Ever since its release back in 2005, critics have complained that the Xbox 360's video game line-up has been somewhat one-sided. With an emphasis on action, first-person shooters and online fare, Microsoft's next-generation console has been a favorite amongst hardcore gamers. But what about everybody else? With so many violent games with mature themes one has to wonder what is left to appeal to casual gamers, to those people who aren't as excited about Gears of War or Dead Rising. For those people I give you Viva Piñata, one of the brightest, happiest, most endearing games on the Microsoft console.
Viva Piñata is more than just a great diversion from multiplayer shooting, it's one of the best games released for Microsoft's one year old system. It's cute enough for anybody to get into (no matter what your age), but deep enough to keep even the most hardcore gamers interested for at least a dozen hours. It may not look like the kind of game you would normally play (and the ultra adorable box art isn't helping matters much), but there's something about Viva Piñata that will thrill and amaze.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised how Viva Piñata turned out; after all it is developed by some of the best video game designers in the business. With games like GoldenEye 007 and Battletoads under their belt, Rare has a long history of making great games. But with games like Grabbed by the Ghoulies and Kameo, it's easy to see why fans of the company have been somewhat disappointed by Rare's recent releases. But fear not, because Viva Piñata brings Rare back to its former glory. It's an innovative game that is difficult to pigeonhole and impossible to put down.
At first glance it's easy to want to compare Viva Piñata to Nintendo's Animal Crossing series. But upon further inspection you'll find that this game has very little to do with digging up NES games and talking with Tom Nook. Instead this game feels like a cross between The Sims and Harvest Moon, it's a game where all you do is tend to your garden and try to attract as many different kinds of piñatas as possible. Its premise may be simple, but actually accomplishing your goals can be anything but.
Viva Piñata starts you out with a small plot of land that is full of rough terrain and ugly debris (logs, a broken down cart, etc.). Your first task is to use your shovel and pound that area down so that you can start planting grass, flowers, trees and other foliage. Once you've made your garden attractive various animal-inspired piñatas will start to populate your area. At first it may be nothing more than worms and birds, but stick with it long enough and you'll be entertained by papier-mâché monkeys, unicorns and frogs.
There are more than sixty different piñatas to have fun with, but if you're going to see them all then you're going to need to spend a lot of time making your garden just right. All of the different species require you to meet certain requirements before they'll call your garden home. For example, if you want to get frogs and newts then you will need a certain amount of water area in your garden, pigs and bunnies need certain types of flowers, some animals need to eat fruits and vegetables, and so on so forth. Meeting all of these requirements is just part of the fun of Viva Piñata.
Once you've managed to attract some animals it's time to breed them, which requires you to meet even more conditions and then figure out a way of getting them to mate. The mating ritual is one of the most unique parts of the game, it involves you playing a small (and often simple) mini game and then watching your two creatures go to their respective house and get it on (in something they call a "romance dance"). There is nothing cuter than watching a couple of animals (no matter if it's a pig, monkey, snake or butterfly) get it on with a dance. It's a great introduction to porn for all of the little kids who play this game.
But attracting piñatas and mating them is only half of the job, you will also need to keep them happy, keep them safe, and keep them healthy. You see, this wouldn't be much of a game if it didn't have some conflict … and this game is ripe with crazy events working against your progress. As you progress through the game you will have to deal with sour piñatas that want to spread illness, a gang of ugly masked men who like to come in and destroy your buildings, and various species that just don't get along. All of this is going on while you are trying to grow new trees, plant new flowers and complete other tasks. While it may look sweet and innocent, there's something about Viva Piñata that is frantic and stressful.
Thankfully Viva Piñata starts out light and simple. It introduces you to the basics of gardening before you have to worry about any of the hard stuff. In fact, the entire game does an excellent job of ramping up the difficulty little by little, that way you don't feel like you're out of your element too early. As your skill increases you will be given more land, new buildings to build, new items to scatter around your garden and much more. You will even be able to buy helpers and new breeds of piñata. And if that isn't enough, you actually have the ability to buy clothing and other accessories for your various animals, which will give them an identity and make them even happier.
Part of what sets Viva Piñata apart is its great sense of style. Even if the system was on a console with more family friendly games, Viva Piñata would still be able to set itself apart from the crowd due to the way it looks and its sense of humor. The animal names alone are worth the price of admission. Each of the piñatas is named after a combination of an animal and a type of candy/sweet. That means that you can expect to find such classics as Doenut, Fudgehog, Shellybean, Raisant, Flutterscotch, Elephanilla, Buzzlegum, and many, many more. Sure you may roll your eyes at some of the animals, but there are a few that are so cute that you can't help but fall in love the moment they enter your garden.
Even though the piñatas are clearly the stars of this game, it does have a memorable supporting cast. Some of the funniest lines come when you start to buy items from the store and hire new workers. My favorite character is an angst-ridden pet shop employee who talks as if she's in pain just thinking about talking to you. I also love all of the jokes with double meaning, kids will no doubt find the character models cute while their parents laugh at all of the oddly adult jokes that come out of their mouths.
While it's easy to write this off as nothing more than just an interactive cartoon, the graphics in Viva Piñata are actually quite impressive. In fact, this is one game that uses colors you probably didn't even know the Xbox 360 was capable of (especially if you've spent the last two months playing Gears of War). A lot of the designs are simple, but get a nice close-up of your characters and you will see different pieces of paper and some very impressive detail. The graphics are even more impressive when you start to see the game's various seasons. It's fun to see how all of the color is sucked out of your garden when it's overcast out and how colorful everything looks when the sun is just coming up in the morning.
The music and sound are also impressive. While there's not a steady dose of music throughout the game, when it's there it is generally pleasant and fits the mood of the game perfectly. But as good as the music can be, some of the best moments in the game happen when the incidental tunes fade out and you're left with nothing but the sound of your animals. There's a feeling of accomplishment when all of your animals are getting along and your garden seems in order. You can hear your success from the happy ambience surrounding you … it's one of the best feelings I have had in a video game in a long time. And then, just like that, your garden is in chaos again and it's up to you to tend to the problems. At least it was nice while it lasted.
Unfortunately no game is perfect, and Viva Piñata certainly has a few minor problems that are worth mentioning. For example, the game's complex interface may be too difficult for some younger gamers (the type that may want the game based entirely off of the TV show). It's also unfortunate that you are only able to see a small part of Piñata Island, especially since the rest of the area looks so strange and creepy. Another problem is that the game does not have much in the way of online play, about the only thing you are able to do is send your various piñatas to friends. It would have been cool to be able to walk around other people's gardens and see how they set up their buildings, trees and whatnot. Thankfully these problems don't affect the game much, they are all easy to overlook once you get into the experience.
Given the hardcore nature of many Xbox 360 owners this is the type of game you might walk by and ignore, but don't be afraid of Piñata. It may look like a kid's game, but this is one title that has enough depth to keep even the biggest Gears of War nut addicted for hours on end. I don't know if it's the animals, the frantic pace or the heavy dose of strategy you have to employ, but there's just something about Viva Piñata that makes it special. Best of all, there aren't many games like this available on the Xbox 360. So don't be embarrassed to take this game to the check-out line, Viva Piñata is a fantastic game that will surprise just about everybody.