Forgotten fingers
Character Close-up: Jade

Gamer Pozole

Mexican_pozole The holidays have come and gone, and the tide of enthusiasm for games given and received has mostly ebbed. People in my family generally expect to receive games from me, and I'm always happy to oblige. Since my family is scattered far and wide, I especially enjoy giving DS games because I know these will be played as we all make our ways back home. We are surely Nintendo's dream consumer family.

But this was a bleak holiday season for new DS games, and I found myself stretched to find good gift options for folks that have become, whether they realize it or not, savvy casual gamers. In the end, when it came time to choose one for my wife, I took a leap of faith and gave her a game that isn't a game at all: Nintendo's Personal Trainer: Cooking.

And guess what? It's probably the best purchase I made. In fact, it's the only "game" I bought before Christmas that we're still "playing." Why? Because it's terrific. Personal Trainer: Cooking has modest goals, but it achieves them so cleverly and elegantly that I consider it a model of user-interface design. It's a cookbook that fully exploits its digital, portable, interactive leap.

Am I really posting an analysis of a glorified recipe collection? You bet I am. The best way to do this, I think, is to focus on a specific dish and consider how PT:C delivers the experience I'm describing. So join me, won't you, for the creation of a delectable Pozole (spicy pork and corn soup).

Ptc3 You begin by choosing a dish, and PT:C offers several ways of sorting through its 245 recipes, including by country, ingredients, requirements (cooking time, calories, difficulty, etc.), or keyword search. I chose Mexico and was presented with a side-scrolling bar of small photos of various dishes. Choosing Pozole on the bottom screen causes a larger picture to pop up on the top screen with additional info (70 min. cooking time; 330 calories). Tapping the small photo again brings up cultural details on the dish and how it's typically served. Nice.

Once you've confirmed your selection, you're offered several optional top screens of "tips and advice," which in this case very helpfully recommends other options if Ancho chilies are unavailable in your area. Beneath these options are choices to start cooking: 1)View ingredients, 2)View steps, and 3)Cook. You can also tap "Notes" to enter any recipe-specific info you like on a separate savable screen.

Tapping "Ingredients" takes you to a bottom screen with a list of, yup, ingredients and required utensils (tapping each produces a corresponding photo on the top screen). If you don't have certain ingredients on-hand, you can tap the checkbox next to each, and PT:C will generate a smart shopping list that's accessible from the main screen of the game. If you change the number of servings you want (also available on this screen), PT:C will automatically adjust your shopping list accordingly. I love the way all these elements mesh together visually, and PT:C was clearly designed with a cook's workflow in mind.

Clicking on "View Steps" opens a bottom screen that lays out each preparation step (Cutting the corn, Cutting the onion, Peeling the garlic, etc.) - with helpful photos of each appearing on the top screen - followed by each cooking step, broken down into specific actions ("Making the soup" consists of "Pour in the stock," "Add the vegetables," etc.). You can skip past any of this you wish. PT:C is clearly designed for absolute beginnners, but seasoned chefs needn't get bogged down in all these details.

Ptc Once you've got everything assembled and ready to go, PT:C shifts to a very different mode. It assumes you'll need to be hands-free at this point, so the DS mic is enabled, a small floating chef's head appears, and you are told to get out your cutting board and kitchen knife. From here your little chef buddy talks you through each step of preparation. Clear photos appear to show you what you should be doing (videos also accompany other recipes), and all the fonts and button sizes grow larger to account for the fact that you'll be working away from your DS. Speaking "continue" into the mic advances you through each step. Certain steps include a "More Details" option, such as how to properly peel garlic, if you need specific help. You can also say "repeat" or "last step" if you want to hear something again or return to a previous step.

Little details like coloring all the measurement units green and special instructions red help you quickly distinguish important information. PT:C also lets you know how many steps you've completed and how many more you have left. A small "Cooking A-Z" button is always available on the bottom screen for things like tips on chopping and cutting and utensils.

After all the prep is complete and the soup is on its way, it's time to simmer the pork for 40 minutes. At this step, a "Show timer" option appears in the top right corner of the bottom screen. Selecting it allows you to start the timer, already set for 40 minutes. You're then returned to the prep screen where you can continue with the Ancho chilies. A small bubble with the remaining simmering time now appears in the bottom corner of the top screen, so you can keep an eye on it as you continue. When it expires, an alarm alerts you no matter where you are in the program.

Finally, PT:C walks you through finishing the dish and properly serving the cooked vegetables, pork, and soup ladled on top. Garnish and it's ready to eat. In typical Nintendo style, a steaming photo of your finished Pozole appears accompanied by applause and colorful confetti.

If you'd like a cool, nifty twist on the standard cookbook, Personal Trainer: Cooking could be right up your alley. But I think this particular "Touch Generations" title has other, less obvious, value too. If you're a gamer interested in well-designed user-interface and content delivery systems on gaming devices (the many comments left on my previous post suggests there are lots of us), you may discover this "game" is just your dish. Bon appetit!