The Dreamcast was not a perfect console. Yes, there is a lot of cult love for it these days, and yes, it was pretty damn cool. I acknowledge this. I owned one, even, and once carried the flag, waved it even, around many a die-hard PlayStation fan. Sure the controller was too damn big (RSI inducing, even) and the game selection was a bit lackluster, but some of the best games ever made (then and now) were released on that console, and my memories of it are as fond as those of playing any other machine, sans the NES. Among them was Sonic Adventure which, for all of its problems, packed a hell of a lot of game into one small package. Aside from being one of the best (IMO) Sonic games to date, it's companion mini-game was a satisfying experience in its own right, and I honestly can't recall which aspect of the game I looked forward to the most: the game proper, or tending my Chao garden.
Chaos (pronounced "chows") were little, gurgling creatures found across the expanse of the Sonic world as eggs, which you could then transport to the Chao garden and hatch. They could mate, making more eggs, and there were even rare-colored Chaos found in special places. But the best part was the ability to load a Chao into the Dreamcast portable memory unit and play with it on the train or whatever, even give it to friends. Few games inspire the amount of away-from-game deep thinking and daydreaming that occupied my mind back when the Dreamcast was my main squeeze, but it wasn't the game's main storyline that occupied my spare brain cycles; it was thoughts of tending my Chao garden. I'd sit at work, wistfully ruminating on what to do with my Chaos next, or wishing I were on my way home so that I could A) get home to play with the garden more, and B) fiddle with my Chao in the PMU. I could have easily played an entire game based on that Chao garden and recall mentioning as much to someone at the time. For the sake of my own sanity (and, perhaps, realistically), I'm going to pretend that it wasn't within earshot of someone who would later go to work for a game developer. Because six years later I've found it; it's called Viva Piñata and it's made by a little company called Rare.
I picked up Viva Piñata, as I do with many games, at the suggestion of a friend. It would seem that others know far more about what games will float my boat than I do, and in this case my dear friend was not mistaken. I'd seen the Viva Piñata presentation at E3 last year and was a bit turned off by the bright colors, fanciful animal shapes and the proposed cartoon tie-in, so it was with no small amount of doubt that I cracked open the overly-complicated packaging and subjected myself to the explosion of glee that is Viva Piñata's opening screens and watched, as if from outside my own body, as I spent the next several hours having more fun that I'd ever imagined.
The premise is simple, albeit seemingly pointless: Create a garden, tend it and raise animal-shaped piñatas. It's in the execution, of course, where the game truly shines. For starters, you don't find the piñatas (at least not at first), the piñatas find you. If conditions are right in your little garden, stray piñata animals will wander in, and if they find what they need, they'll move in, and that's when things get interesting. One can easily become obsessed with ensuring that conditions are right to attract the various piñata species, but when you attract two of them, that's when things get interesting. You can breed your piñatas to make more piñatas, and each piñata has a set of "romance" requirements that must be met before they'll be ready to get busy. Some have to eat a certain kind of flower, some a certain kind of piñata. Some will even require you to, for example, feed a green flower to a white flutterscotch, turning him green, then feed the now green flutterscotch to the piñata. It's an intricate dance requiring a lot of resource management, long-term planning, real-time strategy and occasional bouts of creative intuition. It's also hypnotic. After playing for about three minutes, the fanciful piñata animals and stupidly joyful music fade away, and Viva Piñata becomes a fairly complex, challenging and fun strategy game, with all the side benefits of Zen-like garden meditation.
As far as the garden goes, you can grow plants, trees, vegetables and erect all manner of buildings and ornaments. There's even a tiki torch that has a nasty habit of catching the piñatas on fire. You haven't lived until you've tried for hours to breed a pair of insects while all the while watching a flaming chicken run screaming across the lawn in the background. The fire won't kill the piñatas (in fact, it sometimes does amazing things to them), but even if it did, death in Viva Piñata is a cause for celebration, not grief. Piñatas don't actually die, per se; they merely explode into colorful displays of paper and candy, which the remaining piñatas will then eat to become happy. It's what they call "the doughnut of life," and although watching a beloved pet, who you have named and nurtured, get destroyed then eaten before your eyes carries with it an inevitable sadness, the spectacle truly is joyous, and any game that can espouse the lightness of being dead is a great game indeed.
The higher levels start to get interesting once your tract of land becomes huge and you begin attracting the attention of even more interesting and unique piñatas. Some of the gymnastics required to get the more advanced breeds to mate are truly exhausting and complicated (as in real life), and the more successful you become, the more attention you attract from "sour" piñatas, who will try all manner of tricks to ruin your (and your piñatas') day. You can convert these nasty visitors to "the light side," but this is another complicated maneuver and requires all manner of fancy knickknacks.
You make money in Viva Piñata by selling the (literal) fruits of your labors, and even the piñatas themselves. This is something you'll do often since seeds, structures, services and some piñatas all require funds. You can hire helper bots to water your plants, chase away pests and fetch your growing things to market and there are all manner of folks in "The Village" with whom to interact for various reasons. And true-to-life, most of these will attempt to drain you of funds in some way or another as well, but with a wide variety of things to grow, process or sell, it's not hard to amass enough cash to make even your dorkiest dreams come true. (I made a hedge maze last night, with a birdhouse smack dab in the center.) Where the game gets interesting is in its strict limits: You can only have so many piñatas and accessories in your garden at one time, making it necessary to constantly make hard choices about what to keep, what to sell and what to breed. This can be a tiny bit dissatisfying from the point of view of someone who would like nothing better than to have two of everything and a boat to put them in, but it does introduce a strategic aspect to what would otherwise be a fairly short-lived sandbox experience.
Where the game falls short is in the kind of simple mechanics and subtle design touches that should be old hat to industry veterans like Rare. It takes no fewer than four button presses to perform most buying and selling, and the in-game menu tree is disjointed and daunting. Granted, there is a wide array of things one can do in Viva Piñata, but tracking those options down is a frustrating task, and simple, repetitive tasks often require multiple trips through a nauseating array of menu screens. The various "sellers" don't help either, with their repetitive, insulting voice tracks and quirky mannerisms, one is tempted to beat them with their own wares more often than not, and they do little to enhance the experience.
I'm tempted to say that the game has so much style, that some of it leaked into areas which would have been better left spare. I wonder, while playing, how many hours were devoted to play testing and if anyone cared that the actual gameplay was inhibited by design decisions, the kind of thing you'd expect most industry veterans to have figured out to be watchful of long before now. An overhead view would have also been a nice touch. I hesitate to mention Rare's other foray into Xbox 360 programming, but since Perfect Dark Zero seems to have suffered from similar design issues, one has to wonder what will become of Rare if they do not begin taking more care with relatively simple design choices. It feels almost duplicitous to criticize such a perfect game on the basis of such pedestrian annoyances, but a game is a sum of all of its various parts, and with a resource-based game like Piñata, user interface is as important as anything else, more so perhaps, and Piñata receives middling to poor marks in this regard.
Yet as is with the case with so many brilliant games, these problems pale in comparison to the enormous amount of fun to be had playing it. Viva Piñata is the kind of game we can't see enough of; a smart, innovative concept, artfully executed with enough fun to fill a room. It's even fun to watch, and I find myself having conversations about the game, wondering what to feed those flutterscotches to turn them pink, deciding what to do with spare chili peppers and asking my companion: If I build a hedge maze, will the piñatas come? In fact, I owe you, the reader, an apology. I'm only half concentrating on writing this review. Most of my brain is thinking about whether or not I can part with my bunny piñata (named Foo Foo), and if I'll ever be able to attract a quackberry. If I redirect the stream around the apple tree, maybe. I'll have to try that.