Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise Impressions

Viva Pinata came out of nowhere and blew away just about everybody that played it. Unfortunately, not that many people bothered to play it. We think the game’s poor retail performance had something to do with Microsoft courting an older demographic and hyping the hell out of Gears of War before sending Rare’s project out the door with nothing but a terrible TV show to serve as marketing. Rare on the other hand believes the major problem was that the game looked like it was intended for kids, when it was actually too complex for most adults. They make a good point, and they’ve put some effort into rectifying the problem for the sequel, Trouble in Paradise. Appealing to a more casual audience isn’t exactly an unprecedented strategy these days, but if any series deserves a bigger piece of the pie, it’s Viva Piñata.

Truth be told, some of the changes that Rare took the time to point out aren’t particularly exciting. The inclusion of new breeds of Piñata, new surfaces like sand and snow, and new items to place in the garden were all expected as a bare minimum. The Rare reps walking us through the game spent a great deal of time going over the new toys that players can place in the garden, which were little more than interactive items that Piñata could independently interact with of their own accord. Cute, but not exactly a game-changer, at least it didn’t seem that way. The original Viva Pinata wasn’t a game that demoed particularly well; it took an hour or two of play to really get into it, at which point the addiction quickly set in. We’ll need a similar amount of time with the sequel before we can get a real handle on just how much of an impact these additions have on the difficulty, and carrot-on-stick design that kept us entranced for months.

It’s not all bad though. Mating has been refined such that players must now collect hearts on their way through the maze to their Pinata lover, and are awarded points for their collection skills and time. Points can be used to force the types of births that came at random in the first game, twins, wild cards, etc. The shopping system has also been given a much needed upgrade, as items like seeds can now be accessed from a drop-down menu that can be accessed mid-game right from the garden, bypassing the need to hear the annoying shopkeepers three lines of spoken dialog over, and over and over. More interesting is the new sandbox mode, which gives players infinite chocolate coins and removes all of the preconditions and goals found in the campaign. It’s a straight-up sandbox for players to build the garden of their dreams in, and this is the mode that younger players are probably going to have the most fun with. Also of note is the camera mode that allows players to fly through their garden and take pictures of the Piñata’s in action. Most important however is the inclusion of dynamic co-op, so two players can share the gardening duties.

As is the case with many Xbox 360 games these days, the content in the box isn’t nearly as exciting as the stuff outside the box being tied into the experience via Xbox Live. Take the aforementioned camera mode for example. Players have an in-game photo album to save their pictures to, but they can also upload their pictures straight from the game to a Viva Piñata website a la Bungie.net. Once up on the website the real crazy stuff starts, as players can convert pictures of Pinata into cards that can then be printed off or even transferred to a Zune or ipod. Those cards can then be read using an Xbox Live Vision camera, and presto, the Piñata pictured appears in the garden. Obviously the technology at play here is pretty cool, but if we hold back on the geek enthusiasm for just a few seconds and analyze the service rationally, it’s easy to see what Rare’s plan is. Card collecting appeals primarily to younger demographics, and point of the cards is effectively to bypass the work necessary to earn the Piñata’s the old fashioned way. So the demographic for whom the original game was too difficult now has a way around actually playing that caters directly to their particular interests. Rare is either brilliant or sneaky as hell, depending on your point of view.

Honestly, we don’t know if any of the changes Rare has made to the game will lead to a significant improvement in sales over the first title. We think the issue has more to do with demographics that anything else; the Xbox 360 appeals primarily to 18-34 year old North American males, many of which just aren’t interested in the content being provided. Maybe if Microsoft put a huge marketing budget behind the game they could get a few more people to take interest, but we’re guessing that most of their attention is going to be focused on Gears of War 2. Whatever happens, we’re just happy to have more Viva Piñata on the way.