The release of Rare’s Viva Piñata was a wonderful, beautiful fluke. The 360 is a fantastic console, don’t get me wrong, but the purpose of the system is pretty clear. It’s ideally suited for playing console FPS titles, hardcore action games, and other M-rated novelties. The non-sporting E-rated games on Microsoft’s console can be counted with one hand – and most of them are just not very good.
Enter Viva Piñata, a colorful and unique flower against the 360’s dark-grey FPS backdrop. It spoke to both kids and parents, easily winning them over. The parental enthusiasm is understandable: A game their kid could actually play? On the incredibly expensive console they’d just bought?
The game is more than just a digital pacifier, though. Gaming parents, reviewers, and even some trash-talking Halo fanatics all awoke to the realization that the game was good. Really good. Now, with a sequel due out later this year, it worthwhile to consider why the original Viva Piñata is as good as it is and why it was the unheeded harbinger of a gaming revolution.
The quality of Viva Piñata is obvious within the first few minutes of playing. “You’re invited to Piñata Island, buddy. Come on over and check out our beautiful scenery. Well lookie here, there’s a garden that needs some tending to. Would you mind helping us out? “ From smashing rocks to tapping down dirt, right on through to your first moment with the adorable whirlim, the whole thing just feels really nice. Stepping into the world of Viva Piñata is like pulling on a warm sweatshirt during a breezy spring day. It’s comforting, it smells good, and there’s a bunch of candy in the pocket.
Given that so many console games are violent, angst-ridden festivals of misogyny, it’s nice just to see something different being released onto a home system. Even moreso, it’s downright shocking to see a game released for kids that doesn’t insult their intelligence. Yes it’s cutesy, and it’s certainly not the hardest game you’ll ever play, but Viva Piñata does offer its own special challenges. Most kids “games” are about as challenging as banging your head against a wall, and equally fun.
In essence, what Rare offers to Piñata players is a paper mache Liberty City. There’s some handholding to get started, and enough tutorial elements to clarify all the basic controls … but that’s it. Once you’re past about level 10 everything you do is completely up to you. Determined to play the ‘grind out species and level up' game? You’re set. Happy to play second fiddle while your kid whacks Whirlms with a shovel? Why not? Want to breed hundreds of one critter to find a mutation? Create a Zen garden with nothing but bird Piñatas? Race through the game to find the elusive Chewnicorn? All are viable ways to play.
What the game lacks in hooker-killing or felony crimes it more than makes up for in accessibility. It’s rare to see any company really look at lessons from successful cross-generational products, and even more precious to see that kind of thinking addressed to a videogame. Finding Nemo was successful because it spoke to kids on one level, and parents on a completely different one. By the same token, the depths of Viva Piñata’s occasionally insane minigame twitch controls appeal to a completely different audience than the “hee hee cute piggies” crowd. And at both ends of the spectrum, the most risqué content you’ll encounter are the hilarious Romance Dance animations.
The crucial piece of information to keep in mind here is that this title dropped in late 2006. In fact, just ten days before the Nintendo Wii hit the market. It was in development long before the 360 launched, and is generally regarded as a better game than their youth-oriented launch title Kameo. Rare, therefore, had no way of knowing the way the winds would blow after Nintendo’s little-box-that-could redefined the concept of gamers and gaming. The developers at Rare certainly weren’t thinking of grandmothers when they put together their design docs.
This makes the first game all the more revolutionary, and explains why it hasn’t sold as well as Microsoft would have liked. Viva Piñata was ahead of its time, released to an unfriendly console audience and with little marketing pointing potential players in its direction. That Rare is planning the release of a true sequel later this year is nothing short of miraculous.
The prescient elements, the parts that make it more than just a colorful kids game released to an uncaring market, are entirely bound up in that ‘warm sweatshirt’ feeling. It’s not just a nice side effect. That feeling of peace, tranquility and - most importantly – control is central to the runaway success of the Wii. The Wii sports titles are strongly identified with the console for a reason. What Nintendo’s console offers players is a calmer, softer edged world where they can excel with minimal effort. They can sit back, enjoy the cartoony graphics, watch friends play, and know that nothing really all that bad is going to happen. At the same time, players really feel like they can grasp the physicality of the gameworld, thanks to the controller’s movement-based metaphor. This, ultimately, is what has lead so many to Nintendo’s front door. Not Mario. Not Samus, nor Link, nor even the hardcore’s much-vaunted Smash Bros. experience. Gaming with Nintendo is relaxing, engaging, and just challenging enough to keep you amused.
Viva Piñata offers the same key attributes and, for me, puts them into a much more enjoyable package. The high definition neon-purple of a Rashberry or the taffy yellow of a Squazzil pulls me into the world of Piñata Island in a way few games have. My now-aging gamer reflexes settle easily into the two-joystick design of the 360 console, whereas I'm just never going to be comfortable with that Wiimote. Playing with Piñatas is an experience, in some ways, as much made for jaded console gamers as it is for new-to-a-joystick toddlers.
Tending to the needs of the Piñatas in my garden is a meditative experience. My manic MMO-grinding reaction is driving much of that, as I systematically move through my journal raising species, breeding them, and then selling them off. I’m like a peaced-out RPG player running a puppy mill of joy. I try to tell myself it’s a more sophisticated way of having a non-game experience, that the deep colors and geometric precision of my garden paths are ultimately about transcendent entertainment. Then I realize I’ve spent an hour humoring the whims of two fuzzy bears that will only mate if they’ve consumed a candle-apple red giant ant. When they do mate, it’s a freak out groove-fest to 50’s-era surfer music.
Ultimately, Viva Piñata dares you to take it seriously. It’s easily one of the most creative titles released for this already-innovative generation of consoles. With Trouble in Paradise slated for September release, my hope is that the series will will go down in the gaming history books as more than just a before-its-time fluke. Personally, I consider the Piñatas to be one of this generation’s lasting contributions to the art form – a garden where everything can turn out as sweet as you desire.