Microsoft made a lot of Xbox 360 owners nervous when they trimmed their anticipated holiday season first party releases down to a pair of new intellectual properties: Epic’s much-hyped violent shooter Gears of War and Rare’s return to cutesy subject matter, Viva Pinata. As expected, this Ying and Yang odd couple are not being treated equally; marketing and publicity for Gears over the past several months leading up to the recent “Emergence Day” launch has far overshadowed the pittance Viva Pinata has received. Additional exposure or not, Gears has been positioned to be a best seller for going on two years now. Viva Pinata on the other hand needs a lot of help, especially for skeptics and the pinata oblivious to toss aside Rare’s recent dubious track record and no longer doubt their ability to churn out a devilishly addictive title for kids and adults alike.
If you build it, they will come — “they” being upwards of 60 different species of wild pinata animals stuffed with candy and always in search of a new place to call home. In Viva Pinata the goal is the assume the responsibility of cultivating a small plot of land on Pinata Island with various types of selective landscaping in hopes of luring wild pinata within its confines. Once lured, the next step is convincing them to take up residency by addressing their needs and then ultimately making them reproduce to create a new circle of life and additional pinatas for you to keep an eye on. At least, that’s how the first few minutes play out.
Viva Pinata starts simple enough with flattening soil and planting grass as the ambient sounds of a natural jungle chirp away in the distance. Before there’s enough time to go grab a drink, several species of wild piÃ±atas storm the garden. Within what seems like less than a half hour, there are up to ten piÃ±ata species with an eye on your garden, and with each new arrival a new set of tools, menu options and sociological/geographical challenges are introduced. What once was a whacky mini-game of pummeling the ground with a shovel quickly transforms into a deceptively deep landscape architect/species simulator best described as the offspring between Nintendo’s Animal Crossing and EA’s upcoming life simulator, Spore.
Like Animal Crossing, the hook in Viva Pinata is amassing money (i.e. chocolate coins) that allows you to customize and expand your property and pinata characters. The original plot of land assigned may seem small at first; however, through level upgrades of making wise decisions, the land expands providing opportunities to build new homes for new species, add more water, put up a fence, and even slap a pirate hat onto a bird so he stands out from the crowd. The options for customization gradually open up as more hours are put into the game, snowballing into a robust selection more associated with adult-targeted simulators found on PCs rather than a console game relying on a kids television show for exposure. Unfortunately as the garden amasses a plethora of objects, it becomes sometimes difficult to lock the cursor onto a particular object when several others are right next to it. The slightest of hand and practice is required to lock onto a moving piinata and make a menu selection in one swift combination of controller moves.
The Spore element comes into play as you’re responsible for the livelihood of every single animal that wanders onto your plot of land. You have to keep them happy by providing the unique fruits, plants and other species they fancy feasting on. At the same time, you have to be careful not to mix notoriously combative species or else a fight is certain to break out and a pinata will fall. And you have to be particularly wary of “Sours,” pinatas stuffed with sour candy that, if consumed by a healthy pinata, will result in them becoming sick. And a sick pinata can’t very well do the mating dance, now can it?
It can be daunting to build up a stockpile of over twenty pinatas and then stress over having to constantly look out for fights, sickness, providing food, watering plants so they don’t die, and so on. That’s where your creepy-looking human helpers come into play. A variety of humans become available throughout the game to manage some of the mundane tasks that grow tiresome, fast. These glorified servants, for the right price, will heal sick pinatas, water plants and essentially help keep the garden on the right track so your time can be better spent earning coin and bringing in new species. Without their inclusion, many gamers would likely bail after being overburdened with responsibility.
Thoughtful and clever touches like the human servants are another reason why Viva Pinata is so addictive. Hours upon hours can be put into the garden and still the ultimate goal of acquiring every species remains a wishful twinkle in the eye. Another clever feature opens the opportunity to let your friends pitch in; that is, if they’re willing to share their stash and don’t have ill-intentions towards upsetting the fine balance in your garden. Through a post office much like the one found in Animal Crossing, gamers can send large crates filled with food and later on pinata across Xbox Live to their friends and vice versa. Now instead of cursing the game for not being able to successfully attract a Lickatoad, you can beg a friend to mail over one of theirs in exchange for a costly carton of milk.
Yet another welcome touch is the ability to grow up to eight gardens per Gamercard profile, with infinite Gamercard profile saves on a single hard drive or memory card. For example, my wife started a game and reached the point where she could send crates through the post office. Then I signed in under my own profile, started a completely different game and was eventually able to accept her crate. Speaking of wives; men out there whom have been waiting for a game to use as leverage in purchasing an Xbox 360 need to look no further. Playing Viva Pinata is the first “video game bonding” my wife and I have been able to enjoy since Psychonauts on the original Xbox.
While Gears of War is visually the Xbox 360 game of choice, there is an unlikely alternative after Sera’s drab, gray color palette starts to grate on one’s optic nerves. Rare has taken its penchant for vivid color palettes to a new level since Kameo: Elements of Power in what is easily the most colorful game to grace the console yet. They’ve even included a classy option for players to select between CRT, LCD, DLP and Plasma display types for preset brightness and contrast settings. Not even the big graphic powerhouses go this extra yard, and making a few seconds to make the proper selection does in fact calibrate the game for optimum visual performance.
Gears may already be well on its way to becoming the number-one-selling Xbox 360 game, yet Viva Pinata stands poised to be a sleeper underdog success in its own right. In fact, I can’t think of a kid-friendly game debuting alongside Nintendo’s Wii that can even approach the breadth of customization and replayability Viva offers. I wanted to hate this game, I really did. Some minor control issues and lack of true cooperative play aside, Rare has atoned for some of its recent missteps and, for now, won me over. The real challenge is for Microsoft to somehow reach non-Internet savvy Xbox 360 owners who may otherwise have no clue Pinata Island even exists. Otherwise, I’ll have no one to trade my zany pinatas with.
- Overall: 8.4
- Rare has put together a deceptively deep gameplay formula that successfully pulls you back in time-after-time again. Cutesy characters shouldn’t deter even the grisliest gamers from dropping anchor and exploring Pinata Island.
— Dan Bradley