Sometimes franchises just don’t take off in the way people expect. When Rare pushed out Viva Piñata onto the Xbox 360 and PC, Microsoft wouldn’t stop touting its potential. There was talk of TV series, anime, endless products and a series that would match Pokemon in terms of penetration. But it never came to pass. Several games arrived; but the series never found its momentum; instead being confined to the history books as one of “those” games that was overlooked by the masses. It’s a real shame as looking back; Viva Piñata was quite the brilliant feat of gaming.
Landing on Xbox 360 in 2006 and PC in 2007, the game’s premise was fairly simple. You’re handed control of a plot of land on the poorly maintained Piñata Island and left to attract wild Piñata. In order to achieve this you’re given a host of gardening tools and equipment designed to help you overcome the mess you’re left with. The eventual goal of the game is to attract enough of the same type of Piñata to eventually have them mate – thus creating more Piñata and continuing the cycle. Between all this you’ve got various hazards that can befall your plans, a food chain that will see wild Piñata attempt to gobble up your prized captures, as well as Professor Pester and illness.
With over 60 types of Piñata to capture, breed and nurture; the game certainly didn’t lack depth. Thanks to some gorgeous graphics, the world comes to life in vivid detail; creating a huge sense of charm throughout. Each of the Piñata varieties looks incredible – with each possessing a unique sense of presence that helps to grant each of the critters an identity. From the eggs that are hatched through to the adult creatures; you’re never bored watching things unfold. The environment itself is gorgeously realized; with some nifty tools afforded to the gamer so they can make their impact on the environment
The game was surprisingly deep. While on the surface the premise sounds shallow; things quickly escalate as your garden expands. The more Piñata you attract, the more features you need to install to keep them happy and healthy. As time passes this becomes a huge part of the games momentum; as you’re constantly moving to stay one step ahead of the next incident. In time you learn to manage your resources and the game becomes second nature. Pulling weeds, creating ponds and sowing seeds is a fun and satisfying process that rarely feels like a chore and even as the game presses on, there’s a huge sense of personality that washes over everything
In fact this sense of personalization played a large part in the longevity of the game. Seeing how others had laid their gardens out and incorporating better ways of playing into your play style was a nice way of incorporating a social element into the game. One of the games most underrated features came in the form of its social engagement. While you could play solo and attempt to get all the Piñata’s yourself, it was far easier to trade with friends. This was made even easier thanks to the use of PC/Xbox 360 connectivity. As one of the few games to take advantage of the ill-fated Games for Windows platform; it meant that trading wasn’t limited to just Xbox 360 users – but instead to home computer users. This was important as the only way to really “win” the game was to trade Piñata’s; so having an extended option of trade was a godsend. Getting your hands on a rare Piñata feels like a triumph.
Sadly for all the praise, gamers never really truly engaged with the franchise. Many gamers were turned off the experience by the child-friendly appearance of the graphics. On a console where Call of Duty and Gears of War were tearing it up; there wasn’t much sentiment for a brightly coloured, slow-paced game like Viva Piñata. The game didn’t sell as well as Microsoft hoped; the company releasing a sequel in fairly quick succession to try and build momentum – a decision that ultimately didn’t work out. There’s a sense that Microsoft didn’t quite know how to handle the series and that the game became something of a missed opportunity.
As it stands the series has been left to collect dust. After the ill-fated spin-off Viva Piñata: Party Animals – the series hasn’t really come back to prominence. It recently featured in the Rare Replay collection – and still stands up remarkably well today. It’s one of that collections more underrated gems and I totally recommend digging out a cheap copy of the game if you haven’t taken the plunge to Xbox One yet. It’s well worth the experience.
What did you think Viva Piñata? Did you enjoy it the first time around?