Wednesday, July 28, 2021

A Love Letter to Viva PInata - Eric Vs.

Eric here from and welcome to another longform video essay about video games. Today's topic is Viva Pinata, one of the most underrated series in all of video games. Read all about it, and watch the video, after the jump.

I have a lot of complicated feelings about Rare, to be honest. This will be controversial, but I don't actually think Microsoft "ruined" them. I think they were already trending downward when Microsoft bought them and Nintendo decided it was better to bail out early than wait out their decline. Rare put out a lot of clunkers in its last few years with Nintendo - Star Fox Adventures, Conker's Bad Fur Day, Mickey's Speedway USA, Donkey Kong 64, Banjo-Tooie, and Jet Force Gemini were all disappointing for various reasons and were nowhere near the quality of the studio's most beloved titles. They followed those up on Xbox with Grabbed by the Ghoulies, Kameo, and Perfect Dark Zero which were all disappointing as well. But I don't think this long line of failures was because the Rare magic was gone or because Microsoft ruined them - I think it was because gamers simply got tired of the trademark Rare style and the studio took too long to evolve. 

For a modern example of this, just look at Yooka-Laylee whose whole selling point was that it was a game made by former Rare employees and was meant to feel just like the N64 glory days. It turns out that there was a reason why nobody had tried to make a "Rare style" game since the N64 days, and that was because that distinct 90's style of humor and character designs and 3D platformer gameplay has aged like fine shit. I seriously freaking hate Yooka-Laylee.

This video isn't about Rare's decline or the shifting tastes of the industry, though. This is about the shining beacon of greatness between Rare's early to mid 2000's failures and Microsoft wasting 5 years of the studio's time with Kinect nonsense - I'm talking about the Viva Pinata series, which is right up there with the best games Rare ever made. 2006's Viva Pinata and 2008's Viva Pinata Trouble in Paradise are brilliant and wonderful and amazing and deserve several more minutes worth of praise starting ... now.

Viva Pinata is a garden management strategy sim where you attract different animal pinatas based on the current state of your garden. Depending on how much water there is, how much long or short grass, and what types of flowers or trees or other plants your garden has you attract different animals. And having certain animals in your garden already then attracts other new animals. As you attract new animals you level up, which gives you access to new equipment and new plants and other items to attract even more types of animals. It is a really rewarding progression system where you are constantly getting new toys to play with and seeing new stuff. It is also extemely visually appealing with lush vegetation, great looking water, and amazing looking pinata animals that are brightly colored and, frankly, adorable. The visuals were seriously great back on Xbox 360 but even better now thanks to an enhancement update for Xbox One X and Xbox Series X. 

Unfortunately, despite a dedicated fan base singing the praises of the series, the two main line Viva Pinata games came out at a time when Xbox 360 was the Call of Battle Gears Doody Halo Field of War machine. It was the dudebro multiplayer shooter system of choice and pretty much anything else, especially a bright and colorful and cute game like Viva Pinata, never really got the attention it deserved.

Rare and Microsoft sure tried to make it work, though. In addition to the two mainline games there was a Nintendo DS version of Viva Pinata that was surprisingly faithful to the console games as well as a very solid PC port. There was also a computer animated Saturday Morning Viva Pinata cartoon that was shockingly well done along with a family friendly party game on Xbox 360 called Viva Pinata Party Animals based on the show. The general gaming public never fully embraced the franchise, unfortunately, and nothing new has come out since 2009. 

Which is a shame because Viva Pinata freaking rocks. The games are so great looking and so charming and funny and so darn satisfying to play. Every animal has its own personality and behaviors and just sitting back and watching your garden full of colorful pinata critters is a huge part of why the game is so enjoyable. 

It isn't all sunshine and rainbows and happy pinatas, though, as there are several entities who threaten your garden as well. Sour pinata species will invade and harass your garden until you figure out how to tame them and make them friendly. Ruffians will destroy your garden objects and fight to the death with your pinatas. And the vile Professor Pester who is a nearly unstoppable pinata hater who wants to kill your most rare and valuable pinata any time it enters your garden. These antagonists are kind of annoying and can kill the vibe of what is an otherwise very chill and relaxing experience, but figuring out how to deal with them and return the peace to your garden is part of the fun. 

I've been kind of speaking in general terms in relation to both Viva Pinata and Viva Pinata Trouble in Paradise, but that's because they are very similar games. Most reviewers felt they were a little too similar, in fact, as Trouble in Paradise recieved slightly lower review scores with the reasoning that it didn't really do anything new. I would (and did) agree with that assessment. Trouble in Paradise added some new species of pinatas and some other new items and stuff, but the core of the game was exactly the same as the original Viva Pinata. It is undeniably a better game, but the thrill and wonder of the experience was diminished because we had seen it all already just a couple years before. Kind of like BioShock 1 and 2 (yes, BioShock 2 is better than BioShock 1 it just wasn't as impressive due to familiarity). 

One important thing Trouble in Paradise did add was a creative mode where you have infinite money and pinatas are much easier to attract to your garden. This mode doesn't have Professor Pester or sours or other dangers, so you can just sit back and relax and have fun with the game without worrying too much. Fun story - I didn't know this mode even existed until I started working on this video in 2021. Crazy, right? I think I must have known about it but quickly forgot because playing in this mode turns off achievements, and I love me some achievements. 

One last thing that needs to be addressed is that these games are weirdly, uh, lewd. Your objective in the game isn't just to attract wild pinatas, but also to breed them in order to make more little pinatas. Each species has different romance requirements and once you meet those requirements, and have a special house for them to live in, you're treated to a wacky little animation as the pinatas dance and play with each other before the screen goes dark and you get a message saying the stork is on the way. They're all generally funny to watch and most of them are pretty tame, but some are kind of "You Can't Do That On Television" wild that you wouldn't expect in a kids game. Kids don't know what they're looking at, so I guess it's fine.

To circle this discussion back to Rare in general, Viva Pinata is the kind of charming and funny and wildly imaginative game that made people fall in love with Rare in the first place. Maybe if they were on Nintendo systems they would have been more popular. Or maybe they would have never been made at all because Rare would have been too busy making other stuff. Who knows. I'm glad they were on Xbox, though.

To sum it all up, Viva Pinata is freaking great. These are great games that I revisit every few years and they always manage to suck me back in just like they did back in the Xbox 360 glory days before Microsoft went coo-koo for Kinect puffs. It makes me sad that we never got another one and I can only imagine how amazing the franchise could be with a new entry built for Xbox Series X. Microsoft has given no indication they are interested in revisting Viva Pinata, though, and Rare is busy working on a pirate game exclusively for sadists in Sea of Thieves, so the Viva Pinata dream is pretty much dead. We can still play Viva Pinata and Trouble in Paradise, though, and I highly recommend you do.