A fun sequel that doesn't quite go far enough.
I've recently learned something interesting about myself: I don't really care how most things are created. I don't care what makes my car engine work, I'm not interested in how to fix a leaky sink, and I don't mind if a beautiful actress's body was assisted in its attempt at perfection by surgery. I just want the finished product. Needless to say, I don't enjoy cooking. I leave the creation of the food I eat to the experts (and by experts, I mean my microwave, my freezer, and a certain local burrito shrine). But this is how much I love videogames: take something I could care less about, make it a game, and suddenly I'm riveted. Well, maybe not riveted, but at least interested enough to keep coming back to Cooking Mama 2: Dinner With Friends.
Majesco stumbled onto a fun little recipe with the first Cooking Mama game, and this sequel doesn't stray far from it. Through a series of mini-games played with the stylus, you prepare both familiar and exotic dishes. You must pound out burger patties by tapping the screen a certain way. Sautéing vegetables involves stirring the pan while keeping an eye on the temperature knob. If you were pushing buttons to accomplish these actions, the game would fall flat. But thanks to the unique interface of the DS, simulated food preparation turns into some surprisingly compelling gameplay. Through successful creations, you earn medals and unlock more recipes and extras. It's a simple formula that lends itself to quick bursts of play, making the DS a perfect home for the franchise.
You'll start off in the "Cooking with Mama" mode, in which the titular domestic goddess helps you through all of the steps in making the various dishes. Once you've gotten a basic understanding of the game mechanics and recipes, it's on to "Let's Cook", where you're left to figure out for yourself how to make a dish and Mama (or one of her friends) judges the finished product. This is a faster, less forgiving version of the same gameplay: you complete the same types of recipe steps, only without instructions. Cooking Mama 2, like its predecessor, is a budget title. The lack of diversity in game modes hurts, but the sting quickly goes away when you remember that this is an impulse buy. Played in quick bursts, the shallowness of the title turns into a plus: you can easily jump into a recipe and satiate the gaming itch within minutes. It's fast food gameplay, lacking any real nutrition but still being pretty dang tasty.
It's not without its share of faults, though; some mini-games are thoroughly confusing in that it is not clear what action is required. For example, at one point I knew I was supposed to do something to that fish in front of me, but the instructions weren't particularly detailed, leaving me to stab at the screen in blind hope. And this highlights a downside of such a fast-paced game: when you mess up, the mini-game is over almost instantly. Before you can figure out what you did wrong or what you were supposed to do, the game whisks you away to the next item on your to-do list. It's no big deal when you're cooking with Mama, because she fixes all of your screw-ups. When you're preparing dishes on your own, it can be frustrating.
Multiplayer is a mixed bag as well--it's fun to have a cook-off with friends, but you can only play one mini-game at a time before you're taken back to the dish selection menu. A single mini-game is only one step of a recipe, leaving the multiplayer mode with no cumulative win-loss tallying. Including complete recipies in multiplayer would have added more depth and momentum to Cooking Mama 2's multiplayer gameplay. A mode where players can could create dishes from scratch choosing their own ingredients would also have extended the game's appeal, but that would require much more care, forethought, and built-in food science than this game received. Hopefully Majesco will take it up a notch with the next iteration of Cooking Mama.
Ultimately, Cooking Mama 2: Dinner With Friends is a pretty likeable game. The presentation and gameplay are both simple and charming, and the budget price makes the shallow premise and minor faults completely forgivable. It isn't particularly meaningful, but not every game needs to be. This one will briefly steal your attention and keep you begrudgingly coming back for one more session. That's more than I can say for many full-priced DS games.