Sex, Lies, and Viva Pinata

Double Review!
Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise (Xbox 360)
Viva Pinata: Pocket Paradise (Nintendo DS)

Flapyak Pinata CardViva Piñata is not the family-friendly game Microsoft colors it as – at least, not the way anyone seems to play it. Yes, the basic goals of the game are to attract fluffy piñata creatures into your garden, and yes, you can name them and dress them up and call them your own. But, I’ve yet to meet a single person who doesn’t play it as an opportunistic piñata baron.

There’s an intrinsic detachment to raising creatures made of paper, no matter how full of life they appear. Cheery deaths, complete with the sounds of happy children and an explosion of candy, only reinforce the apathy towards piñata existence. The kindest of hearts will find themselves pinching chocolate coins, with the ever present “sell” button beckoning them. Even their most noble efforts will be quashed by evildoers, poisonous weeds, and the realities of the pinata food chain. Before long, piñatas become nothing more than currency. Each new species is merely a stepping stone towards bigger and better species.

Viva Pinata: Trouble in ParadiseThis garden is particularly grim.

In a way, the Viva Piñata series is a pyramid scheme masquerading as a life-sim. Like a dungeon crawler or MMO, the games tease endless carrot-on-a-stick enticements. Each new goal is rewarded with experience that brings in new piñatas, each with new goals, and the cycle continues. You’re typically so inundated with things to do that you don’t even have time to feel bad. Is a piñata sick and too expensive to heal? Smash it and sell off its candy. Is a wild piñata causing too much trouble to tame? Beat it senseless until it leaves. Sure, there will be especially cute piñatas you’ll grow attached to, but they never compare to the endless breeding and selling you’ll inevitably do.

But you’re probably wondering, is it fun? Does all this greed and manipulation of papery creatures really detract from the game? Well, yes and no. It’s certainly fun, the original Viva Piñata is still one of the best Xbox 360 titles. You couldn’t ask for a better portable time sink on the DS, and the Xbox 360 sequel adds enough features to go beyond its expansion pack-esque looks. Cooperative play adds a whole new dimension to the game, and the social/family aspect is too endearing to write off. It’s just that, like last month’s Too Human, or World of Warcraft, or Pokémon, it’s a bit manipulating. You essentially “run the treadmill like everyone else,” to quote Braid developer Jonathon Blow. It’s a nearly endless quest for the next shiny thing, and while it’s impeccably designed, more games should go beyond being simple addictions.

Professor PesterThis jerk likes to smash your most valuable piñatas.

So maybe it’s a treadmill, but it’s a charming, colorful, well-designed treadmill. The portability of the DS version means you’ll probably play it with the intention of killing time anyway. On the 360, there’s so much there that it never gets boring. There are so many ways to spice things up, it’s your own damn fault if you get bored. Invite a significant other to join you. Hop online with up to three other players and speed up the pace. Play “Just for Fun” mode and enjoy infinite money and zero threats. You can even take advantage of the quirky Piñata Vision feature, which allows you to print cards online, hold them up to an Xbox webcam, and essentially skip anything that’s giving you trouble. If there’s any major fault it’s that the 360 version hides away hundreds of secrets that require brute force experimentation to reveal – it’s nothing but a lame attempt to sell more strategy guides.

Viva Pinata: Pocket ParadiseThe DS version gets the job done, but it’s not nearly as pretty.

Perhaps Viva Piñata isn’t for kids, but there’s a large audience of man-children and their girlfriends who will eat this up. There’s the gamer dad, that elusive being who can’t play Gears of War when the kids are awake. There’s the closet Pokémon freak, the misguided furry, and the obsessive compulsive looking for a new fix. There are few who won’t love Viva Piñata, despite its innuendo and its cold, calculated path to victory. Just don’t go into it looking for something that will change your life.

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