Monday, December 31, 2007


New Year Resolutions

It's the start of a new year, and you know what that means: it's time to make some vague, empty promises about self-improvement. So what do I want to do with the coming year?

So. I guess we'll see how that goes.


Sunday, December 23, 2007


Thirteen Games I Take Everywhere

Last year, I did a little run-down of the DS games that I take with me everywhere. I thought at the time that it would be interesting to do a follow up one year later, so here I am.

I've purchased extra game cases since last year's article, but I've come to realize that they weren't necessary. Turns out there's such a thing as having too many games available. Thirteen seems to be a pretty good number for me, so here's how it looks:

Brain Age, Brain Age 2, and Big Brain Academy -- My pocket-sized mental fitness gym. I keep falling out of routine with it, but it's still nice to have around.

Phoenix Wright 1-3 -- Who says Phoenix Wright games have no replay value? I keep all three of them on hand and rotate through them fairly regularly.

Nintendo DS Browser -- No, it's not the best web browser in the world, but it's still pretty cool. There's nothing quite like grabbing my DS off my nightstand and reading the latest Smash Brothers Dojo update in bed first thing in the morning.

Animal Crossing -- Animal Crossing remains on the list from last year, though my interest continues to wax and wane.

Jam Sessions -- Way too cool. This is my handheld karaoke box, and the songlist is only limited by the chords I can find on the internet.

Mario Party DS -- Finally, the real Mario Party in portable form. It's even a pretty good entry in the series!

Looney Tunes: Duck Amuck -- Have you pissed off your cartoon duck today?

Cooking Mama 2: Dinner With Friends -- More action, more danger.

Picross DS -- The finest logic game created by mortal or divinity.

Missing from last year:

True Swing Golf -- Basically just got tired of golfing.

Clubhouse Games -- Mario Party DS does a better job of satisfying my cravings for both board games and quick action games.

Sudoku Gridmaster -- There's just no comparing Sudoku to Picross. I just don't need anything beyond the Brain Age games to slake what little desire for Sudoku I still have.

Super Mario 64 DS -- I'll be back someday. Just not right now.

Electroplankton -- Still a neat toy, but I don't need to take it with me everywhere anymore. Jam Sessions seems to have cured my itch for on-demand music generation.

Elite Beat Agents -- It was hard to say goodbye to this one because it really is such a great game. The problem is, it requires some very specific conditions for optimal enjoyment -- earphones, seating, and frame of mind. It's just not an easy game to whip out and enjoy.

Cooking Mama -- Still a good game, but it pales compared to its sequel.

So let's look at the results:

Six of the games (Duck Amuck, Cooking Mama 2, Jam Sessions, and Phoenix Wright 1-3) aren't published by Nintendo, up from just one last year.

Four of the games (Picross DS, Brain Age, Brain Age 2, and Big Brain Academy) are official Touch Generations games in North America.
Four of the games (Animal Crossing, Nintendo DS Browser, Phoenix Wright 1-2) are official Touch Generations games in Europe.
Three of the games (Cooking Mama 2, Jam Sessions, Phoenix Wright 3) would probably receive Touch Generations branding if Nintendo had published them.
This is up from nine Touch Generations style games last year.

Nine of the games (Duck Amuck, Cooking Mama 2, Picross DS, Brain Age 2, Jam Sessions, Mario Party DS, Nintendo DS Browser, Phoenix Wright 2-3) were released this year, up from seven of the games last year.

Six of them (Jam Sessions, Nintendo DS Browser, Animal Crossing, Brain Age, Brain Age 2, Big Brain Academy) are non-games, up from three last year.
One (Cooking Mama 2) is based on real-world activities, down from four last year.

I use the stylus as the primary input for eleven of them (Duck Amuck, Cooking Mama 2, Brain Age, Brain Age 2, Big Brain Academy, Animal Crossing, Jam Sessions, Phoenix Wright 1-3, Nintendo DS Browser), up from eight last year.

Seven of them (Cooking Mama 2, Picross DS, Brain Age 2, Animal Crossing, Mario Party DS, Phoenix Wright 2-3) are new entries in series I've played before, up from three last year.

I play only one game online regularly (Nintendo DS Browser), same as last year.
I have two other games (Picross DS, Animal Crossing) that are WFC-enabled, but I rarely use them, up from one last year.

Seven of the games (Cooking Mama 2, Picross DS, Big Brain Academy, Jam Sessions, Nintendo DS Browser, Phoenix Wright 2-3) use exclusively 2D art (or use 3D so subtly that I don't notice it), up from five last year.
Four of the games (Duck Amuck, Brain Age, Brain Age 2, Phoenix Wright 1) use 3D art in a secondary capacity, mostly just for decoration, up from two last year.
Two of them (Animal Crossing, Mario Party DS) are fundamentally 3D games, down from three last year.

Doesn't look like my overall habits have changed very much, even though the games themselves have. Guess we'll see what it looks like next year.


Wednesday, December 05, 2007


Cooking Mama 2: Dinner With Friends

I never saw it coming.

When I wrote my review for the first Cooking Mama game last year, I had no idea the hooks that the game was setting in my heart. I completed the last recipe and put it away. But the more time I spent away from the game, the more I felt the longing to play it again. I went back to replay the most interesting-looking recipes. Then I did something that I rarely do in video games: I got caught up in the challenge of collecting all of the gold medals. And I found that I still wasn't satisfied. I still wanted more. So I did a crazy thing.

I erased my save file.

I have gone through and gotten all of the gold medals in the original Cooking Mama a total of three times. It turns out that Cooking Mama is the perfect game to start over from the beginning. After all, a lot of the appeal of the game is the surprise of what's coming up next, the challenge of perfecting your technique. The replay value of this quest is not to be underestimated.

I skipped the imitators, but I was wary (as I often am) about the sequels. It turns out my concerns were unfounded. The series is clearly in the best possible hands, because so far, each new entry has proven to be worth the price of admission. With every edition, Cooking Mama has built on the strengths of the core gameplay without breaking it. Without any real model to follow, they've fleshed out cooking games into a viable genre. This is no small feat, especially for a mold-breaking game like this; I've watched the Harvest Moon series crushed under the weight of its increasingly complex simulation aspects, and it's made me sad.

I'm officially a Cooking Mama fan. Not only do I enjoy the games, but I feel a strong desire to speak out for them. I want other people to understand that a beautiful thing has happened to this hobby. And, of course, I want to chronicle my opinions in my blog.

So let's talk about the latest chapter in Mama's saga, Cooking Mama 2: Dinner With Friends for the Nintendo DS.

Welcome Back

It's been a joy to watch Mama's world grow in the past year. It's heartwarming to think that the breakout success of the first two games, on the DS and Wii, have played a major part in bringing Majesco back into financial viability. They've put so much faith in the game that the copyright is under "Cooking Mama Limited" now. You can see the bursting enthusiasm for the new franchise in the differences between this version and last year's version. Mama's family has grown -- now there's a big cast of characters who have come over for dinner, and you can tell something about their personality by their favorite dishes. And yes, in this version we finally meet Papa, a man who loves his Simmered Flounder almost as much as he loves the woman he married.

So last year's model was a budget title. This year's Cooking Mama is asking a full retail price. The big question is, are there enough improvements to make it worth the extra money? In a word, yes. The Wii version was a big improvement on the original DS game in many ways, and a lot of the improvements have been brought back to this DS sequel. The new game features the same kind of adorable congratulatory voicework (but not, luckily, exactly the same soundbites) that the Wii version had. Also, events that were spread out across multiple steps in the original, such as dicing an onion, are sometimes combined into one much more involving step. And they've even brought in the idea of "bonus" conditions, although they're used slightly differently in this game.

The new game features fully 80 unique recipes, vanishingly few of which, such as pizza, are repeats from previous versions. Eighty recipes may not sound too impressive when stacked up against the 76 recipes in the original, but the problem with the original was the "variation" mechanic. You could opt to take a different branch at a certain point in a recipe, essentially creating two (or more) very similar recipes for your list. This time around, Mama's cookbook is a lot less repetitive.

Each recipe is made up of a number of steps, and it shouldn't be surprising that the vast majority of the steps from the original game have returned, but veterans (even folks who have gotten all gold medals three times straight) will be pleased with the changes that have been made. Many of the returning steps have been given some new quirk or variation. For example, there was an event in the original where you had to add ingredients to a bowl, and the next ingredient was shown in a clue that was slowly revealed to you. This event still exists, but there are two new variations. In one version, the order of the ingredients is quickly shown to you, and you have to remember what order to put them in. In another, an ingredient is shown on the top screen, and you must quickly find the match -- the ingredient on the left, the ingredient on the right, or neither. Another intriguing change: some of the steps now give you a choice of utensils to use. Usually, the choice is between power and control. A whisk will fill up your "mixing meter" faster than large chopsticks in a mixing step, for example, but it's easier to overdo it and end up spilling your bowl.

And, of course, many steps are all-new. Lots of steps introduced in the Wii version, from cutting pasta to grinding meat, make their DS debut. You have a lot more recipes for baked goods, so getting dough to rise to the proper size and kneading it are figured into the equation. There's a cute event whenever you have to refrigerate something -- just as in real life, you'll have to solve the puzzle of where to find room in a crowded refrigerator. You'll even get a chance to toss and catch flapjacks with a frying pan. The mix of the familiar and the new is perfect for returning fans of the series.

The game offers a lot of non-gameplay bonuses -- you can dress Mama up and change a lot of things about the layout of her kitchen, shown in the upper screen of every step you carry out. And that kind of stuff is fine and all, but the really cool feature this time around is the Picture Diary. Having had the sense to make arranging a plate a non-timed event in this game (after imposing a time limit in the Wii version for some unknown reason), the developers now allow you to take a snapshot of your finished creation. You get a picture, as well as the date of your success and the score you received for it. So go ahead and spend half an hour making that perfect virtual birthday cake. Then save it for posterity, and even add stupid stamps to it in a goofy picture customization mode.

How to Make a Game For Everyone

But my favorite part of the game by far is how many degrees of depth there are to the challenge. You can play the game exactly the same way that you did the original in "Cook With Mama" mode. Mama is there to guide you through a recipe from beginning to end with instructions and hints. No matter how badly you screw up, Mama will fix all of your mistakes between steps so that you'll still end up with a perfect finished product (if not a perfect score). You can even choose to practice a step of your choice in the recipe until you've perfected it. It's a nice, friendly, easy challenge level, perfect for children, beginners, casual play, and people who are easily discouraged.

Once you're confident in your cooking prowess and ready for a better challenge, you can slip over to "Let's Cook" mode, where, as the game's title suggests, you'll actually cook dinner for one of your "friends". Each character has a different menu of favorite dishes to choose from, and when you select one, you'll be challenged to cook it beginning to end with no instructions, no safety nets, and only the slightest of pauses between steps. In this mode, and only in this mode, screwing up a step badly can ruin the entire dish and result in an instant failure.

I'm glad that both styles of play are available; it's just the sort of direction that this game needs. It's a subtle distinction, but having these two different play styles makes this game equally good for people who want a casual simulation of cooking and people who want to play with a challenging video game.

And then there are the "bonuses". As in the Wii version, you can earn a "bonus" for many steps by fulfilling a certain condition -- in many steps, this means finishing the step perfectly in under half of the allotted time. Every bonus you earn gets you a star, and for every five stars, you get a chance to win a bonus accessory, either for Mama's kitchen or your Picture Diary. These are accumulated, so if you get two stars in one recipe and three in the next, you get a chance to get an accessory. The rewards themselves aren't too thrilling, but there's something very encouraging about finishing a recipe and watching the game tabulate seven or eight bonus stars for your performance. It gives the different steps in the recipe the tiniest bit of extra depth -- once you're good enough to get a gold medal on a step, you can try to go the extra mile to also get a bonus star on it.

What's Left to Do?

There are still two big things that I'd like to see happen in future Cooking Mama games:

1) Random recipe selection. Part of the appeal of playing through the game from start to finish is not knowing what recipe will come up next. A random recipe selection would go a long way toward keeping the game feeling fresh so that I don't end up drifting back to the same three recipes over and over.

2) More customization. I know I knocked the original version for having a lot of similar recipes thanks to the "variation" mechanic, but... It seems like you could get more mileage out of a single recipe if there were somehow more than one way to prepare it from start to finish. Just a thought.

Otherwise, I'm super pleased with my latest cooking game, and I'm glad I bought it. I can't help thinking that Cooking Mama games are going to start to be an "instant purchase" proposition for me.


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