Home Economics. Dreary Wednesday afternoons, glumly watching flies bat themselves unconscious against the classroom windows, before falling helplessly into some-one's cake mix. The flies, that is, not me. I didn't often make a habit of falling into cake mix in my youth.
Cooking Mama. The one thing you can't say about it is "dreary". From the opening sequence, to the music, to the animations, nothing about this game is dreary. The graphics are bright and sharp on the DS's lovely little screens and the music and sound effects are crisp and quirky. From the simple task of cooking rice, to preparing a complicated squid dish, everything is beautifully and surprisingly well animated, given that animating falling rice could be considered too pedantic to be worth the effort. Nevertheless, they bothered and it paid off.
Given the slightly weird subject matter (cook stuff, for pretty much no reason), it would be understandable for the developer to attempt to shoe-horn in some ridiculously over-the-top storyline about a cute Anime girl saving her ancestor's famous restaurant from imminent destruction by sushi-hating culinary ninjas. Thankfully, no-one thought about that, so what we're left with is a game without a storyline. Players are allowed to practice new techniques and dishes before attempting to cook them to Cooking Mama's exacting standards. Cooking Mama is the sole game character, but one whose only role is either to shower you with praise or scream at you in fury, eyes ablaze (literally, for some reason). Thankfully, that's the extent of her interference with your fun. No poorly translated dialogue. In fact, the total lack of the usual Japanese craziness that I've come to expect from games such as these was worryingly absent. Maybe the crazy artist was off sick that day.
As for the food, the dishes available to cook are rather interesting. Very few of them are boring Western dishes - imagine how tedious turkey twizzlers would get after a while. No, the food you can cook is thoroughly Japanese and therefore interesting, colourful and occasionally inspiring. You mightn't think it, but it would possible to pick up a few pointers from Cooking Mama. The occasional non-Japanese dish makes a nice change, such as pizza or curry. Some are a bit wacko, and seem to suggest that someone was running out of ideas by the end of the developing process. A sandwich? Instant noodles?
Control of the game is solely by the touchscreen, where the majority of the action takes place. Some mini-games follow a simple DDR format, wherein you might have to add ingredients, stir or blow on the microphone to cool things down in time to the little progress bar on the upper screen. My sole criticism of these sequences is that they are just too easy. The various actions never come close enough together to present anything near a challenge for most people with some degree of coordination. Also, some of the mini-games are rather counter-intuitive, such as peeling potatoes. Oh, how I now resent peeling potatoes.
Aside from that, the rest of the mini-games are great fun. None of the dishes is particularly long, meaning that the game is instantly suitable for the hand-held gamer on the go. Creating some of the more complex dishes is very satisfying, and the option to modify some dishes half-way through adds a certain degree of replayability.
With its instant pick-up-and-play nature, and the intuitive nature of the DS, this makes a great game to encourage people to start playing games. The unusual subject matter, the high quality of the execution and the appealing music and animation mean that Cooking Mama will charm pretty much any gamer or non-gamer alike.