Hot Mama

Cooking Mama for the Wii looks good enough to eat.

We've all seen Super Mario eat copious amounts of mushrooms, but have you ever considered the care that goes into preparing such delicacies?

In Cooking Mama: Cook Off for the Wii, Wolfgang Puck wannabes are thrust into the kitchen -- alongside "Mama," the game's titular chef -- where they'll chop, sauté, and mince virtual vegetables and make-believe meat. A high score will never replace a hot meal, but this sizzling simulator is still an appetizing experience, with but a few burnt edges.

A sequel to the Nintendo DS version, Cooking Mama: Cook Off is nearly identical to its predecessor -- the key difference being your Wii remote, which takes the place of the DS stylus as your Ginsu knife. Unfortunately, this means some of the sensory thrills of the previous title (blowing in the DS microphone to cool off food, using the screen as a cutting board) are sacrificed with the Wiimote's "swing it in the air" use of 3D space.

But while visceral experiences such as chopping are dulled, actions like breaking an egg are actually improved. The Wiimote -- a.k.a. the Master Chef of video game controllers -- knows how hard or soft you swing it, which means a challenging fine line between an egg in your bowl and egg all over your face.

Cooking Mama's game play is simpler than buttering bread. It relies on only a few instinctive motions: Flicking the remote like a pan handle will flip an omelet, rapidly sawing back and forth cuts a steak, etc. The only learning curve might come when preparing unfamiliar foods. How are Americans supposed to know you twist a squid's head off before its oily insides can spill out?

Dish preparation is broken down step-by-step, and simple onscreen instructions are given before each part of the recipe you're attempting. So even if you burn the beef chuck early on, you'll have the chance to take a breather before attempting to boil the wine sauce. Undercook the ham, however, and Mama will get trichinosis and die a slow death before your eyes. Actually, that doesn't happen . . . but hey, here's hoping for more gritty realism in future titles.

While the single-player game is mindlessly addictive (simply pick a recipe, and outcook your personal best), multiplayer mode is where Cooking Mama turns up the heat. Squaring off with the computer pits you against cute, wide-eyed anime characters from around the globe; prepare to shame other countries as you school them at their own dishes ("You call thata pierogi?!").

Challenging friends is even more fun, as you race each other to yank legs off a crab, boil beet soup, and twirl pizza dough in the air. And, in a match where cheery flute music accompanies the act of violently chopping off fish heads, the edge goes to the player who's not too freaked-out to play.

Granted, the Wii already has more minigame collections than a Big Mac has calories. And yes, Cooking Mama's star (with her high-pitched, butchered English squeals of "Wan-dlur-ful!") can be tiresome as a Rachael Ray marathon. But Cooking Mama: Cook Off makes an undeniably enjoyable quick-gaming snack. What it lacks in meaty substance, it makes up for with offbeat innovation and brisk fun -- just don't be surprised when you mysteriously crave "Galacian Style Octopus" afterward.

 
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