I like to think I’m an objective reviewer — I’ve given more than critical scores to games and series I adore, and treated niche games with the respect they deserve. I thought I was prepared to go into Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop, a series I had touched upon briefly through its six other games on Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS and Wii U. I was wrong.
Something about Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop broke me. I’m not sure if it was the repetitive voice work, the anti-intuitive controls or the overall pointlessness surrounding the game, but I dreaded having to switch from Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia to tap a screen and make virtual baked goods. Unless you are a hardcore Cooking Mama fan (and Reddit suggest there are about eleven of you), I would stay far away from this title in lieu of most other games on Nintendo 3DS or otherwise.
The Cooking Mama pre-dated the tap-based mobile market games, originally launching in 2006 on Nintendo DS. At that time, the mechanics of the game were essentially novel — players were asked to tap, touch, and select things on the lower screen in an effort to cook meals. The game followed in the latest trend, brought around by Elite Beat Agents and Feel the Magic: XY/XX.
Over a decade later, the novelty has worn out its welcome on Nintendo systems and gaming as a whole. Touching the bottom screen in mini-game fashion has been both perfected and exhausted. Blowing the screen isn’t as fascinating as it once was. Maybe it is the prevalence of iPhone games, or perhaps the deluge of shovel-ware that existed on Nintendo platforms, but the mechanics are tired.
I jump into that history lesson, because it is the entire being of Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop. Players are tasked — just like in previous games — to tap the screen to crack eggs, mix ingredients, bake goods, and move items around in the refrigerator. The only real change between this and previous game is Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop relies entirely on, as you would imagine, desserts.
I already had my misgivings with title as soon as I launched it — all of the in-game menus require you to use the touch screen to navigate. I tried fumbling around with the settings to see if there was any way to move around the system with the buttons, to no avail.
The actual game consists of 60 different recipes for varying desserts, and they are (for the most part) diverse and interesting. Meanwhile, the game boasts 120 different mini-games — each recipe will require you to do between five and ten of them to complete the dish. And while 120, sounds like a lot, I would have guessed there were a third of the amount based on how frequently a select few games are repeated.
Delving further, these mini-games are mixed in quality and playability. Some, like throwing ingredients in the correct order, are legitimately fun. Others, like setting the oven to a specific time and temperature (two seconds after it is shown) seem tedious and dull. Finally, there are the mini-games that are patently broken — notably squeezing frosting out in circular motions, which feels like torture on the dated Nintendo 3DS touch screen.
To get a perfect score on a recipe, you are required to finish all of the mini-games before the incredibly long timer ticks down. Honestly, the lack of challenge may be dullest aspect of the game overall — I watched as I got gold medals on every mini-game, regardless of whether I read the instructions. And yeah, the game is aimed at the causal and child market — but it wouldn’t be the end of the world to add difficulty options or a hard, expert chef mode, would it?
And the few times I did mess something up (like I mentioned, I would breeze past the directions because they are rarely necessary to read)? There is no quick way to retry a step in the recipe. If you want to avoid getting the silver medal for a dessert, you have to either finish the dessert and start over or quit the recipe and start back at the first mini-game. I’m not sure if this was poor design, or a way to artificially expend the game’s life, but it was frustrating.
Finishing a recipe, you can do one of two things: take an Instagram-like photo shoot or stock your titular sweet shop. From what I understand, the photo taking component is new to the series and actually fairly cool — when I decorated something, I liked the option to set my dessert in a stunning fashion. I just wish Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop went a little further with it, perhaps adding social media functionality so my Twitter followers could see how lame I am, or more camera options.
The sweet shop component is also pretty shoddy. Players can decorate a store with their in-game creations and let players buy your wares. With the earned money, you can then go and grab some aesthetic upgrades to Cooking Mama’s wardrobe, kitchen or restaurant. In other words, there is nearly no point.
Folded in to the game is slightly more interesting, globe-hopping mini-games that are parsed out throughout the experience by a Carmen Sandiego rip-off. These games, on average, did tend to be much more interesting than the baking-related ones. If only the same quality was used throughout Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop.
Further dragging down Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop is the all-too repetitive sound design. My fiancee heard an audible groan getting louder by the minute every time I heard “Even better than mama!” in a terrible faux-European accent. After. Every. Mini-game. It’s okay to have a catch phrase, but I just threw the sound off as soon as the pattern started to get obnoxious.
The visuals are par for the course on Nintendo 3DS — while the desserts are all interesting and fun to look at, the overall game has a nauseating cartoon-y aesthetic that I just never warmed up on. Maybe it was because of the poor resolution on Nintendo 3DS actively showing its age, but Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop always seemed like an eyesore.
Now I get that there is an audience for Cooking Mama. People love the franchise so much that spin offs have readily been made — there has been six mainline games within the decade, and people have bought them. The game does seem like an enticing entry-level title into gaming or the Nintendo 3DS for kids. But my recommendation? You can do better.
I spent a fair amount of this weekend trying out other Cooking Mama titles and Cooking Mama Let’s Cook for iOS and Android is almost superior in every way. Sporting better visuals, better gameplay design, and better touch-screen functionality, the game is more polished. The game also offers those difficulty modes, retry options, and a more comprehensive restaurant system. Even better, iOS and Android devices are far more ubiquitous and the full game with all DLC and ad-removal is under $20.
Hell, you may be better served spending the $30 Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop costs and looking into buying a recipe book and a handful of ingredients.
When a two-year old, free-to-play mobile game is sporting more functionality than full-priced games on main-stream handheld consoles, you have a problem. Essentially, the only person I could recommend Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop to are hardcore Cooking Mama fans who have already played everything else or distant aunts who want to win the “most disappointing birthday present award” for their niece.
Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop is by no means a broken game. It just wholly lacks any soul or incentive to be better than any previous game in the series. With shoddy systems, repetitive gameplay, annoying sound design and better iterations of the game elsewhere, dessert diversity wasn’t enough to keep me interested.