Sex, Lies, and Viva Piñata
(Remastered on 2/28/2019 – Originally published 10/1/2008)
Viva Piñata is not the family-friendly game series Microsoft colors it as—at least, not with the way anyone seems to play these games. Yes, the basic goal is 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 these games 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 hoarding 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.
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.
You’re probably wondering if this nihilistic experience is still 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 World of Warcraft, Pokémon, and other loot-driven games, it can feel a bit manipulative. 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, I do wish it would go beyond simple addictions.
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 almost your own 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 feels like a lame attempt to sell more strategy guides.
Taking all that into account, maybe Viva Piñata isn’t the best choice for kids. But there’s a large audience of adults who will eat this up. This is the perfect game for gamer parents who can’t play violent shooters when the kids are awake. It splits the difference between Pokémon and The Sims in a way that fans of those games are sure to appreciate. 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.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention all the ways you can get your hands on the Viva Piñata games.
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.