I’d forgotten how brutal Viva Pinata can be. Courtesy of Rare Replay – yes, I’m definitely making great use of Game Pass, thank you – I’ve had another chance to try out Rare’s attempt to broaden the audience for the Xbox 360, Microsoft’s great last-gen console.
Presented with a small, junk-strewn patch of land in an idyllic-looking world, you’re introduced to the game mechanics at an almost dizzying rate by Irish-accented, walking tutorial dispenser, Leafos. Once you’ve tidied up your little piece of the world and added some lush-looking grass, you’ll attract your first pinata creature – a little Whirlm!
Creatures have visit requirements – which you’ll reach organically at first – and will turn up once these are met; they’ll stay in your garden once you’ve reached a further requirement (Resident Requirement) and they’ll be in the mood for love once you meet the Romance Requirement stage. Successfully perform the ‘romance dance’ mini-game and you’ll have a baby pinata to live in your garden.
You get to name your residents too! It’s great and all feels like you’re building a lovely little community of personalised pinatas very quickly.
Until the food chain starts to come into play. Nothing can prepare you for the sight of a Sparrowmint sitting and waiting patiently for the two loved-up Whirlms to emerge from their boudoir and lay a brightly coloured egg. Your average survival horror game has nothing on the sheer terror you’ll experience when that egg hatches, with a technicolour burst of confetti and streamers – and your new baby Whirlm is immediately being eyed up by that hungry bird.
Just wait until your resident or romance requirements for a Pinata requires them to have eaten another creature. Those Whirlms you just successfully steered through a breeding process? Well, say goodbye to a few if you want to have baby Sparrowmints too – their Romance Requirements are to have a Sparrowmint house and to have each eaten a Whirlm. Sad times.
And it only gets more harsh as you get further into the game. Your hard-earned residents and breeding partners will be eaten like there’s no tomorrow if you want to attract the bigger creatures. It clashes a bit with the family friendly, beautifully colourful image that the game initially presents (by contrast, the romance elements are tastefully and cutely handled, though the minigames soon become tedious).
Oh, and don’t get me started on the fights. When your pinatas disagree with each other, they’ll get into a fight – and it’s really stressful to watch!
Maybe this is just me being overly sensitive. Maybe, as a vegetarian, it’s harder for me to witness the food chain in action up close and personal – even if it is just candy-filled, brightly coloured pinatas that are being eaten up and beaten up. Maybe it’s actually a great sign that Viva Pinata still has a magical charm, given how attached I became to my little guys and girls – again.
It’s a shame that the series didn’t set the world on fire; the hype and push from Microsoft – as mentioned above, this was an attempt to broaden their audience with more family friendly fare – at the time the first game came out was absolutely huge (there was even a cartoon, which seems to have been completely forgotten) and the sales figures just weren’t there. It reviewed well and was certainly popular amongst my (admittedly limited) circle of friends back in 2006, but Justin Cook from Rare stated that the game had sold around 500,000 copies around a year after its release (thanks Wikipedia!). It’s heartbreaking, really – it’s a superb game and still feels unique; despite the sheer number of things to do and to take care of, once you’re over the initially overwhelming tutorial period it’s an intoxicating mix of gardening and Pokémon-esque creature collecting.
Despite the relative commercial failure of the first game, a sequel – Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise – was released in 2008 and once again failed to make an impression, sales-wise. A Nintendo DS version – Pocket Paradise – was as critically well-received as the 360 games, but again, from what I can gather, didn’t seem to find much of an audience. Spin-off title, the Mario Party-esque Viva Pinata: Party Animals, was a critical as well as commercial failure.
However, given the current popularity of games such as Stardew Valley, My Time At Portia, Animal Crossing and the resurgence of Pokémon, it feels to me that Viva Pinata is long overdue a sequel. Regardless of that, it’s great that Rare Replay has given me the chance to revisit these seemingly under-appreciated games. Even better is that the technical issues – that caused the 360 games to run at painfully slow framerates at times – seem to have been rectified on the newer hardware. If you’ve never tried Viva Pinata and you have access to Game Pass – or even if you can get hold of a physical copy of Rare Replay, which is now unbelievably cheap, given what’s included – you should really give it a go.
It’s a beautifully colourful game, capable of being relaxing and also very stressful (Trouble in Paradise is worth a try too, though it ends up feeling more like an expansion than a fully fledged sequel). Just try not to get too attached to your little residents as you play; the pinata food chain can be almost as brutal as the real thing.
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