Cooking Mama: Cookstar was never meant to have been released to the public, if you believe the company that owns the rights to the Cooking Mama franchise. Cookstar has been pulled from the Nintendo Switch eShop, but a few rogue physical copies made it into the wild.
One of those copies ended up in my possession.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the series. Each Cooking Mama game basically revolves around players using a touchscreen, or motion controls, to cook meals following fairly “realistic” steps recreated via a variety of minigames.
Cooking Mama games are usually a showcase of what makes a Nintendo console’s unique control scheme great, whether that means emphasizing the accuracy of the touchscreen of the Nintendo DS or the motion controls of the Wii. There’s a strong sense of satisfaction to be found in following the on-screen instructions to slash at the touchscreen to chop vegetables, or in the act of gently stirring ingredients in virtual mixing bowls. If you follow the recipe and make the right motions, you’ll end up with a tasty dish, and Mama will be proud of you. It’s a cheery franchise.
After playing Cookstar for around 15 hours, however, I understand why the game’s release has been so legally contentious. It contains all the elements I expect from a Cooking Mama game, but few of them feel up to the quality level of the previous DS, 3DS, and Wii titles. It’s a stilted, imprecise, and unpolished experience filled with repetition and recycled content.
If you’re familiar with Cooking Mama, you’ll quickly notice that a large percentage of recipes in Cookstar are lifted, step-for-step, from past games in the series. This isn’t inherently a problem — several returning recipes were fun the first time around on the 3DS. But the sheer volume of repeated content only serves to make something clear: These repeated dishes are a lot less fun to play on Switch, and those that are new all feature the same handful of basic steps, reused over and over.
When the Switch is docked, the default way to play Cookstar is with motion controls. Got to peel a potato? Waggle a Joy-Con up and down. Need to grate cheese? Waggle it left and right. Some in-game interactions will still make use of buttons or the analog sticks, but motion controls are the standard for most inputs. The older Cooking Mama games were controlled using either a touchscreen or a Wii Remote, both of which did a great job of providing feedback that showed how close your actions were to where the game wanted you to be.
But the motion detection in Cookstar is abysmal. Other Switch games seem to be able to handle fine movements well, but Cookstar is not one of them. Your movements may not register if they’re too subtle, or they may be used against you if they’re done with too much vigor. If you shake your controller too hard, the game will often punish you with an excessive response, such as throwing your entire block of parmesan off-screen, or tossing out an entire head of lettuce because you ripped off one leaf with too much force. Finding the proper middle ground is all but impossible. In very simple terms, the game just doesn’t work.
You don’t have to play with motion controls, however. In handheld mode — or if you switch off motion controls while the Switch is docked — each motion is replaced by directional movement on the analog sticks and button mashing. It’s more precise, and there’s less of a feeling that you’re failing because the game didn’t understand your motions, but it also robs the series of the tactile sensation that made previous games so satisfying.
Without motion controls, it also becomes clear how basic the game is. There’s no option to use the touchscreen in handheld mode, which would have at least offered the same style of play as the DS and 3DS originals. Replicating the inputs of those games seems like a no-brainer in terms of design compromises, and also a huge wasted opportunity to introduce the fun recipes from those games to a new audience.
Don’t worry if you sometimes get a needlessly low rating on an easy dish, however, because ratings in this game do not matter in the slightest. You can fail every single step of every single recipe, burning your food, throwing ingredients on the floor, and still receive all the game’s cosmetic rewards and unlock the next recipe. There is no reason to ever try for a better score, and no extra reward for doing so that I was able to find. As long as you fail your way through each meal once, you’ll unlock every piece of content in the game.
At the end of each preparation, the player is presented with the meal they cooked, given a selection of backgrounds to choose from, and told to photograph their creation for a fake social media platform. I guess you’re cooking to try to gain some media cred of some kind? Mama even talks to you about becoming “insta famous,” because cooking is all about the external validation, I guess.
But the meal you photograph always looks the same, no matter how well or poorly you made each dish — it always looks perfect when it’s time to photograph it, further emphasizing how little impact any of your efforts have on the game.
This all sounds bad on its own, but Cookstar’s greatest sin is how quickly I grew frustrated with the usually charming Mama herself.
Mama never stops talking in Cookstar. In one early recipe, you have to spend around 30 seconds smashing a bag of what seem to be Mama-branded Doritos with a hammer. Mama chimes in with a voice line every single time you hit the bag, which would be annoying on its own if she had a bunch of things to say, but you’ll be hearing the same few lines of dialogue over and over and over as you go.
It never lets up. Mama constantly throws one of only a handful of overly congratulatory phrases at you that feel overblown for such simple tasks. I sliced a loaf of bread at the start of the game, and Mama told me I was a better chef than she was. I put food coloring in some bowls, and she told me I should have my own game.
Her praise is instant, unending, and unconnected to the actual quality of your performance. She praises you scraping through a task as though you’ve set some new world record, even if you’re failing. The voice acting itself is also poor; her lines ring hollow, lacking the charm and sincerity of past versions of the character. There are often strange inflections on random words. Her voice lines are sometimes of such low quality that I couldn’t quite make out what she was trying to say. Which was at least a break from the repetition. Maybe trying to figure out what she’s trying to tell you is its own minigame?
Cookstar does feature a multiplayer mode, which contains a series of very simple two-player local minigames, but you’re not missing much in that area. Most of them boil down to who can mash the buttons or waggle their controller the fastest, without any thought to precision or strategy. They all feel dull after a few minutes, and add nothing of value to the game.
Cooking Mama: Cookstar is a mess, and isn’t worth the controversy around its release. There is little to no reward for success, or even for trying. The motion controls don’t work. The content is often recycled from past games. The fact that it was somehow released in this state is kind of interesting, and physical copies may become collector’s items, but that will only be due to their rarity, not any value in the game itself.
Cooking Mama: Cookstar is out now on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a physical, retail copy purchased by the reviewer. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.