Developer: Rare | Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios | Release Date: 2006 | Genre: Strategy / Casual | Website: n/a | Purchase: Amazon
I’m sure I’m not the only one that cringes at the first sight of a Piñata. After seeing countless “funny” clips of some poor, unsuspecting parent getting whacked in the nether regions by a blindfolded kid with a big stick, it is kind of hard not to. Apparently, though, the idea is for the kid to actually whack the piñata so that all the sweets fall out, which is something you never see in the clips. Being bought by Microsoft must have been very traumatic for Rare as they’ve decided to base a whole game around the candy filled critters. Fortunately, there’s no blindfolded kids with sticks in sight, either.
Viva Piñata is actually a garden simulator, which, coupled with the sugary sweet critters adorning the cover, is almost certain to scare away the hardcore gamers. I must admit, I had my doubts too, but I’m glad, I gave this game a chance. You start off on Pinata Island with a tiny rundown garden, which must then be turned into a piñata Eden. Initially you’ll only have access to the most basic tools and the only piñata that will be lured in are the worms. Hard work and perseverance pays off, however, and you’ll soon have a garden that surpasses what the previous master of the island, Jardiniero, could achieve. Along the way you’ll also unlock chapters of a story book that explains what happened to the island and why it is in such a state.
Viva Pinata hides quite a challenge behind its colorful visuals and filling your garden with exotic piñata is not as easy as you may think. Sure, the common ones like whirlmple’s and Sparrowmints will flock to any old garden, but getting the likes of the Roario and Elephanilla requires a bit more effort. Each species of piñata has a list of criteria a garden must fulfill before they even make an appearance and then it is even more of an effort to lure them in and make them residents. Then it’s a mission to fulfill their “romance dance” requirements so you can breed them. If you are really dedicated, you can also become a master romancer for each species, discover all their variants and trigger the secret evolutions some have. Of course, while you are attempting all of this, life in the garden goes on and things don’t always go as planned.
Until you have the means to stop them, ruffians and sour piñatas will wander into your garden and cause havoc. Resident piñatas don’t always get along either, so fights can break out at any time. The loser usually requires a visit from the doctor as well, unless you want to see the creepy Dasdardos floating in to put it out of its misery. Some piñatas are carnivorous and will eat others, and a lot of the resident or romance requirements call for the sacrifice of a few others. Add to that the large variety of trees and plants needing care, and you are looking at a pretty chaotic experience. Sure, there are stretches where nothing seem to be happening, but at times all hell can break loose with multiple things happening at once. You’ll also receive requests from Pinata Central from time to time, which means sending off Pinatas to a party, which increases their value and happiness.
Later on, you can hire helpers to assist with mundane tasks like watering plants or collecting produce, but there will still be plenty of hands-on tasks to be done. You can also have multiple gardens, so if you get tired from playing in one, simply move to a new one. All your cash will still be available and the game remembers your level. Speaking of money, the currency in this game is chocolate coins and there’s plenty of places to spend it. Most will go to Costalot’s for seeds and garden items, but building piñata houses also costs money. You can even pimp out your piñatas with a variety of accessories if you so wish. The “human” characters in the game are a bizarre lot and all wear weird costumes with freaky masks.
Visually, the game is a treat, and half the fun is seeing all the weird piñatas Rare has come up with. You have a journal to keep track of everything, which is handy as it also lists the various requirements. Mating piñatas for the first time results in a hilarious “romance dance” video playing and some of these are brilliant. Conservative parents might find some of the dances to be too suggestive for young minds, but I didn’t see anything inappropriate. The game has a day and night cycle, which not only looks cool, but also means that you get nocturnal piñatas. There’s also weather effects to liven up the garden.
The camera angle can feel a bit restrictive at times, and I found myself wishing I could zoom out further to get a better overview of things. Selecting piñatas, especially the very fast or flying ones, can also be a bit of a chore at times. The limit on the amount of piñatas and objects you can have in your garden at one time is also fairly low, which is disappointing, considering the amount of things available. The best way to deal with this is to have multiple gardens, each set up to attract different kinds of piñatas. The romance mazes require you to navigate your piñata to its waiting partner, but this soon becomes a chore too, especially if you try to become a master romancer for every specie. The mazes are made up of “loathers” that explode on contact and later on they start moving around and even turn invisible. Combined with the finicky movement some piñatas have, this is not a good thing.
Viva Pinata is a very addictive game and can become quite time consuming once you get into it. Navigating the myriad of shop menus is rather cumbersome and considering the amounts of times you do it. I wish it was more streamlined. Your piñatas also sometimes flat-out refuse to listen to you, which can be very annoying. There’s usually a good reason for them not wanting to carry out your orders, but in the heat of things, its irksome to first make sure they are actually doing what you told them to do. The audio is nice, but the voice overs for the tutorial is extremely patronizing and sound like something out of Sesame Street. The shopkeepers are funny, but talk way too much and repeat themselves, which begins to grate. The music is very limited, so you’ll soon tire of the few tunes playing during certain events. The sound effects are good and even attracted the attention of my cat.
A lot of people is going to pass up Viva Pinata, simply because of its looks and theme, which is a crying shame. Even after all the hours I put into the game, I still find myself going back for more. If you enjoy open ended sandbox games like the Sims, then this game comes highly recommended. It definitely has that “something special” that Rare games are renowned for and will provide many hours of addictive gameplay.
*Review originally published 2006.