Gardening Mama is a spin-off sequel to the popular Cooking Mama. This time around, Mama is, obviously, gardening. Though I've never played Cooking Mama, I understand that it has a similar format: choose something to cook (grow), and play some minigames that determine how well you do.
I got a feeling, while playing Gardening Mama, that at some point the developers took a step-by-step list of gardening tips and decided to make a minigame from each step. Some of the steps are hilariously minor in the process. Open the bag and take out the seeds. Pour water on them. Spray flowers with a hose. These are all steps a four year old could do without causing any irreparable damage, but amusingly, I can't. I can't because the minigames they made for "take the seeds out of the bag" are harder than taking seeds out of a bag in real life.
When tilting a watering can, you can tilt it too high, causing all the water to spill and instantly failing. When pouring seeds out of a bag, you can tilt it too high, causing a few seeds to bounce out of your hand, instantly docking your score. If you wait too long without touching anything, even without the time running out, the game will often instantly fail you. If you scribble too hard while brushing dirt off a plant's root, you'll destroy the plant entirely. And so on.
Sometimes these added difficulties are amusing and clever, while other times they're needlessly frustrating. It is a problem, while gardening, if you're too rough with a plant's root, but it's not generally going to hurt anything if you drop a few seeds. These punishments train the player to be not only careful but overly careful. While it's not an imposing difficulty standard by any means, Gardening Mama is obviously targeted toward children, who may not understand why they're being punished.
Even I was confused by several of the minigames. The instruction manual gives little instruction; you have to rely entirely on in-game cues. These cues vary in meaning from game to game. Sometimes a pointing finger means "tap rapidly," sometimes "tap once," sometimes "tap and hold." The game often requires you to shovel dirt or fertilizer into small, medium, or large piles. In one minigame, a downward pointing arrow is the only hint given to imply "draw the stylus downward into the top, medium, or bottom of a bag." In another, the same size arrow pointing the same direction means "draw the stylus downward slowly or quickly to vary size." The only way to figure out the difference is by fooling around with various techniques in a practice stage.
On the bright side, there's no real way to lose, so even frustrated children won't see a Game Over screen mocking them for their failure. And, as I mentioned, there are practice stages which allow you to hone your skills on an available minigame at no cost. While it would be nice to have a real tutorial for some of the more confusing games, practice stages are manageable substitutes. Furthermore, even while doing the real thing, there is no penalty for retrying besides having to do every preceding stage over again.
Gardening Mama uses a phase system for plant growth. You begin with a string of minigames; once they're accomplished, you let the plant rest for a phase (while you work on another plant), and when you come back new games await. Since the beginning phase always has the most minigames, and since retrying implies retrying an entire phase, the beginning phase for each plant is always the hardest one. This is especially true if you're trying to get a perfect score. So right from the start the game is difficult, and it becomes progressively easier. This could discourage players who don't have the patience to hang around and get a feel for the game before they give up on it. Plants you unlock later have even harder starting phases, although this hits a peak about midway through, after which most of the games repeat each other. Some of the games for more unique plants (like grapevines or squash) stand out, but once you've grown a certain number of flowers, you've seen all that it has to offer there.
There are few general rewards for gardening flowers. If you beat a stage in less than half the allotted time limit, you can open a present. Usually these are clothes for Mama or decorations (such as gates or statues) for the garden. However, if you garden vegetables or fruits, you gain points that go toward acquiring a larger house. The houses, however, also seem to have only decorative function. You can unlock different types of fertilizer that will change the color of your flowers as you garden, again having only an ornamental function. Since the purpose of gardening is usually to have something nice to look at, this makes sense, but it isn't very compelling compared to most videogame reward systems.
I had to play the game with the sound completely off. Gardening Mama uses the same noise every time you choose an option on a menu. Since almost all of the time outside of playing minigames is spent navigating menus, this gets old very quickly. The music is also repetitive and what little voice acting used is humorously bad. The game is entirely stylus-controlled, sometimes to its detriment. The difficulty in some of the minigames could have come from the challenge of using both the stylus and the D-pad in clever ways, instead of from punishment for scratching the screen too vigorously.
Overall: 4/10Gardening Mama recommends itself on two bases: it is about gardening, which some will enjoy, and it is almost impossible to lose, which is a draw for young children. While it's entirely playable, I can't imagine many other types of people enjoying it. There are better "collection of minigame" games out there, both on the DS and the Wii.