Cooking Mama: A Game Whose Action You Can Try at Home

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By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, September 14, 2006

Playing with your food is now a video game, with the release this week of Cooking Mama for the Nintendo DS -- a goofy but diverting title that comes with nearly subliminal cooking lessons built in.

The game's premise is that a mom-like character is teaching the player how to prepare some dishes. The Japanese title features 76 recipes, from fried eggs up to more complex entrees such as pork curry with rice.

Will it be a hit? Maybe, maybe not. But the innovative import is an example of the sort of oddball product that game fans are starting to appreciate about Nintendo's handheld system. Cooking Mama is just a game, sure, but it's one that latches on to the repetitive nature of game-playing to sneak in some how-to lessons. The result is only slightly less informative than the average Bobby Flay throwdown on Food Network.

For gamemakers stretching to deliver a new experience, it also helps that Nintendo's gadget has an innovative way to let players interact with their games. Cooking Mama cleverly uses the DS touch-pad screen -- tap on an onion to cut it up, then swirl the device's stylus on the screen to shake a pan and make sure the ingredients don't burn.

I played Cooking Mama this week and decided to give it a kitchen test. A few times through the "fried gyoza" recipe, and I headed to the grocery store in search of dumpling wrappers and sesame oil. The results were greasy and would have made a food snob turn green, but they were edible.

In the months leading up to its release, the game has inspired a lot of online curiosity -- and, for sure, a lot of cracks. "When does the lawn-mowing game come out?" asked a joker at one game site.

Although Cooking Mama is the first cooking title to hit the DS in this country, this is a market that has already found an audience in Japan. An earlier title that uses the same idea -- but is less of a game and more of a how-to guide -- was popular enough that player-cooks started posting pictures of their creations online.

On YouTube, which seems to contain every piece of video ever recorded, a commercial for that Japanese DS cooking title (search on "Shaberu DS Oryouri Navi") shows a jilted-looking Japanese salaryman preparing a meal for himself with the help of the DS, then snapping a picture of the finished product with his cellphone. No word on whether a U.S. version of that title is in the works.

Game publisher Majesco Entertainment brought Cooking Mama, done in that uber-cutesy style of Japanese animation -- where everything looks like a Pokemon game or a manga comic -- to this country from Japan, where it was a top-10 seller.

Priced at $20, the game is a little cheaper than the typical new DS title, and Majesco is hoping this game will be an impulse buy for parents used to having to pay $30 or more for a Nintendo DS game, said Liz Buckley, senior product manager at Majesco.

Majesco recently reorganized itself to focus mainly on handheld games, Buckley said, because the expenses and subsequent risks of developing games for new consoles such as the PlayStation 3 have made the company a little gun-shy.

With higher costs of game development, designers have tended to stick with the types of games that have already been big sellers: Most of the highly anticipated games for the Xbox 360 coming this fall, for example, are slicker-looking versions of sci-fi shooters that we've already seen.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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