While it may be a year old, I doubt anyone at Rare is complaining about another Viva Piñata review. Positive or not, any exposure to Microsoft’s 2006 flagship failure is going to be good at this point. Viva Piñata was billed as the premiere family title for the Xbox 360 in holiday ’06, set up alongside Gears of War (of all things) in their first-party lineup. It previewed poorly in the months before its release, with poor frame rates and oddball gameplay making it a hard sell. Despite great reviews and some brilliant advertising, it was a market disaster. The next year, a separate developer slapped together Viva Piñata Party Animals, a Wii-esque shovelware party game that more than likely sealed the coffin on the VP license forever.
We all know the 360 is a mancrafted piece of manliness. Especially in that year when almost everyone played Gears of War, a game about shooting your way through grey town and brown town and chainsawing monsters in half. I was guilty of matching the 18-24-year-old Shooter McBulletsmith demographic as well. Nearly everyone with a 360 was enamored with Epic’s lowest common denominator adventure. Don’t get me wrong, Gears was fun, but it was stupid, it lacked art direction, storytelling, and a third of the five-hour campaign was abysmal. And now when I look back, having played both, it puts some perspective on how unfortunate Viva Piñata’s failure was.
A year later, the 360 hasn’t expanded it’s demographic. Now, rather than shoot ugly grey mole people, we shoot terrorists and purple aliens. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as some of the bigger games of 2007 pushed different genres (Mass Effect), told real stories (Bioshock), or even just added a few colors beyond grey and brown to the shooter palette (Halo 3). However, Microsoft has yet to come back to the family demographic in the same way it did with VP. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that there hasn’t been anything like Viva Piñata this console generation.
So what is it? Well, that’s where this review gets difficult. I can go on and on about its market failings, and how unfortunate it is that this gem got cast aside, but the reality is the game is hard to quantify. Not only that, but at first glance it looks fucking dumb. Everyone in the game journalism community seemed to take it at that basic face value until it came out. When the pessimistic previews ceased and the glowing reviews started coming in, it was already too late; the real coverage died out, and no one was willing to admit they were wrong.
The only reason I have the game is because when my Xbox self-destructed for the sixth goddamn time, Microsoft was kind enough to offer me a free game. My options were Project Gotham Racing 3 (I already owned PGR4), Kameo (Rare’s mediocre 360 launch platformer, and another reason to pre-hate VP) and Viva Piñata. When I chose Viva, John Smith from India told me, “You know that’s a kid’s game, right?” You can’t even outsource to fucking South Asia without coming across nay-sayers. But I suppose when the building they work in was constructed out of unsold copies of the game, they’re encouraged to turn people away.
Okay, so I still haven’t said what the game is, so let’s get into it. Viva Piñata combines the cultivation and development aspects of life simulators like The Sims or Rollercoaster Tycoon with the discovery and collection elements of Pokemon, a dab of RPG-style questing/leveling, and brilliantly colorful, clean, timeless graphics. It’s all of these things, or it’s only some of them. You start with a small junkyard, and after the tutorial section in which you clean it up and start your garden, the game is what you make of it.
As you develop your garden, it becomes an inviting area for the various piñata species in the area. In this game, you play the role of the omnipresent cursor that, armed with a shovel, watering can, and bag of seeds, sets out to become the best gardener on Piñata Island. There’s more to the story, which you unlock over time through a storybook, but the lore of VP is ancillary, and I mostly ignored it. The real plot is your experiences and what you take away from it.
Now, if I haven’t lost you already on that last paragraph, I understand I’m probably not selling many of you. Understand that, while there’s truly mass appeal in this game, it is a family game, after all. If Pixar movies make you cringe, then I’d probably just go back to Call of Duty 4. That’s not to say Viva Piñata isn’t without its own brand of irreverence. Most of the basic gameplay is tame; breeding piñatas is referred to as “romancing,” and the actual sex is nothing more than a simple minigame and a video of two piñatas dancing (after which an egg is delivered by a weird fat lady). However, I doubt I’ve got many parents reading this, so I’ll let you in on how far down the Bunnycomb hole goes.
The helper characters are where the game presents much of the humor that will fly well over most kid’s heads. While your garden is filled with innocent and colorful piñatas, the shops are full of dirty humans. A woman named Costolot runs the item shop, and as her name states, she is a greedy, chocolate coin-hungry wench. She’s also suggestive. One of her recurring lines as you enter the shop is, “Are you looking for something seedy? Oh, I didn’t mean like that.” You know there’s some “romancing” going on in that store after hours.
Willy Builder is the shop owner in charge of building the various sex shacks you need to get your piñata breeding mill running. He’s a drunk who shows up to work late, overcharges, and only eats bacon sandwiches. He’s basically the stereotypical construction worker, except he nurses pints of milk.
Leafos, the first of the humans you come across, seems innocent enough. However even she falls prey to typical human weakness, spreading gossip and false rumors and leading you down dead ends. What does it all mean? There’s definitely a bit of social commentary going on here.
All the while your innocent stable of piñatas go about their predictable daily lives. One of the great things about the game is that while there are many complicated aspects to the piñatas, they’re consistent. A BarkBark is always going to start a fight with a KittyFloss, a Lickatoad is going to eat a Taffly, and an Elephanilla will accidentally trample smaller piñatas. Part of my hatred of The Sims was that it was hard to gauge what made them happy or why bad things were happening. What Viva Piñata lacks in random unwanted bullshit happening constantly it makes up for in sheer content.
From the opening tutorial to my last five-hour marathon session, Viva Piñata consistently doled out new content. Each step of progression is awarded with another layer of gameplay or new piñata species. Depending on your pace, I’d say there’s between 30 and 50 hours of refreshing content, and if you attempt to accomplish every goal the game throws at you, you’re looking at hundreds of hours. Again, it all comes down to how you play. One person may choose to focus on a small number of piñatas, naming and accessorizing them, sending them away to parties, and evolving them into new forms. Another may set up elaborate breeding camps, detaching themselves from these virtual pets and breeding as many as they can to sell off and reach the level of “master romancer.”
Yet, possibly the most brilliant aspect of Viva Piñata is that, as cold and calculated as you may choose to play it, not only will it stay consistently fun, but it’s also going to get you at some point. In my case, I’d finished breeding Fudgehogs and reached master level for that species. I sold off all of them but my first one, and decided to name it and dress it up in a pirate hat and hand cuffs. (The accessories are out there.) But Sonic the Fudgehog wasn’t happy, and eventually no amount of joy candy could cheer him up. He became so depressed that he stormed out of my garden singing Dashboard Confessional, and I never saw him again. It was a depressing moment, but it also amazed me that I’d grown somewhat attached to this virtual creature.
Viva Piñata may be a hard sell, but I think anyone can get hooked on it. I had it for a few months before I even bothered to open it, and over a year after its release, it feels refreshing and brand new. I can’t recommend it enough. Tracking down a copy shouldn’t be hard, and you should be able to find it for a mere $10-20. I’d easily have paid full price for Rare’s masterpiece, and I honestly wish I’d bought it back then and never gave Gears of War a passing glance.