because god forbid someone likes something you don’t or the reverse.

Nintendo’s really trying to market this title to the casual gamer, and it will sell quite well. The real hardcore gamer will no doubt pick this up and love it as well. Why? Because it’s fresh and original. It lets you walk away with something new, albeit knowledge instead of improved reflexes and hand to eye coordination. People who have always wanted to learn to cook but were too embarrassed to take a class or ask friends now have the perfect way to learn and seem hip because hey, the DS is the best selling system of all time. Kids will love it, adults will love it, cooking fans will find it interesting and a great way to teach cooking. Chefs will either adore it or snub it based on if they feel threatened or not. In all, Personal Trainer: Cooking is going to bring new people to the DS and thus gaming in general and that’s what our fandom needs – NEW BLOOD. What more can you ask for?

Only the most snobbish of chefs and the most irrational Nintendo hater would be unable to appreciate Personal Trainer: Cooking, but sadly there’s a lot more of both than you might think.

Appeal Factor Rating: Good

10. Miscellaneous

Even as a pure cookbook, PT: C packs in the unlockables one has come to expect with a video game. There are five hidden recipes and the old Chef Game and Watch title, which does give you some reward for completing recipes here. If you cook twenty recipes you’ll receive a wonderful bonus called the “History and Staff Option.” Selecting this rolls the developer credits on the bottom screen while filling the top screen with information about the dishes you’ve cooked.

Here’s the other thing that makes this worthwhile. Personal Trainer: Cooking costs between ten and twenty USD. A paper cookbook with this many recipes would cost double that and would lack the virtual chef, preparation videos and shopping list accessory. This is Ron Popeil’s dream here. I mean, this thing is arguably the best cookbook bargain I’ve seen all year unless you lack a DS. Then it’s probably the most expensive.

Personal Trainer: Cooking may be more a book and virtual assistant than a game, but that makes it no less of a worthy purchase for your DS Library. Much like My Chinese Coach and My Japanese Coach, I find myself using my DS far more for educating myself than for playing games, and really, I find myself having just as much fun with any of those titles as I do breaking out Cannon Spike for my old Sega Dreamcast or maintaining my unbeaten record on Mortal Kombat Vs. DCU on my PS3. PT: C offers more something that everyone can appreciate to a varying degrees, and when is that last time you could say that about another “video game?”

Miscellaneous Rating: Unparalleled

The Scores
Story/Modes: Unparalleled
Graphics: Great
Sound: Good
Control and Gameplay: Unparalleled
Replayability: Good
Balance: Good
Originality: Good
Addictiveness: Mediocre
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Unparalleled
FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary

Although not a video game in the general sense, Personal Trainer: Cooking gives you 250 recipes from around the world along with a wonderful virtual chef to help you through the recipes. With all the guides, glossaries and the best video footage I’ve ever seen on a cart based title, you can’t go wrong with picking up this title, regardless of how experienced OR inexperienced you are in the kitchen. Although this title will no doubt be a fleeting fad ala Wii Fit, this is one of those titles that every gamer worth their salt should pick up simply because it’s that outside the box and educational. Plus no one is going to blame this game for assorted violence and atrocities. Well, unless they watched the de-inking of the squid video or the deveining of prawns. Ew.

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