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Viva Pinata

There are a handful of games that will make or break the Xbox 360 in the console war. The next installment of Halo, whenever it may come out, is one of them. Same goes for the racing sim Forza Motorsport. And alongside those space warriors, luxury cars and burnt rubber, you'll find ... talking piñatas.

Yeah. Piñatas - the candy-filled animals that kids beat mercilessly with sticks at birthday parties, then gorge themselves on the sweet innards that come flowing out. Here, on Viva Piñata Island, the piñatas are alive. "It's as important to the overall platform as Gears of War," says Shane Kim, the general manager for Microsoft Games Studios.

Before you scoff, consider that Viva Piñata has been built from the ground up to be a family-friendly mass-market phenomnenon - there's already a tie-in cartoon series and a slew of merchandise, both due this fall. It's no coincidence that Microsoft's partner is 4 Kids Entertainment, the folks who turned Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into after-school crack for children. What's more, Viva Piñata has been the pet project of Tim Stamper, one of the founders of Rare (creators of Kameo: Elements of Power, Donkey Kong Country and many classic Nintendo games), since 2003. And once you recognize elements from Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing, The Sims and, of course, Pokemon in the gameplay, you'll start to see just what Microsoft was thinking.

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