Cooking Mama Brings an Iconic Restaurant Game to Facebook

When the first Cooking Mama title hit the DS as a budget title in September, 2006 I placed it at the top of my list for birthday gifts. I’d played it at that year’s E3 and was one among many who instinctively  knew it would be a hit. Three malls and seven stores later, I had a copy in my hands. Mama’s charming Japanese accent, the strange dishes she asked to be prepared, and the game’s perfect use of the DS controls made it an instant classic. Two additional DS titles, two Wii titles, and a gardening spin-off later, Mama has come to the PC in the form of Cooking Mama for Facebook.

Players of the series will immediately find the game familiar and comforting. Bright, loud colors abound with music that sounds like Sesame Street on a visit to New Orleans Square. Images are drawn with simple lines, few colors, and nearly but not quite out of proportion. Mama has yet to attend any ESL courses; her accent is as thick and charming as ever.

Gameplay centers on creating menus for Mama’s Kitchen, a 24-hour diner. Initially, the player is both limited in what can be cooked and the number of items that can be served. There are four types of recipes: drinks, appetizers, entrees, and desserts. Recipes are level restricted – I still can’t serve chocolate cake – and players can eventually serve three types of each recipe per menu.

The key to playing the game well is determining which items to serve. Waiting outside the diner will be ten customers with thought bubbles to indicate what each would like. Place that item on the menu and you will satisfy that customer, earning bonus experience and coin.  All other items will earn experience and coin based upon the level of the item, modified by the length of time the menu runs for.

How long a menu is available is determined by the player, with 30-minute menus being free, and anything longer costing additional coin in addition to earning less experience and coin per serving.  Though some benefit is gained by running longer menus, the gain is minimal. At most, it allows friends to complete missions by tasting and rating menus.

Missions are a key part of earning coin at the beginning of the game. Without the missions, ingredients are cost prohibitive. Each costs a minimum of 500 coins, with the maximum reaching 750 coins. The cost isn’t based on intrinsic value; one unit of water is no different than a unit of chicken.

Certain ingredients rotate through “out of stock” status. When this is the case, the player must purchase an item using Mama Money. Other items are hard-to-get and can be purchased using either Mama Money or coins. Gifting between players is not yet active but promises to allow the exchange of foodstuffs thereby reducing costs – something much needed.

There isn’t much in the game design to truly set Cooking Mama apart from other cooking games on Facebook except for the one thing makes that it Cooking Mama: gestures. This is, unfortunately, where Cooking Mama shows its weakness. The mouse is a poor input modality for gestures; the track pad only moderately better and then only for specific movements; and the trackball fails in all respects.

In addition, problems inherent in Flash – a preference for higher-end machines, memory allocation issues, and variable input lag – make some of the twitch movements common in the Mama experience difficult to achieve with any success. This is not to say that the game is unplayable — Cooking Mama has never allowed complete failure. But it’s not always clear exactly what the motion difference is between a score of 99 and 100 on a recipe, or why does one earns 75 experience and the other 100.

Majesco and Arkadium have made changes to the game design try to compensate for the deficiencies of Flash and the available input modalities. Unfortunately, they yet to strike the right balance, a problem that will certainly compound with the many other as-yet unreleased features of the game. As it stands, Cooking Mama’s Facebook version has a significant distance to go before it can live up to the brand first created on Nintendo’s platforms.