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

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.

That's not so for the Nintendo DS, where one of the most well-liked games has followed the courtroom adventures of a young lawyer, of all things. Other recent titles have included brain-exercise games, translation tools and a game called Electroplankton that lets players create music.

A few years back, Nintendo was starting to seem like a laggard in the game console market, with rumors that the company would drop out of the hardware business to focus on cranking out more Mario and Zelda games. These days, as Sony seems to suffer one setback after another with its expensive and ambitious PlayStation 3, Nintendo is starting to look a bit smarter.

Now that the DS has produced such a quirky catalogue of fun new experiences, many gamers are hoping that Nintendo's upcoming console, called the Wii, will encourage the same amount of creativity from game designers with its unusual motion-detecting controller that lets players swing it like a bat if they are trying to hit a ball in a baseball game.

Though Majesco is leaning away from publishing games for next-generation consoles, the company is still somewhat interested in the Nintendo Wii. Buckley hinted that a version of Cooking Mama might find its way onto the Nintendo's coming console. Its motion-sensing controller might be perfect for use as a spatula to flip in-game burgers, after all.

Nintendo is expected to announce more details about the Wii console -- such as its price and release date -- at an event in New York City tomorrow.

Stories of the Soldiers

The U.S. Army's double-duty computer game and recruiting tool is about to get its next major update. This time around, America's Army, the free computer game commissioned by the Defense Department, is incorporating the stories and faces of soldiers from the real world.

The game, available as a download at http://www.americasarmy.com , has had 7.5 million registered players since its 2002 launch.

The new version of the game, being released today, wraps in eight real-world Army soldiers currently in service. The game is designed to educate players about Army life and to encourage it as a career option. If a player wants to learn about what it takes to become a Green Beret, he or she might come across, and interact with, the avatar of a real-world Green Beret.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Gerald Wolford, who was awarded the Silver Star for actions he took during a firefight in Iraq, is one of the characters in the new version of the game -- track him down in the game, and maybe he'll tell you about it.

Wolford is on leave this week before he heads down to Fort Benning in Georgia to attend Officer Candidate School. He says he's sure that he will be roundly mocked there for having let his likeness become a character in a computer game.

"I'm toast," he said.

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