As a 28-year-old man, it probably says a lot about me that I see absolutely nothing wrong with spending a lot of time playing a video game that’s largely aimed at children, where you look after a load of plants and cute little animals in a nice, colourful garden. Only when I find myself talking to other people about this game do I realise that maybe it’s not totally normal. But I love playing Viva Piñata (opens in new tab) because it’s the perfect antidote to everything people assume we’re supposed to like. And now that you can play 360 games on your Xbox One (opens in new tab) it's time for another visit.
The premise is simple enough: you have a garden, and a range of living papier-mâché creatures who may or may not be interested in paying your little plot of land a visit. Each of the many different species has certain needs. They’ll have a set of conditions that you have to satisfy before they’ll even decide to appear in your garden, then another set of things you’ll need to have before they’ll decide to actually stay put, and yet another list of conditions you’ll have to fulfil in order to make them get sexy and have some kids. They don’t actually get sexy, mind. They just have a little dance, and an egg gets flown in to where they’re staying. Just as I choose to believe happened with my own parents.
The point is, it’s all about picking which species you want to attract next, and tailoring your garden to suit them. This provides a really smart and steady escalation, as each species’ needs get more and more complex the higher you move up the ladder. As long as you pick which species to focus on next and stick to it, rather than trying to deal with every critter that shows up in your garden, you’ll find it’s a meditative and peaceful experience the likes of which we rarely see outside of Xbox Live Arcade releases these days.
That said, there are some unnecessary elements of conflict dotted around the game. ‘Sour’ pinatas will sometimes wander into your garden, vomiting up sweets that will make your pinatas ill if they eat them, and bad dudes called Ruffians will smash up your stuff and pick fights with your beloved, sweetie-filled inhabitants. It is possible for the sour pinatas to be tamed, however, and the Ruffians can be deterred with the purchase of a special item that becomes available when you’ve levelled up enough, but until these things happen these baddies are a total pain and serve only to ruin the otherwise gentle tone of the game.
Playing Viva Piñata today, it’s genuinely hard to believe that the game first surfaced seven years ago, back in December 2006. Certainly, there’s a timelessness to a lot of the visual elements, from the bold colours down to the little papery frills on the piñatas. After all this time, there’s still a definite case to be made that this is one of the nicest-looking games ever to grace the Xbox 360.
Time hasn’t hurt the game mechanically, either. A joypad-controlled title that involves the careful placement of lots of tiny objects in a massive garden should surely be an exercise in frustration that would have some of us crying out for a keyboard and mouse, but this isn’t the case at all. Rather, by use of clear, context-sensitive commands and a cursor that intelligently snaps to nearby objects, it’s clear that Rare worked incredibly hard in order to make the controls work.
There’s one considerable flaw in the game, though – there’s an awful lot of stuff that it doesn’t tell you. This is actually because you’re meant to watch the Viva Piñata TV series every Saturday morning, as the episodes serve as sly tutorials on how to attract a certain creature or grow a certain plant in your garden. It’s actually a brilliant idea, but it’s not 2006 anymore, and you’re not five years old, so it doesn’t quite work. On the plus side, however, we do have smartphones and tablets now, so you can just search for everything online while you’re playing the game like some kind of bloody cyborg.
If you’ve got kids, or you’re a bit of a softie yourself, or maybe you’re just sick of driving rally cars while listening to obnoxious electro music or shooting terrorists in the balls, Viva Piñata remains as wonderful and essential as it was seven years ago.
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