Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise

I loved the first Viva Piñata. It seems as if I shouldn’t have. The videogame tie-in to a show about an island of piñatas who, after being filled up with enough candy, are rewarded (?) with the opportunity to attend a child’s birthday party to have that candy beaten out of them is cute (albeit a touch sadistic), but I am a bit old for that sort of thing.

Nevertheless, Rare created a really robust gardening and animal husbandry simulation in the first game that, while admittedly tying into a product intended for children, appealed to hardcore adult gamers as well.

Viva Piñata and its sequel, Trouble in Paradise, ask a player to take control of a relatively undeveloped plot of land on Piñata Island, begin working the land with basic tools like a shovel and watering can, plant seeds, grow plants, and lure in wild piñatas to domesticate and breed. The premise is supported by a fairly well organized interface with a host of options for accomplishing these goals. Again, while seemingly targeted towards kids, the effort and critical thinking required to generate a successful and flourishing garden (and piñata ranch of sorts) necessitates a pretty sophisticated grasp of sound economic strategy and resource management skills. Indeed, Viva Piñata is essentially a very well-developed version of a game style usually reserved for adult game players; it is chiefly an economics and resource management simulation, and a very good one at that.

It is no wonder that games like this usually feature more adult concerns. Business simulations like the Zoo Tycoon series, the Roller Coaster Tycoon series or The Movies, while focusing on industries that might be fun to work in because of their focus on zoos, amusement parks, and movie studios are still chiefly concerned with an adult occupation: business management. The fact that many of these games are simulations allowing some control over aspects of entertainments (rather than more serious-minded businesses) adds an appealing element of fun and gives the player some engaging purpose in that context. For the player, getting to see the exhibits and theme parks and films that are the product of his or her business savvy gives him or her some pleasure in executing what might otherwise be seen as a host of the seemingly rather boring and mundane tasks one expects to experience in handling a more “down to earth” business.

Likewise, part of the strength of (as well as the pleasure in) playing Viva Piñata lies in the atmosphere generated through a cartoon expression of a workaday world. Though I must admit, its chief lure and the element that I find draws me in most as a player is the ability to witness the E-rated mating rituals of the piñatas themselves. As your garden grows in this game, in order to generate more capital and greater prestige (in the form of awards granted for unique successes in your garden like growing a specific kind of plant or breeding a particular species of piñatas for the first time), piñata breeding and the chance to witness it becomes a central focus of why you plant and alter the garden as you do.

Certain environmental features (like grassland, sand, snow, and water) that can be manipulated by the player as well as the presence of certain plants and piñata breeds make the garden more attractive to various wild piñata. Once lured into your garden because of the presence of such things like a monkey nut tree (as, for example, Cinnamonkeys are) and a couple animals of the same breed are made residents in the garden, houses for those animals can be created so that those piñatas can perform a “romance dance.” The dance represents the consummation their relationship and thusly produces new piñata offspring.

While in no way prurient, the animations that are pursuant on successful completion of providing two piñatas of the same species the atmosphere, attire, or aphrodisiac (again all of these things are things produced as a result of your other gardening efforts) to get them “in the mood” for such a dance are a series of animations that are both hilarious and visually arresting. Combining a musical score within the confines of familiar musical genres (a romance dance may be accompanied by a rockabilly tune, an orchestral piece, or even a techno beat) with a dance that complements that style of music, these cut scenes consist of wacky and cute sanitized visions of mating rituals. The butterfly-like Flutterscotches might perform a balletic couples dance while the fox-like Preztails, of course, do a foxtrot.

Thus, a hardcore economics simulation becomes driven by the gamer’s voyeuristic impulse to witness what is ultimately both a cute but also gratuitous piñata porno flick.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing here that a parent might need to fear to expose their kids to. However, there is no denying that romance dances are a visual feast driven by, as I noted before, voyeuristic impulse. Other games have captured this spirit in a more literal way. Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball, for instance, is driven by a very complex social simulator that focuses on the way in which the DOA girls foster relationships with one another through elaborate gift giving rituals. The ultimate “payoff” for the player in that game is to get to see those DOA girls play in ever skimpier bathing suits that are the main “gift” commodity in that game. Photographing nude women and featuring their best shots in your magazine is the outcome focused on by playing out the management and networking simulation Playboy: the Mansion. Visual rewards abound in the industry in these overtly pornographic examples, though, when seen in relation to a game like Viva Piñata or a host of other games (including games outside the simulation genre) that reward players with fancy CGI cutsenes, one might understand the point that I am making about the inherently gratuitous nature of the goal of so many games. Games often provide a reward to the player by literally allowing the successful player the chance to see and to appreciate something beautiful, funny, or breathtaking in the form of a short clip. Viva Piñata simply takes that gratuitous voyeurism and provides a kid friendly version of it for the consumption of a broader audience.

While I was almost tempted to knock a point off of this game’s score for largely consisting of the same content as the prior one and only providing some limited differences to the game’s core content and mechanics, I can’t help but retain its high score because of its deft execution and continually amusing visual rewards. The game definitely feels like the first game repackaged with what in a PC game would be released in an expansion pack. New game play elements are added like being able to travel to other areas such as a desert or arctic region to trap new animals and being able to manage the garden with a friend at home or online. It also includes a load of new animal types (and, thus, new frightfully mesmerizing romance dances) and new plant types to lengthen the list of and complexify the skills necessary to accrue what is already a solid roster of characters and items. This material is exactly what encourages a player to really grind out the game’s often challenging system of resource and animal management. While much of the original material is redundant, these tweaks still make this a game well worth owning and playing if you are a fan of the genre.

At the core, though, salaciousness is the game’s guiding impetus. And who can’t enjoy the kind of salaciousness that even a 6-year-old would be allowed to love?

RATING 9 / 10
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