Recipe For Success: 'Cooking Mama' Mixes It Up On The Wii

'It's got that kind of kitsch factor we're playing up,' says publisher's brand manager; 'Cook Off' was issued for Wii in late March.

Imagine all the joys of cooking without being able to smell, touch or taste the food you just made. Imagine people paying money for that experience. Imagine people calling that a fun video game.

Last year, New Jersey video game publisher Majesco released "Cooking Mama" — a game that asked players to chop, stir and sauté their way to success — on the DS. Since the game's September release, it has sold more than 244,000 copies in the U.S., according to NPD, a marketing-research firm that tracks game sales. That performance inspired Majesco to deliver a Nintendo Wii version of the game, called "Cooking Mama: Cook Off," in late March. But seriously — a cooking game?

"We didn't consider this to be risky in any sense of the word," Majesco senior brand manager Liz Buckley said last week. "We saw so many me-too titles and derivative titles ... we saw it as an opportunity." Other opportunities Majesco has taken in recent years include big-budget, low-selling efforts such as a violent "Jaws" adventure and a sci-fi epic called "Advent Rising" (see "Xbox's 'Advent Rising' Just Might Be The 'Star Wars' Of Gaming"). More recently the company has rediscovered its niche working on games oriented to people with less testosterone, and a cooking-game series has led the charge.

To make custard in "Cooking Mama: Cook Off," a player has to crack eggs by deftly swinging the Wii remote, combine ingredients into a bowl with a target-shooting technique, stir things up by moving the remote like it's a spoon, put everything in an oven, manage the proper temperatures, remove it all from the oven, and then carefully pour. Then a cheerful little cartoon lady, the Cooking Mama, ranks the performance. There are different routines for burgers and soup, lasagna and strawberry shortcake, with 55 recipes in total. They can all be made with just the Wii remote so gamers can eat a bag of potato chips with their other hand, in case, for some reason, the game makes them hungry.

On video game-help message boards where some people might be asking how to slay a dragon or conquer a "Metal Gear" boss, gamers who play "Cooking Mama" ask for help with making hot dogs. The hot tip from a gamer going by the name Heyimeligh: "Get every single ingredient that falls and land the hot dog close to the middle of the bun. ... If you time it just right you will get a bonus 100 points ... and as a side note, you can get 100 bonus points in the bun step by having the cursor directly on the arrow ready to slice." (The Wii gesture controls of "Cook Off" have vexed some, resulting in lower review scores for that game than for its DS predecessor.)

Both "Cooking Mama" games were made by a company in Japan called Office Create. Buckley said members of her company offered some suggestions to the developers, encouraging a more international selection of recipes than the more Japanese-centric lineup of the first. The DS game had a lot of gyoza and ramen and rice balls. The new game has fish and chips and bouillabaisse. What her team had less input in, she said, were the controls, which were set. So, for example, the decision to not use the Wii's nunchuck for any multitasking cooking was already set, and Majesco had no say in the game not utilizing the Wii remote's rumble to give some physical feedback to all the stirring and chopping and grating of cheese.

What Buckley said Majesco did want to push was the Cooking Mama character. The little lady speaks her English with a Japanese accent. "It's got that kind of kitsch factor we're playing up," Buckley said. "A lot of the language in there isn't straight-up Janglish, but it's got that 'mama speak.' "

Some of Mama's cooking children are a little confused, though. At the message board, gamers are trying to decipher her words. "When I mess up, it sounds like she is saying, 'You're not mine,' " wrote a gamer calling himself danielmg. "Is Mama disowning me just because I make a mistake?" Theories as to "What the heck is she saying anyway???" can be found in a thread with that title here.

Buckley wasn't ready to announce when gamers will get to cook and when Mama will speak next. "Hopefully you haven't heard the last from Mama," she said. In fact, the original plan was that Wii gamers wouldn't have even heard from her yet. The game was supposed to come out later this month but moved up to late March to capitalize on Easter sales.

For Majesco's next unusual twist, the company is releasing a DS game based on The New York Times crossword puzzle next month.