Review by Steerpike
Journey into Steerpike's Mind
Anthropomorphization cracks me up, so you can imagine the chord
struck by the idea of farming piñatas. Add funny words like
"fudgehog," and I'm powerless. I'd held off on the 360
purchase for months, but this made me cave. To be clear, I didn't
spend $500 just to raise piñatas (I bought Gears
of War, too), but it was part of the reason, and it does, I
think, provide a sort of window into my psyche. Friends, family
and fellow office sheep are baffled by Viva Piñata, and
they mock me. To a certain degree, I brought it on myself.
"I've never done acid," said my friend Pete, watching
the game's cheery musical opening. "And now I don't have to."
Pete had some beer in him, but I've gotta say his comment is pretty
accurate. Viva Piñata is bright and jovial and bizarre
... and ghoulish, and prurient, and not for everyone. Surprisingly
rich, it nonetheless squanders some potential by going sandbox when
it should be mission-based, by simplifying stuff that should be
complex, and by entangling things best left simple. Viva Piñata
tries to be all things for all people, and the result is an
exceptional game from a theoretical standpoint, but not always in
You'll find a lot of complaints in this review. Oddly, they mostly
bubbled to the surface as I wrote it and don't seriously detract
from an otherwise enjoyable game. There's much to like in Viva
Piñata. It requires a lot of management and has a great
sense of humor and outstanding production values. It is worth the
attention of sandbox strategy fanseven those who are avoiding
it because they dislike the notion of playing a "children's"
Because Viva Piñata is not just spun sugar. It has
a very real dark side, undiscussed in much of its press. Rare, Piñata's
creator, is best known for Conker and Perfect Dark;
not exactly kids' games. That its psychedelic big-top atmosphere
conceals some powerfully adult undercurrents is one of Viva Piñata's
most charming traits.
Where the Truffleo Roam
On the lush tropical atoll of Piñata Island, feral piñatas
roam free. A small human village caters to the elite Piñata
Gardenersindividuals with the intestinal fortitude and horticultural
knowhow to lure and tame wild piñatas. Your own muddy tract
is bleakly piñata-less, nothing but a dream of piñata
paradise. Essentially, Viva Piñata is a sandbox strategy
game, a missionless Zoo Tycoon. You manage economics, attract,
name and breed your candy-filled charges, keep them happy and healthy,
stave off dangerous Sour Piñatas and other threats, maintain
and improve your garden, and sell your livestock for a profit.
There are a story and recurring characters, but the true stars
are the sixty unique, lovable and hilarious piñata breeds,
those and the endless task of garden optimization. Titles like this
are easy for strategy-minded players to get pleasantly lost in.
There's lots to do and myriad ways to do it. That's the beauty of
The other beauty of Viva Piñata is that it's beautiful.
We still haven't come close to seeing what the 360 is capable of,
but Viva Piñata gives us a taste. The brilliantly
colored flapping paper fur, gorgeous effects and adorable piñata
animations are second to none. Enough has been said about the game's
graphics that I need not waste much space on it; suffice to say
that everything you've heard is true.
Technical irritants are limited but irksome. This game would play
better with a mouse than with thumbsticks; placing and orienting
objects and structures is hugely clumsy. Your garden never gets
as big as it should, and the camera never provides an adequate view.
The gaudy interface requires too many button pushes to perform common
tasks. Overlong load times between screens and menus interfere with
game flow. Given that Microsoft owns Rare, I can see why Viva
Piñata was a 360 release, but it would have been better
in Windows. Otherwise, it's smooth, stable and polishedin
fact, it's the only 360 game I own that has never once returned
the ubiquitous Disc Not Readable crash.
A friendly tutorial doles out concepts and game features one at
a time. Eventually, village merchants become available, allowing
you greater opportunity to improve your garden. There are literally
dozens of enhancements, ranging from produce seeds to decorative
rocks to bling for your piñatas. Just discovering everything
takes hours, and though the game can be at times grindingly opaque,
Viva Piñata is perfect for players who love to experiment.
There's always something more to do, and it's easy to put in many
hours at a single sitting.
The sheer number of tasks you must personally manage might overwhelm
children, while adults quickly realize that they are numerous but
mindlessly simple. There's the illusion of hundreds of things to
do at all times, but many are repetitive drudge jobs with little
impact on your garden, aside from being required. It creates a there/not
there quality to the strategy element. It seems that a strategic
approach would be useful, but in actual play it's not often a prerequisite
Example: you can build pens to separate piñata species,
organizing your garden and isolating predators. But there's no harm
in going free range, letting them gyre and gimble in the wabe all
day. If you do pen them, there's no reason to ever let them out.
Support structures are optional, and piñatas don't really
need to socialize or wander. If the piñatas had a series
of structure-based daily needs they preferred to handle themselves
(like your creatures in Dungeon Keeper 2), it would have
been a tighter play experience, as garden management would require
more precision and planning.
A Piñata in Every Port
Officially, it is a children's gameit even spawned
an insipid Saturday morning cartoon. But Viva Piñata is
too complex for kids and too simple for adults. In trying to reach
both, it misses either. A mission-based structure would have reined
it in somewhat and allowed adults and kids alike to learn at an
appropriate pace; the sandbox side of the game should have been
an option, not the whole of the single-player campaign. As it is,
Viva Piñata is too sprawling, too open, and it becomes
a game of repetition and trial and error.
For all the tutorial exposition and info in the in-game encyclopedia,
core activities and concepts, like how to attract piñatas,
receive limited explanation. You don't get specific instructions
on how to lure each specimen until you've done it by accident. Even
when you meet all of the requirements, the wild breeds sometimes
refuse to move in. Then, once they're there, getting them to do
what you want can be frustrating.
Take breeding. Each breed will only swap sauce when you meet certain
requirements of food, prey, landscaping or whatever else puts them
in a randy mood. Breeding low-level piñatas is pretty straightforward,
but valuable species like Elephanillas and Chippopotomuses can be
annoyingly recalcitrant. Charlie and Limelda, my Cocoadiles, never
fulfilled the requirements for Cocoadile Sexytime because I couldn't
attract the prey they wanted. They enjoyed an entirely platonic
relationship, never even held claws, and finally died unsatisfied
and alone, Limelda succumbing to a piece of tainted candy and Charlie
just dropping dead one day. Issues like this give the game an unwelcome
nebulous feel, like you're always missing something.
There are approximately one hojillion strategies and things to
do, from fertilizing your plants to hybridizing piñatas to
taming Sours. (Check
it. That list doesn't even scratch the surface). Problem is,
they're never explicitly defined. The manual says vaguely that you
should try stuff; the encyclopedia says almost nothing and is hard
to navigate anyway. I can't help but feel I missed out on some depth
simply because I didn't want to spend hours experimenting with different
combinations of fertilizer and plant seeds or combining random garden
items to see what could be produced.
None of this seriously detracts from the game's fun, but it may
impact long-term fondness for the title, especially among adults.
Assuming young players can handle the enormous task list, they'll
happily while away hours with Viva Piñata. Hell, I
happily whiled away more than a few myself, but around the 30-hour
mark I began to grow tired of the lack of variance in activitiesessentially,
the lack of newness or challenge. I loved the thing, but the huge
concessions made to allow for very young players finally began to
grate on me.
Ironically, these concessions directly contradict much of the game
Hot Piñata-on-Piñata Action
And so we come to the part that's not receiving much coverage elsewhere.
The truth is, Viva Piñata is loaded with dark, disquieting
imagery invisible to children but traumatically evident to adults.
Cannibalism, incest, bestiality, neglect and victimization of helpless
creatures lie at the core of a game that is at times overtly carnal
and spiced with entendre so transparent you'd be hard-pressed to
imagine an interpretation that wasn't sexually charged.
The sartorial fashion of Piñata Island can best be described
as Animalized Dr. Seuss Bondage Queen; because of this, you must
look closely to even realize that the game's main characters are
human beings, but human beings they are. There's a huge bestio-masque
fetish element to this game: Eyes Wide Shut meets National
Geographic. People dress as Crayola goth animal hookers and
coyly fetishize even the most innocuous of activities.
We learn that Leafos, the girl who provides the tutorial and prowls
your garden dispensing advice, once "tried to take a Moozipan
to bed;" a difficult phrase to misconstrue. Piñata hunter
Gretchen Fetchem throatily invites you to give her a call "when
you get into the menagerie thing." The island's pet store is
owned by two absentee parents who leave their bored teenage daughter
in charge, dressed as a cat; she makes thinly veiled sexual advances
and frequently suggests that maybe you like your piñatas
a little too much. As for those piñatas, they are genderless
and ignorant of the danger of inbreeding. You'll soon be breeding
piñatas to their own mothers and overseeing GLBT multifectas.
There is also a macabre element. Deadly Sours enter your garden
regularly, leaving poisoned candy in their wake (piñatas
are suckers for candy)brightly wrapped sweets that sicken
and kill. Your only recourse until late in the game is to beat the
Sour to death with a shovel. Your own piñatas will fight
to the death at the drop of a hat, and predators like Badgesicles
and Pretztails waste no time chasing down and consuming hapless
piñata prey. When one dies, it bursts open, spilling candy
innards across the garden. The shower of sweets ignites a frenzy
among your other piñatas as they race over to gobble up the
sugary viscera. And don't lose sight of the fact that you're raising
these creatures so they can be sold off, bludgeoned apart and finally
eaten by children.
Viva Piñata is grim, unsettling, sexually charged
and, in many ways, quite grown-up. But Rare isn't trying to pull
a fast one on the world's youthI'd have no problem with very
young kids playing, even by themselves, because you have to be both
adult and somewhat deviant to get the subtext. I loved it.
Viva Piñata's duality, its failure to work equally
for players young and old, hinders its march to greatness. Ironically,
the game could have been ideal for both, even with all of the mature
undertones, if Rare had simply missionized the game and left sandbox
play as an option. Sandbox games are addictive because of the "one
more turn" factor; the tradeoff is that it's easy to become
lost in them unless the challenge evolves alongside the player.
Viva Piñata asks little of you; there is no actual
challenge. And adults will drift away once they figure that out.
All this means is that it's a charming game that unfortunately won't
appeal to grownups for as long as it will appeal to their offspring.
Having put in about 40 hours, I've gotten my money's worth. Only
the last ten or so were unsatisfying, and even those were hardly
torture. I'm disappointed because I think that as good as the game
is, and it is really good, it misses many opportunities to be much
Rare is like Microsoft's brightly colored pet parrot. Bought in
the middle of the original Xbox's life cycle, two Rare games were
crucial 360 launch titles. Ironically, Perfect Dark Zero, the
game everyone expected to be the 360's killer app, was dismal.
Rare swooped in and trumped itself with Kameoa game
no one really expected much from at all. But the truth is that the
purchase by Microsoft hasn't been very good for Rare so far, or
at least they've released some disappointing games (compared to
their earlier work) since they've been under Redmond's ownership.
Viva Piñata, despite the complaints, is the first
strong reversal of that trend.
Old or young, if you're looking for a beautiful, goofy, moderately
disturbing game that encourages experimentation and guarantees many
hours of fun, Viva Piñata is a safe bet. It absolutely
could have been better, but it's still a triumph in its own little
way, and it's proof that for all the recent five-out-of-tens, Rare
still has it where it counts.
Release Date: November 2006
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