Despite the title, Cooking Mama 4: Kitchen Magic has nothing to do with mixing magical potions or wizardry. This is a shame. As it stands, Cooking Mama’s move to the 3DS is a real letdown. There is not one aspect of the game in particular that is culpable for this unfortunate decline, rather the package as a whole seems under-cooked. Everything from the visuals to the control inputs are not as fresh as they should be.
Cooking Mama 4 is another compilation of culinary recipes broken down into bite-sized touch-based minigames. The game turns the 3DS stylus into knife, spoon, ladle, spatula, cleaver and just about every other cooking utensil you can imagine. Some of the uses are straightforward, such as swiping the touchscreen to slice onions, whilst other interpretations are more unconventional, such as using the touch controls to play a rhythm based minigame in which Mama flattens flour for soba noodles by stomping on it with her feet.
Gyroscopic motion controls are utilized in circumstance where you have to tilt the handheld in order to pour water from a pot or even cover hotdogs in cornmeal by slanting the pan side to side. You also might have to blow into the 3DS microphone to clear smoke after letting something burn on the stove before you can return to finishing the game. That pretty much sums up everything you do in this game that does not involve the touchscreen, which is unfortunate because there were so many unrealized opportunities to use the handheld's unique capabilities to differentiate Cooking Mama 4 from its predecessors.
There is something relaxing about this game’s simplicity. You can lose yourself in manipulating the stylus while making digital sushi, corn dogs, and Salisbury steak, but such immersion does not necessarily equate to entertainment. It cannot help but feel like busywork, and the same mixture of busywork already offered in three previous titles at that. Culinary dishes of varying degrees of sophistication are represented here from Buttered Toast to Beef Bourguignon, but for the sake of satire, or perhaps sadism, Instant Ramen and cereal feel much harder to make in this game than in real life.
The game presents a wide range of international cuisines, but Japanese dishes seem to be the best represented, which is great if you're a fan of dishes such as sushi, udon, takoyaki, and yakitori. Not all of the minigames are related to cooking per se, some involve preparing the food so it looks presentable, or serving it out in appropriate portions. The completed dishes appear on the top screen, sometimes with steam emanating from them, but little else is offered in terms of stimulation or interactivity. The meals you prepare look good no matter how well you perform and you receive a black, bronze, silver, or gold medal based on your cooking skill. Most minigames come with a time restriction, but regardless, the sense of challenge is minimal. The only genuine challenge stems from your own misinterpretation of the responsiveness of the controls, which seems to vary from game to game. There's a pause in between games which really breaks the pace, leading me to wonder whether an uninterrupted sequence of minigames in each recipe would have enhanced the sense of urgency.
The music is spry and jolly, but also overly repetitive. The sound effects match whatever task you are doing satisfactorily but add little to the sense of immersion. Worst of all is Mama’s speech pattern, which is no longer novel or charming. At this point Mama needs a sidekick with a different personality and the capacity to provide less grating vocalizations. Before long I decided I had had enough of the audio and muted my 3DS, perversely resulting in a more enjoyable experience.
The visuals technically use 3D models but they're rather underwhelming. Part of this isn’t the game’s fault. One drawback of the 3DS is that games that take place primarily on the touch screen do not get to take full advantage of the added dimension. Cooking Mama 4 certainly tries to use the 3D on occasion but its overall look and presentation is gratingly redundant. I was only vaguely aware of the graphical jump from the original DS. Mama, of course, is still drawn in 2D, and she rushes towards the screen after each minigame to either shower you with praise or belittlingly tell you that you did an okay job. Either way, the 3D effect is off-putting and monotonous.
Cooking Mama 4 is definitely not a game one should marathon through. It probably should be played at a more leisurely pace of a few recipes per day. That way, the repetitiveness of the gameplay and the presentation will become slightly less apparent. The 60 recipes took me several hours to complete and there was the option to go back and improve my scores on each in order to unlock more items. You can practice each minigame individually if you hope to improve your performance when it counts. Additionally you can combine a small assortment of dishes with every other recipe in the game, so if you ever wondered would happen if chocolate strawberries became a pizza topping this game has you covered. The minigames for these combinations are rather banal and most of the groupings feel forced (pancakes and popsicles?).
There are additional Help minigames that have nothing to with cooking and are played with achieving a high score in mind. Here your duties include chores such as taking out the garbage, vacuuming, and wiping the floors. There are more than 15 of these games but most of them are short, tedious, and some also feature poor controls. You can also visit Mama’s Gallery where you can dress and accessorize the look of Mama and your kitchen surroundings. Through 3DS Download Play, up to 4 players can take part in a cook-off competition with each other with only a single copy of the game, which is a nice touch.
This series has seen numerous iterations and spin-offs but this signature cooking series has now become stagnant. Cooking Mama 4: Kitchen Magic could just as easily have been a DS release; it feels more like a remix than a unique iteration. As such, I can only recommend this game to series newcomers because veterans will find it as unbearably stale as last Thanksgiving’s leftovers.