With food, you expect to get what you pay for. On the surface, a $15 burger made from freshly ground bison and a Big Mac are essentially the same item, but anybody will tell you that the two are worlds apart in terms of quality. Unfortunately, this same maxim does not hold true for games. They are all similar products, and like the two burgers are also vastly different. The difference is that they will all cost you the same amount of cash. Cooking Mama: Cook Off may set you back as much as the latest Legend of Zelda title, but the two are far from equal.
The idea of a cooking game on the Wii is novel, and in some ways downright genius. With the exception of the game's DS predecessor, a cooking game that approximates actual cooking actions has never been done before. The Wii remote lends itself perfectly to the concept. A plethora of cooking-related motions such as cracking eggs, whisking, sautéing, kneading, and many other such actions are used as the basis for a series of mini-games in Cooking Mama: Cook Off. These mini-games are strung together as steps in recipes and used to create unique dishes from around the world. Upon completing each step, your success is judged, and the scores for all the recipe's steps add up to a total score. Score high enough, and you'll take home the gold medal. It's a simple setup, and it's a good deal of fun… for a little while.
What Cooking Mama really boils down to is moving the Wii remote properly at the appropriate time. A cooking theme is laid on top of this mechanic, and it might have managed to effectively hide it, if the core gameplay wasn't so shallow. Most of the mini-games are incredibly easy. As an example, players will often be asked to mince ingredients. To accomplish this task, they chop the ingredients by shaking the remote up and down (note: a real chef would not consider this mincing). Alternatively, roughly chopping ingredients involves moving the remote's pointer across a certain area of the screen corresponding to an arrow, and then repeating the mince maneuver to divide the ingredient into very small pieces (note: this is closer to what mincing really is).
The next step of the recipe might involve mixing ingredients. For this mini-game, players are presented with several ingredients laid out on a table in front of a large mixing bowl. A small window in the corner of the screen slowly reveals the next ingredient to add. The goal is to pick all the correct ingredients to win. After combining all the ingredients, the next step may be to sauté them. This is one of the more complicated and fun mini-games. Ingredients are all listed at the top of the screen, and each has its own unique cooking time. The trick to sautéing is knowing when to add each ingredient to make sure everything finishes cooking at the same time. Much like real cooking, at first this is a matter of trial and error. After some practice though, learning the ingredients, knowing when to add them, and getting everything right is quite satisfying. In addition to knowing when to add what to the pan, players must constantly jostle and shake the pan to ensure even cooking.
Sadly, few of the mini-games approach the modest challenge level of the sautéing game. Most are painfully simple, and a few are downright terrible. The vegetable peeling game requires far too much accuracy with the remote. Baking is over almost as soon as it starts, and the oven's temperature hardly matters at all. Setting it to the lowest setting will cook your food in four seconds, while cranking the oven to max speeds things up to three seconds. The biggest offender here though, is the Add Seasoning game. Apart from the fact that this game encourages the player to use four shakes of salt at the same time, it doesn't even work properly. The goal is to shake the remote whenever a seasoning pulses. The shakers will also shake themselves to try and trick you into shaking your remote and screwing up. Worse though, is that this game sometimes just stops all together. The timer continues to tick, but none of the seasonings pulse, and the player loses as a result.
If Cooking Mama were a contestant on Iron Chef, she would almost certainly receive zero points for presentation. This is one of the most poorly presented games available on any current platform. The graphics are slightly above Nintendo 64 quality, and many of the textures look like images of food wrapped around a few shoddily arranged polygons. The game's audio is so terrible that it also manages to be the most entertaining part of the game. Upon completing each step, Mama evaluates your cooking and proclaims your skill in her shrill voice, with a massive "Engrish" accent.
The fact of the matter is that unless you are absolutely dying to play an insanely quirky Japanese game about cooking, you should stay far, far away from Cooking Mama. Without the hilarity or randomness of a game like WarioWare, Cooking Mama gets old fast. Almost all of the mini-games are so simple that they become boring very quickly, and some of the games are downright broken. On top of all this, it can't even get its cooking terminology correct!