A breath of fresh air in an era of shooters
(Remastered on 2/27/2019 – Originally published 4/16/2008)
While it may be old now, I doubt anyone at Rare or Microsoft would complain about another Viva Piñata review. Positive or not, any exposure to Microsoft’s 2006 hidden gem is noteworthy. 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 fizzled in the market and remains underappreciated today.
The 360 was a platform built on masculine, violent titles. Especially in 2006 when almost everyone played Gears of War, a game about shooting your way through greytown and browntown while chainsawing monsters in half. I was guilty of matching that 18-24-year-old white male 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.
I discovered Viva Piñata a year later, in 2007. The Xbox 360 hadn’t expanded it’s demographic. Instead of shooting ugly grey mole monsters, we shot terrorists and purple aliens. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as some of the bigger games of 2007 offered narrative choice (Mass Effect), told real stories (Bioshock), or even added a few colors to the shooter palette (Halo 3). However, Microsoft had 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 wasn’t anything else like Viva Piñata during that console generation (outside of its own sequel).
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 pretty childish. 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 screaming about how wrong they were.
The only reason I gave the game a chance is because my Xbox self-destructed for the sixth goddamn time. As an apology, Microsoft was kind enough to offer me a free game. My options were Project Gotham Racing 3 (I already owned that AND PGR4), Kameo (Rare’s mediocre 360 launch platformer, and another reason to be suspicious of VP) and, lastly, Viva Piñata.
When I chose Viva Piñata , an Xbox support agent with a thick Indian accent replied, “You know that’s a kid’s game, right?” Even underpaid customer service agents on the other side of the world had their doubts.
But seriously, what is Viva Pinata?
Viva Piñata combines the cultivation and development aspects of management 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. 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 home for the various piñata species in the area. You play the role of an 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 experience and what you take away from it.
Once you’ve attracted piñatas to your garden you can start breeding them. Breeding piñatas is referred to as “romancing,” but the sexy time is nothing more than a simple minigame and a video of two piñatas dancing (after which an egg is delivered by a strange lady).
The helper characters are where the game presents a lot of humor that will fly well over most kids’ heads. While your garden is filled with innocent and colorful piñatas, the shops are full of filthy humans. A woman named Costolot runs the item shop, and as her name states, she is a greedy, chocolate coin-hungry capitalist. She’s also pretty 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.”
Willy Builder is the shop owner in charge of building the various breeding shacks you need to get your piñata mill running. He’s a drunk who shows up to work late, overcharges, and only eats bacon sandwiches. He’s basically a cartoon stereotype of a 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.
While you’re surrounded by a bunch of terrible people, your innocent piñatas go about their routine. There are many complicated aspects to the piñatas, but they’re consistent and predictable. 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 dislike of The Sims was that it was hard to gauge what made them happy or why bad things were happening. Viva Piñata sidesteps this issue, and what it lacks in random and frustrating misfortune, it makes up for in sheer variety.
From the opening tutorial to my last five-hour marathon session, Viva Piñata consistently doled out new ideas. 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 under your skin at some point. In my case, I’d finished breeding Fudgehogs and reached master level for that species. I sold off all but my first one, and decided to name it and dress it up in a pirate hat and hand cuffs. (The accessories can get pretty wild.) 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. I was caught off guard by how much I’d grown 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. If I could redo 2006, I’d easily pay full price for Rare’s masterpiece, never giving Gears of War a passing glance.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention all the ways you can get Viva Piñata and its equally excellent sequel Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise (review here).
Xbox 360: Both games are available digitally on the Xbox Marketplace (here and here) or on disc if you can find it.
Xbox One: Both games are also backwards compatible on Xbox One, OR, even better, available as part of Rare Replay, a massive collection of Rare’s back catalog.
DS: It’s ugly, but the Nintendo DS version is portable and retains most of the core gameplay.
PC: The first game is available on PC, but since it was part of Games For Windows Live it’s a bit of a nightmare to get up and running.