Review: Cooking Mama 3: Shop and Chop (Nintendo DS)

cmamacoverCooking Mama 3: Shop and Chop
Publisher: Majesco
Developer: Cooking Mama Ltd
Genre: Simulation
Release Date: 10/20/2009

My first thought when I read the description of this game was “I am so not in this game’s target demographic.” I was dead right. Still, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I will try anything once, especially if it’s on the DS. Plus, it didn’t hurt that the Cooking Mama series has a pretty good reputation and it uses the stylus for everything. I love games like that.

It wasn’t ten minutes into playing this before I affirmed two things. First, I really am not in this game’s target demographic. Not at all. Secondly, I can cook up a great Samosa! Seriously, I fist pumped after I made the perfect heart shaped marshmallows for grandma.

This was going to be an interesting trip.

Game Modes:

There are a bevy modes in Cooking Mama this year.

First up is “Cook With Mama”. This is the main mode of the game. You’ll start out with a handful of recipes. As you complete them, you’ll unlock new recipes, one at a time, until you’ve got the full set for this mode. They add up to 65 different recipes with an untold number of different minigames to play. Some you’ll only see once, while others you’ll see repeatedly over the course of the mode. You’re awarded a medal at the end of each recipe based on your performance. A perfect score lands a gold, slightly less than perfect lands a silver and an OK effort will get you a bronze. If you manage to completely muck it up you’ll get a broken medal and won’t unlock a new recipe. You’ll be able to practice any step for any recipe you’ve unlocked before you take it on for the score, allowing you to practice the tough bits. There may not be any story to play through, but the structure of this mode is surprisingly fun.

The next mode is “Let’s Cook”. Here you’ll pick a friend to cook for and then a recipe. Unlike in “Cook With Mama”, you won’t get any hints, the ability to practice, or even downtime before the next game. This is a full on challenge mode to see if you remember how to make a dish and how well you can make it. Doing well enough will unlock more friends to cook for and other items for customization. I believe this mode was in the previous game, and that you needed to cook dishes that would appeal to the friend in question, but I didn’t notice anything like that here. Whatever I cooked, as long as it was done perfectly, would satisfy anyone. If nothing else, it works as a challenge mode of sorts.

There’s yet another cooking mode in the game, which would be “Let’s Match”. Here you have a selection of six different ingredients and you can pick any two of them to make a dish. You won’t know what you’re making until you’re done, so a lot of the fun is in experimenting and seeing what comes out of, say, mixing eggs with mushrooms. After you’ve made it, you’ll be able to see what you’ve made and try to better your score. This is fun until you’ve matched everything. More ingredients would have made this mode killer, but as it is, there are more than a dozen combinations.

As the title of the game suggests, there is also a shopping mode this time around. “Let’s Shop” puts you in an overhead view and tasks you with navigating other customers and store employees to get some items for Mama before time runs out. Sadly, this mode is a wash. It isn’t any fun to play and there are only four challenges. You can try to get a high score, much like you can with the cooking challenges, but there really isn’t a point this time around.

Up next is “Cooking Contest”. Here you can complete individual minigames in order to get the best time. You can also play with up to three more people in the game’s only multiplayer mode. These are all games that were featured in the prior modes, so it’s really just a time attack mode. Whether or not you play with friends will determine how much enjoyment you get out of it.

cmama1“Write in Diary” is yet another mode the game offers. After creating a dish, you can choose to save the picture in your diary. Rather than have you write anything, though, you’ll instead add stickers and pretty the picture up. I’ll admit this can be a lot more fun than it sounds, and I’d often save a picture of a particularly tricky dish after I got that elusive gold medal. I also didn’t hesitate to save an absolute disaster after my friend managed to burn a cake. If only for the look on the little boy’s face who was supposed to eat it, it was worth it.

The final two modes are “Let’s Get Fancy” and “Let’s Design”. These allow you to use items you’ve won throughout the game in order to customize both Mama and the kitchen respectively. The number of items start off small, but grow as you play. Also, most of the kitchen items can only have their color changed, but this gives people some things to play around with when they want a break from the frantic minigame action.

You can also receive items from a friend’s copy of Gardening Mama to be used as ingredients in this game. Or, if you’re smart, you can just use another DS to send ingredients from your copy of Gardening Mama to your copy of Cooking Mama 3. Its a nifty little bonus that they didn’t need to throw in but did.

As you can see, there is a ton of stuff to do in Cooking Mama 3. Apart from the shopping game, the modes are all rather good and useful in their own right. This game certainly does a lot with its concept and I couldn’t believe how much content there was to be found.

Graphics:

Cooking Mama keeps things simple and clean. Mama and her kitchen are comprised of bright colors, rounded shapes, and simple patterns. In short, the game reeks of wholesomeness, and it’s very pleasant to look at.

That’s not to say there isn’t any realism, though. The food is where the game’s graphics shine. Fish have scales, squids have ink, and you can see the texture on various fruits and vegetables. It never gets too graphic, though, so you’ll see bits of juice squirt from a lemon you’re squeezing, but you won’t get any blood when you’re cleaning a fish or prepping a chicken. Still, the various fish in the game are all recognizable as what they are, as opposed to simply using a generic fish, and the finished dishes almost look good enough to eat.

My favorite visual effects were in the details. For instance, when you’re whisking some eggs, the yolks and egg whites start out separated, but slowly mix together over time just as they would in real life. The same hold true even when you’re mixing multiple ingredients. It all comes together in a very realistic way. The game skips a few steps in between when you’re grilling or cooking something perhaps, but it still looks good.

The last thing to mention here is Mama herself. She’s got a few animations, as you’d expect. A lot of these are seen during the minigames and thus you’re aren’t likely to notice them because you’re too busy trying to mince that garlic as fast as possible. Still, she has a lot of personality, and the sparkle in her eyes when you do a good job is a surprisingly rewarding visual. The fire in her eyes when you fail is equally effective at motivating you to succeed. The game does a nice job here.

The graphics for Cooking Mama 3 certainly aren’t going to turn any heads when so many other powerhouses have hit the market this year, however. For myself, this game has nothing on the achievements of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. Even still, the game looks good.

Audio:

The music in the game is pretty light-hearted at all times. It’s the kind of light and happy music you’d expect from a game like this. At no point does it stand out as anything particularly notable, but its certainly inoffensive in every regard.

cmama2That isn’t the case for Mama’s voice work. Mama is Japanese, if you didn’t know, and in typical fashion, she speaks fluent Engrish. That’s not a typo. It isn’t as bad when you do well, but if you mess up a step and get the bronze, she’ll spout off “It’s OK. Mama will help you.” Obviously, given how I’m presenting this, you can figure out that even if that’s what she is saying, that’s not what is sounds like. It can be funny, but at the same time it reeks a bit of perpetuating stereotypes that just shouldn’t be in a game marketed towards younger kids. It doesn’t matter if this choice was done for comedic effect. It just doesn’t feel right and is one of the first things everyone notices about the game.

The sound effects in the game are a bit hit and miss. While the sound of something frying or of a knife hitting the cutting board are all done nicely and fairly realistically, some others sound like they’re coming out of a child’s electronic kitchen set rather than a DS. The worst offender here is the sound the game makes when you stir something. It just doesn’t sound right. It uses the same sound for whatever you’re stirring as well, further creating a bit of odd feeling.

To put it plainly, the sound doesn’t match the rest of the presentation. It’s probably the worst feature of the game, though apart from the voices, it really isn’t all that bad. It just isn’t very good.

Gameplay:

What I really like about this game is that it truly uses the functionality of the system it’s on in a way that not nearly enough games do. What I mean is that everything is done with the stylus, and there are even a good number of minigames that use the mic as well. These aren’t just monotonous throwaways like you see in most games either. There are a large variety of motions that you’ll use. In addition, there’s a lot of timing, technique, and skill involved in how well you do at the game.

As for what types of minigames you’ll see, they run the gamut. You’ll clean fish, crack eggs, chop vegetables, wash ingredients, boil noodles, fry up some hamburger, arrange things so they fit in a container, grind meat, mix ingredients, pour out batter, and just about anything else you can think of when it comes to working with food. The best part of it all is that there are dozens of different games. In fact, there are some games that are exclusive to certain recipes. For instance, there’s a game where you’ll spin pizza dough and toss it in the air. You’ll only use that for the pizza. There’s another where you use a smoker by placing wood chips on the fire. That’s only used for the smoked trout dish. Sure, there are a lot of chopping vegetables games to be played, but even then each veggie is different and there is more than one way you’ll have to cut it.

For the large majority of these games, the stylus controls are some of the most accurate on the system. You’ll be surprised at just how good you get at mincing garlic. There are definitely some cases where the controls feel spotty though. The most notable case for me was when I had to cut a crab’s legs from its body. The guides on the crab were the same cutting guides I’d seen for every other cutting game, yet they just didn’t respond. I ended up having to use a back and forth motion until it read the input. There are indeed a few cases where you need to make such a motion in order to cut something, but all indications were that this was not one of them.

Also, not all of the games are all that fun to play. There’s a recurring game where you need to grate bread in order to get breadcrumbs. It’s nothing but sliding the stylus back and forth as fast as you can. You can’t screw up, so there’s no precision or timing required to do this minigame. Every time I finished a recipe with this step with a gold medal, I was glad I was done with it. Still, like the controls, this is the exception rather than the rule.

cmama3The black sheep of the game is the shopping mode. Here you’ll have an overhead view of the environment and Mama won’t even be on screen. You have a timer, a set number of hearts, and a list of what you need to grab. The store changes for each challenge and the number of shoppers increases as you move onto new items. You tap where you want to go and your character will head out with no regard for the other shoppers. This means you’ll need to painstakingly guide her in order to get by unscathed. Bumping into a shopper results in a time consuming minigame. Surprisingly, these aren’t fun at all. In a game full of fun stylus controls, how did everyone one of them here manage to be be boring? If you fail, you’ll lose a heart as well as time. If you succeed, you’ll go on your, way no problem. If you run out of hearts, the game is over and your score is determined even without having gotten all of the items. The worst part of it all is that your character isn’t taking damage when she loses a heart. It appears she’s just getting more and more embarrassed. It kind of adds to that whole racial stereotypes thing I was talking about before. This mode is boring, frustrating, and just doesn’t belong in a game like this.

Apart from that, however, this is a heck of a solid game. I was shocked at not only how well it controlled, but how fun it was to play. It’s also extremely accessible. I had a friend who had used a DS only once before in her life try the game, and she was able to pick up on the controls almost immediately. This is some great stuff.

Replayability:

With around eighty different recipes to make, as well as plenty of items to unlock and some multiplayer challenges to complete, this game can certainly suck up a lot of your time. More to the point, if you don’t manage to get a gold medal on a recipe, the incentive to try again until you do is surprisingly strong. I can’t quite quantify the number of hours it will take to accomplish getting a gold on everything though. For one, I was so engrossed in the game I didn’t realize how much time had flown by. Also, it will all depend on your skill level.

If nothing else, the fun and ease of play lends itself to making this game extremely easy to randomly pick up. I have a good feeling that it will replace a stuffy RPG or two in my DS game case before I move onto something else. When this game sits in your case with games like Elite Beat Agents and MarioKart DS, you know for certain that you’ll get your money’s worth in the long run.

Balance:

What I like most about this game is that it isn’t too hard to complete any one recipe. However, getting that gold medal, or even just a silver, requires skill and patience. What this means is that anyone can play the game and get a sense of reward when they see their finished dishes, but only those who take time and effort to master the steps will feel the joy that a perfect score can bring.

From the get go, I had no problems finishing dishes. In fact, I only failed one dish, and that was because I grossly misunderstood how to perform a rather simple task. (It was taking the lasagna out of the oven if you must know. I REALLY rolled a one when it came to that one.)

That being said, there are a couple of the games that are downright evil. The one I’ll talk about is the game where you need to hang an ingredient on a line in order to either dry them out or put them in a smoker. For instance, the first instance of this game is when you’re making dried squid. The game seems simple enough, but you need to pack these squid in tighter than sardines, and one tiny bump can send them free falling. Even worse, the movement they make will more than likely cause others to start shaking. And if that weren’t enough, your natural impulse to try and catch the falling squid will result in a catastrophic disaster that causes all but maybe one of your squid to fall. It took a while before I got the hang of this, and everyone I had try the game had the same problem. It was something of an unusually steep curve.

That’s the only problem with the game right there: it can simply be hard for you to understand what the minigame is asking of you at first. Thankfully the practice option is there for you to get a hang of things. If that weren’t the case, the game would get far more frustrating at times than it is.

Originality:

I’ll be brief here. This is the same experience as the first two games before it. The only really new mode is the shopping feature, and it’s a complete bust that hopefully won’t waste any space on future installments of the franchise.

This is a game that sticks to what works and functions by adding new content in the forms of recipes and the odd minigame. If you’ve cracked eggs in the first game three years ago, you’ll be able to crack eggs here as well.

Addictiveness:

cmama4I can’t tell you how many times I would go to play this game for a recipe or two and end up playing for over an hour before I would realize that I was doing it. There were more than a few incidents when I was watching or reading something of great interest to me, such as watching the newest episode of Survivor Samoa (Russel is awesome). Even then, I would pick up my DS without realizing it so I could try my hand at a crème brulee. After I unlocked all of the recipes I would still play for long stretches in order to improve my scores.

I thing the real defining moment came when I let a couple of people play it. Firs was my aforementioned friend who had only used a DS once. In that case, we only played Clubhouse Games because a deck of cards wasn’t handy and another friend let me borrow his DS. I just randomly asked her to try this, and she ended up playing for about four or so hours that day. If she would put it down, I immediately scooped it up to get a few recipes in. Right after, she’d want to play some more. In another case, I let my little sister have a go. She played for about three hours straight before she became too exhausted to stay awake. I found her sleeping on the couch with the DS next to her on the floor.

The game is just that much fun to play.

Appeal Factor:

I mentioned before how I am certainly not within this game’s target audience, but that doesn’t matter. Anyone I asked to play this had a blast. Sure, there were several who questioned why I, a fully grown man, was playing something called Cooking Mama, and in fact, I was informed that I had lost a “man card” for even owning it. (Scrubs reference!) Still, once they tried it, they too were rejoicing when a well played recipe came out just right.

Cooking Mama has been such a hit for the developers that they changed their name to Cooking Mama Ltd. Its one of Majesco’s biggest hits and to date the series has sold millions of copies on both the DS and the Wii. For those wondering if there is any burnout to be had, the last cooking game for the franchise to come out was two years ago, so its been long enough for people to recharge.

Fans of the series will no doubt dive right in for all of the new recipes. I know that I’m seriously considering getting the earlier games in the series in order to make sure I don’t miss a single dish. As for newcomers, if you’re looking for a DS game that takes full advantage of the system’s capabilities, this is it.

Just make sure the cuteness doesn’t convince you otherwise.

Miscellaneous:

This game is just perfect for the DS. I’m not saying that just because of the stylus controls either. It’s just simply geared for portable play and it would only work on Nintendo’s handheld. There aren’t nearly enough games that I can say the same for.

The game also includes the ability to send a demo to someone else with a DS. This is a feature I rarely see, and in fact, the last time I remember personally seeing it was with Kirby Super Star Ultra. Not only is this a great idea for the company as it allows for people to spread word and enjoyment of the series, it’s just another way to take advantage of the system’s potential.

There have been more than a handful of times that I’ve been pleasantly surprised with a game since I started writing for this site. I’m very happy to say that this was one of those times. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing that could hold anyone back from enjoying this game is their own brain. Get past the gender role boundaries and enjoy a classic DS experience.

The Scores

Modes: Good
Graphics: Good
Audio: Above Average
Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Very Good
Balance: Very Good
Originality: Pretty Poor
Addictiveness: Classic
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Incredible
Final Score: Good Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

diehardjackCooking Mama 3: Shop and Chop is not only a great use of the DS hardware, but also just a darn good game in its own right. I can easily recommend it to anyone with a DS. If you’re a guy and you’re feeling put off by the fact that this is a cooking game or that it is clearly geared towards young girls, you need to get over that feeling. The game is simply too much fun to ignore it for those petty reasons. If you’ve been a fan of the series for years or never played it before, this is as safe a bet you can find on the DS.

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