The Piñatas are Revolting

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.


Nice writeup!
I can't wait for the sequel, and I really hope it keeps the same feel as the original. This game single-handedly transformed my wife into a gamer. For that, I will happily buy the next version.

I still haven't played it due to my not owning a 360. Would anyone recommend the PC port? I need a game my wife wouldn't mind me playing. She tends to dislike the killin'.

I can't recommend the game highly enough, and I can't see how the PC version would be anything but awesome. A few hotkeys would be nice, actually. This game ate my brain for at least 40 hours, which is a lifetime for me.

Michael, thanks for revisiting this - total gem, painfully overlooked.

Great write up! I got the game when it came out but I was never able to really get far into it. As mentioned on my GTA4 and Oblivion posts, I have problems with sandbox type of games. I always get to a point that I don't know what to do and I just end up never touching the game again.

My wife though, put massive hours into it. She really liked it. I bought the game initially for her, since she loves Sims 2, I thought she would like VP too. She already asked me to buy the sequel couple days ago.

40 hours? Grievous disorder! Put me down for two!
I know what you mean. I only have so much time to play. I just want something that will suck me in for a little while.

This is a game that caught me by surprise, and I can count at least 5 people on my friends list who mocked me for playing it only to become irrevocably hooked for a couple of months themselves. I lost my saved gardens when I replaced by 360 HDD (for some reason, this was the only save that I couldn't port across) but that just means that, during the summer lull, I can set up whole new set. It is incredibly rare [sic] for me to look forward to a replay-from-scratch with joyous anticipation.

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.

You are exactly right in my view. An excellent and thoughtful article.

I love this article. I still count Viva Pinata as not only the best and most original game of this generation on the 360/PS3 so far, but arguably the most important. It was just about perfect.

There's a PC version? Hmmm.... Excellent, Smithers! *steeples fingers*

I see a problem with Viva Pinata in that it looks like it should be for five year olds, but is pretty complicated for that bracket. That pretty much limits the market to gamers old enough to looks past the kiddie appearance, 20+. I wonder if this needs to be addressed before the game can be a success.

I mentioned this game to some Xbox-owning friends after hearing all of the great and intelligent reviews for Viva Pinata, and was promptly ridiculed for having any interest in a game "made for kids". This is coming from me, a 29 year old, and my friends, age 28-34.

Danjo Olivaw hit it right on the money. This is a game I would play in secret; the effort required to prove its merits isn't worth the trouble.

While I was in college, a friend of mine would bring his 360 in to play on the HDTV that was in the class room. He brought Gears of War and Viva Pinata. Gears of War got quite a bit of attention at first, but Viva Pinata ended up being a bigger hit with everyone in a classroom entirely made up of 19-23 year old males. It was just more fun to watch.

I own it, i really like it. Just a bit too complicated I think. I would have liked something with better camera controls and many of the pinatas are so hard to click on because they fly or move really fast.

The puppy mill comment was hilarious! That's how I ran my garden too. There was also something that was both deeply satisfying and absolutely horrifying about whacking pinatas with a shovel (accompanied by children cheering). It kind of reminded me of the woodchipper scene in Fargo - both disturbing and funny.

Never been able to bring myself to trade this one in - this thread may be the push i need to fire it up again

I actually grew to hate the PC version. Before I owned a 360 I picked the PC version up. It was addictive for about 3 hours, until the giant fonts, awkward and often infuriating camera, clunky control scheme and repetitive "mating" mini-games caused the PC fanboy inside me to revolt.

I haven't played the 360 version, but I'm guessing it's an almost 1 to 1 port of that version, which means that you're sitting three feet from your computer screen but the game is treating you like you should be sitting on your couch across the living room. My mouse and keyboard don't reach that far.

Thank you for this beautiful article. You've managed to express so well exactly why I love Viva Pinata so much. Revolutionary, relaxing, fun. The best Nintendo game ever.

I am still exploring the first one. The sequel may mean I never need a 360 game again.

Brilliant article, much appreciated. Its one of those games we have threatened to get to at some point and never quite made it, but with a kinda lull on 360 unless you are into GTA which I am still considering, it is maybe now the time - reading the article and everyones comments are just as encouraging..

Bizarrely I met this amazing octogenerian at the RHS Malvern flower show, my other passion, who has only just got introduced to gaming when she bought her granddaughter Viva for her birthday. On the wet days they spend their time working in Viva and when fine they have been developing a plot in her garden in a Viva styley - two for the price of one and both having the most amazing time.

I tried to suggest Lego Star Wars for their next venture, keeping in in the fun vein of thinking..

I still haven't picked this up yet, but it is becoming a stronger impulse. Once I've done with GTA I'm definitely getting it.

Not much to add, but this really was a great game. I keep meaning to get back to it, and at some point I will.

The XBL demo apparently didn't include any time limit to it.

It's a bit sad for me because the girlfriend wanted some snuggle time and I said "Ok, just a minute, I'm trying out this Pinata game". 4 hours later I switch it off because my damned stupid pinatamals got into stupid-ass fights, and I'm in the dog-house with her.

I don't understand how a game like the sims can be such a huge seller, but something as fun, creative, and harmless as this can fall by the wayside. There isn't a ton that should be changed in the sequel, but they could do something interesting.