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A week or so ago we took a look at Wii Fit and other exercise games, examining whether or not they truly provide enough of a workout to do any good for the user. While fitness exergaming has become a very popular aspect of the industry over the past few years, it is not alone. What we’ll take a look at today is the cooking genre, and its milieu of very different games.

Cooking games have come in a mixture of styles, and have been made for multiple consoles. While some are pure entertainment, others are hardly a game at all, but dark horse titles providing true learning experience for those who desire to further their culinary skills and experience cuisine they don’t eat on a regular basis. Not only have games like these served as a means for the industry to lure non-gamers to their consoles, but they are taking the leap beyond premeditated play and story lines, using a familiar platform for many people to help teach them something new via methods they enjoy.

 

 

Overall, the cooking genre seems to be something towards which people are still hesitant. When you approach a Rock Band or Guitar Hero game, you know what to expect. There is an established level of similarity between those types of titles that serve as a precedent for others. Even the other music games, like the karaoke titles, follow a recognizable platform on which some execute better than others. The cooking genre contains a wider variety of approaches, and it harder to know what you are getting yourself into when looking at individual titles. What you can be sure of is that whatever your expectations are for a cooking game, there is likely a title out there to suit you. That is the key element here – expectation. Not everyone’s expectations are the same, and for that reason, the key players in this genre deserve some side-by-side clarity as to what’s what.

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Principally, most games are on Nintendo consoles, particularly the DS and Wii. This is due to the genre leaning on the interactivity of the controls for those systems, utilizing the DS stylus and WiiMote to their advantage.

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So, of all the cooking games out there, which games are worth picking up if you actually hope to learn something and make yourself a better cook? Which are designed wholly as amusement and won’t teach you much about food or cooking? Which are stuffed with success at what they attempt to do, and which are gastronomical failures? There are some of each, so let’s take a look. Whatever you hope to gain from your cooking game, this should help you know which ones to pick, and which to avoid.

Personal Trainer: Cooking

(Nintendo DS)

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Let’s start out with a very strong title for those wishing to be taught. This little game really isn’t a game at all, but an interactive cookbook offering 245 recipes from all over the world. It has been well-received by consumers and critics alike, and may well be the best game for learning a thing or two about food and preparation.

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You may remember the Lisa Kudrow ad campaign for this game, which was a big success and got a lot of parents interested in the game to cook with their children. It does succeed on that level, bringing new gamers to the market, but also excels in many other areas. It gets people interested in eating food from across the globe, and gets them cooking things they’d otherwise never think to make.

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The interface is brilliant. Personal Trainer: Cooking basically serves as a shopping list, recipe guide and how-to. There is no badly-made mini-game for you to play where you simulate cooking. This title isn’t interested in your pretending to cook; instead, it wants to give you everything you need to actually cook.

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There is a full terminology section, with definitions of ingredients, utensils, preparatory terms, techniques, general terminology, helpful hints, and example videos to step you through tasks. The game won’t simply tell you to peel an eggplant – it will tell you to, instruct you how, and show you a video of someone doing it properly.

You can choose a recipe by ingredient, by country, or by writing something you want. The filter system is fantastic and lets you really sort through the recipes with ease. Recipes come from everywhere: USA, Mexico, Australia, Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Hungary, Austria, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, Africa, Switzerland, Belgium, France, UK, Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Peru. Photos of the prepared dishes are there, along with the prep times, calorie counts, and other info. You can flag the ingredients you need and the console will keep a shopping list for you. It logs how many times you’ve made each dish, and you can enter your notes or mark it a favorite. There are even cooking tips and substitution info. Say something generally requires saffron, but you’re not a millionaire – Personal Trainer: Cooking will tell you what you can use instead. On top of that, you can filter out recipes with a certain ingredient if there is something you don’t like or to which you are allergic. There are plenty of vegan and vegetarian dishes, desserts, soups, and even breads – so the variety is vast and really sets you up to make complete meals.

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When you want to cook, Personal Trainer: Cooking shows off one of its most intuitive features. After every step, it waits for you to tell it what to do. Using the microphone, you can simply say “continue,” “repeat,” or “last step” and the voice will act accordingly. This allows you to sit the DS down in your kitchen while you work, but not have to keep going back to it with messy jambalaya fingers and slop the thing up. Every step is also illustrated if you don’t understand. Heck, the thing even has a kitchen timer.

Overall, for a wee $20, you get 245 brilliant international recipes and a level of guidance you’ll never get from a printed cookbook of the same price. Those that I surveyed on the internet praised the game and the quality of its dishes. Certainly this is one release that can educate and even inspire.

Consensus: Personal Trainer: Cooking is a great game for learning, and a bad game if you… well, want a game.

Cooking Mama Series

(Various titles for Nintendo DS, Wii, iPhone OS)

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Arguably the most popular cooking game series, and definitely the first to hit mainstream markets and ignite followers, the Cooking Mama titles are relaxed, casual fun for any gaming audience. It has relatively solid critical and consumer response and is a comfortable series of challenges that require you to trail orders and make meals. It won’t, however, actually teach you to cook anything. Cooking Mama is the bane of the educational half of the genre, as it skews the expectations of those who have played nothing but, and expect very little.

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Cooking Mama is fun. It is especially fun if you are a small child, or the parent of a small child playing with said small child. The simplistic premise of doing what you are told, and quickly, poses a constant challenge as you progress through the game and unlock new dishes that need created. You start off with the basics for the meal: peal a potato, chop an onion, shred some cheese. It’s ridiculous and easy. You’ll follow that with some tougher tasks, like weighing things, sautéing veggies, but you’re still just following instructions. Mini-games outside of the recipes allow you to shoot for high scores and do challenges.

One constant is that there are no attempts to teach you about the food, tell you why you’re doing what, or actually guide you through making a meal. There is no depth, to put it simply. Sometimes you aren’t even totally sure what you’re making. Still, it’s fun if that’s what you expect when you go into the game. If you get the game hoping to learn, it will absolutely leave you wanting and most likely annoy the sin out of you. If you want simple pick-up, play, put-down fun, you’ll be happy. Particularly if you are six.

Something Cooking Mama may do is get kids interested in making real dishes with their families, which would be a great side effect of the game. Perhaps it will stimulate outside education, despite being a simple entertainment piece. If not, it at least gets them learning about how to read and follow instructions, and manage time.

Consensus: Cooking Mama games are great games for fun, and bad games for learning.

What’s Cooking? Jamie Oliver

(Nintendo DS)

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Personal Trainer: Cooking is what What’s Cooking? Jamie Oliver should have been. Unfortunately for it, it came out first, and didn’t have a proper example on which to improve. The game takes on the cookbook approach from PT:C and some food prep game elements from titles like Cooking Mama, and combines them in a fairly ineffective manner. Neither aspect lives up to the quality of its comparisons.

Like a traditional cookbook, and like PT:C, the game gives you instructions when cooking, filters to sort out what foods you want to make, a kitchen timer, and the ability to create a shopping list for the ingredients you lack at home. The rest of what makes PT:C great doesn’t exist in What’s Cooking, and what is left feels more like a standard cookbook in digital form. It’s like downloading a Kindle version of a regular cookbook.

There are step-by-step instructions, but no pictures. There aren’t full explanations of procedures and preparations, so if you come across something you don’t know how to do or don’t understand, the game won’t be there to help you.

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The game could teach you a thing or two, though, especially for casual gamers. Despite lacking in features, it is not entirely useless. If you know the basics in the kitchen, you should be able to follow the recipes and create some tasty dishes. The recipes are all Jamie’s, and he isn’t world-famous for nothing. With around 100 recipes, it has far less than others, but still enough to justify the price. While it lacks the intuitive nature of a more in-depth cooking trainer, it has the bare minimum for this type of game to be instructional. It succeeds as a cookbook, which according to Jamie, is what he wanted. “I’m looking at this as a digital book with a game rather than a game with a digital book,” he said. Good thing he didn’t choose video game designer as his profession.

The cooking game element is largely useless, as it doesn’t teach you much of anything and isn’t particularly fun, either. It’s badly designed, often responds poorly to the controls and will be more frustrating than fun.

Consensus: Not bad, but not the best option. It can teach you some new recipes, but won’t be too helpful if you want to hone your skills. Where this game burns, Personal Trainer: Cooking and Cooking Mama excel.

Gourmet Chef

(Nintendo DS)

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If you’ve had a minute or two of fun with Cooking Mama, you’ll probably like this game. It’s a ramped-up version of Cooking Mama, made for people slightly older. That’s not to say it’s for adults, but you may get more appreciation out of it if, say, you have two digits to your age.

To put it quickly, this game won’t teach. The box art featuring very real people doing very real food preparation does a horrible job of representing what’s inside. Just like Cooking Mama, it is a game, not an interactive cookbook or cooking lesson. There are characters, scenes, even a really odd plot about a mischievous food critic. The recipes you make throughout the game can be seen and attempted, but they are very non-specific and often don’t turn out that well for people. Of those I asked, most said the way the recipes are written down for home use are so indistinct they are useless. Thus, this is solely a game by all standards.

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What’s different about Gourmet Chef is its approach to the game. Instead of silly rhythm games and unrealistic kitchen practices like in Cooking Mama, this game puts you in charge of every station of the kitchen. You have to manage them all at once, switching back and forth between them all and doing the tasks at hand to complete a meal. It’s tough, and fast-paced, so it isn’t quite intended for a casual gamer who wants to play something relaxing. It makes you feel more like you are working in a kitchen, which is a cool tactic.

Consensus: A pretty good game for entertainment, but you will learn nothing. The game’s kitchen station management approach is unique to most other titles.

My Healthy Cooking Coach

(Nintendo DS)

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My Healthy Cooking Coach is probably the closest thing to Personal Trainer: Cooking as a game can possibly be. It’s nearly a twin brother, as it parallels all sorts of aspects of the other game. The meals are healthier, which is a good thing given its title. While it may receive a total thumbs-down for originality, Personal Trainer: Cooking is utterly awesome for those who want to learn and experience new things, and therefore this game comes close to being just as useful.

There are a few little differences worth pointing out. On your first play, you get to tell the game a little about yourself, your kitchen skills, the things you have in your kitchen, favorite foods, all that jazz. This provides you with a suggested recipe every day based on your possessions and tastes, which is a pretty rad plus.

The game doesn’t sort by country, but by point of the meal – dessert, soup, main dishes, etc. There are also a few very rudimentary cooking games in My Healthy Cooking Coach, but they are sort of a “whatever” to the overall package. It does not have technique videos like PT:C, and absences like that leave it with less depth than its source of inspiration.

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It features pictures of every step and cooking procedures respond to voice commands. There are 250 recipes, and only a handful of them pass the 500 calorie mark, so it really is an effective tool for those into healthy eating. If you are a calorie counter, you will absolutely want this title over PT:C. For those who like a little bit of everything, it is worth owning both, because the food each game presents is so vastly different between the healthy eating focus and international cuisine focus.

Consensus: A strong game for learning, a very weak game for entertainment. Definitely the healthiest recipes of any cooking game, despite being an otherwise weaker brother plagiarizing tactics from Personal Trainer: Cooking.

Top Chef: The Game

(PC, Macintosh)

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Ah, the inevitable cash-in title based on a popular TV series. If people watch it on TV, obviously it’ll be something they’ll want, right?

This game attempts to be entertainment and edutainment together, bringing in elements of the TV show and combining them with some attempts at teaching you about food. Unfortunately, neither effort is very successful.

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Like the show, you’re some aspiring chef (Anna) who wants to be awesome. You have a rival, there are other characters, but whatever. There are 15 episodes of the “show,” each with three segments that are judged by weird, 2D cel-shaded versions of Padma and Tom. It is a cheaply made game with weak animations, incongruent movement and plugged-in vocals that often make no sense.

Here is an example of the game attempting to be informative: Every now and then, you are given tips. No, not $2 left under your empty iced tea glass, but cooking tips. Like which meats pair best with which seasonings, or info on what the prepared food should look like.

Here is an example of the game ruining it: None of that matters. You have to choose the ingredients for each dish from what is available in your pantry, which may be a whole bunch of stuff that has nothing to do with what you need to make. While this element of choice may appear refreshing and look like it is giving the player a real chance to show their ability to match ingredients, it doesn’t help if the perfect matches aren’t there. Sometimes you just flat out can’t make a meal.

However, all that really ruins is the element of learning. Frenetic exploration and invention might be fun, but it won’t really teach you anything you can use in the kitchen – unless you are into experimenting with spicy curry chocolate mango crusted haddock. You do have to think about your best options based on what you have in order to get through the game. You are required to multi-task, think creatively, and manage your time.

The game will also change its mind sometimes on whether certain things are savory or sweet, and often categorizes things in useless ways (what the hell is “dark” food?).

It definitely helps to know something about food. Unfortunately, it seems the game requires a level of food knowledge above that of a normal person, and won’t succeed in being a teaching element to get you to that level if you aren’t. Largely, it’s a cheap game created as a money-maker while the TV iron is hot, with a total lack of logic. Fortunately, if you’re into the show, worse TV-to-game adaptations have been made, and it may entertain you a little. Just don’t expect to learn anything, and don’t expect a lot of replay value.

Consensus: Nobody should expect much from the game. It might be worth a quick play, but you won’t learn, and possibly won’t be all that entertained.

Iron Chef America Supreme Cuisine

(Wii)

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Just like the above, this game capitalizes on the success of a TV show. Expectations should be set accordingly, and then you will still be disappointed.

Flat out, this is bad. You don’t play as the Iron Chefs. The graphics are awful. The controls are awful. The characters are terrifying. You won’t learn a thing. You won’t have fun. There is no flair, excitement and thrill like the real show. Just avoid, whether you are an entertainment or education seeker.

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Consensus: This is a dish you’re going to throw up while still at the table.

Conclusion:

Clearly, there is a market for both the entertainment cooking game and the educational cooking game. Both have existed for a while now, selling mad copies and inspiring new titles. While no game has truly mastered the art of being both informative and fun, there are very strong titles out there on each side depending on which type of game you are looking for. Until someone creates a game that combines the brilliant edugaming methods of Personal Trainer: Cooking and the amusement of a Cooking Mama or Gourmet chef, the genre will remain split.

So what do you expect when you pick up a cooking game? Have you tried any of the ones mentioned above? What was your reaction to the experience? Are you just looking for fun, or has one of these titles actually helped you learn more about food, or even become a better cook?