Blaring its embarrassingly catchy theme song from the opening cinematic, Viva Piñata is truly "filled with fun" — sometimes creepy, sometimes addictive, and sometimes quirky fun, but it always lives up to its billing. This is the type of gameplay flair from the Rare we used to know.
To a newcomer, Viva Piñata is an impossible concept to grasp. It's contradictory in many ways — set up for kids yet addictive for adults, colorful and cheery with a dark edge, and deep and complex while being intuitive and simple.
The base concept involves an empty garden. From here you grow grass on soft land. Then a stray living piñata slithers into gameplay territory, waiting for you to create proper accommodations. When it's happy and it has a mate, it "romances" and out pops a little piñata. The process then repeats as more species move in depending on how well you manage and vary your surroundings.
Your cursor is the main means of interactivity. Items such as watering cans come later. A broken down, rotted shovel is your first way of caring for your new set-up. The interface is intuitive with some small problems (more information about objects on the main screen would be wonderful). You'll have every known option down in a half hour.
What Viva does so well is keep this experience fresh. Hours into the game, new additions are piled on that can radically alter the way you design your garden. As the many species of piñata begin calling your garden home, you feel a goofy sense of pride that you've attracted a Newtgat even if you have no idea what that is in the first place. The only complaint here is that it takes a staggering amount of work to gain extra land space, and things fill up rapidly.
Viva has that Pokemon hook, where collecting these virtual creatures requires painstaking care that doesn't allow you to stop playing for extended periods. You'll ensure you have the right pieces to make each critter happy, even if that means losing the opportunity to attract a new one. If you're having a problem with a certain resident, you can smash them with your shovel, revealing moneymaking candy, or sell the piñata outright.
Later in the game, freakish looking human-like characters can begin assisting you. Some can help with mundane tasks like picking up fruit to sell for profit from your hand-grown trees. Shops open with every item you need, for a price of course. The currency is chocolate gold coins, suitable for any in-game purchase.
If you're an adult, you may need a few extended sessions of Gears of War after playing Viva Piñata to regain some of your adulthood. Oddly enough, the ridiculous concept of keeping a garden requires the right amount of strategy to force you right back after a few death matches. Online trading opens the game up to an entirely new set of possibilities. While you can't actually visit another garden, swapping items is a painless negotiating process. You haven't lived until you've been in a shouting match against a complete stranger with a Badgesicle piñata who refuses to trade it for anything you offer.
For the younger set, the game's introduction is deep and detailed. There's an alternate control scheme that requires very little user input to get things moving. The gorgeous graphics, funny animations, and general happiness surrounding the gameplay can keep any child occupied, provided the very young have some reading assistance.
What should be noted is that this is nothing like the Saturday morning cartoon that began airing before the game was released. All of those funny characters, jokes, and personalities are absent. The game is something else entirely that defies description for many players. It never has a point or a purpose. You're meant to keep moving and adding to your design until you've exhausted all possibilities.
Viva Piñata is a daring title, taunting a user to give it a shot on a whim. All the marketing in the world wouldn't properly tell the story of this wonderfully creative effort. The best anyone can do is ask a player to give it an hour and then dare them to stop. By then, the hook is in place and the game won't leave their console.
*Note: The "Collector's Edition" is the same price, and comes with an extra disc of demos and videos. However, the packaging is flimsy and the disc holder doesn't hold things together very well. It's not meant for kids.
Viva Pinata is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Comic Mischief, Mild Cartoon Violence.