Viva Piñata

Nintendogs never die. Pokemon merely faint when struck down in battle. But the paper mache creatures of Viva Piñata are brutally torn apart, their candy innards devoured. And when kids at parties aren't tearing the beasts limb from limb the critters mangle each other. Tutorials jokingly refer to the process as "the donut of life." But don't let the saccharine exterior fool you; beneath lies a simulator with a complex morality and deep, rewarding play to match.

Players start with a plot of land on Piñata Island, a shovel, watering can and a pocketful of seeds. From this fertile soil grows an experience like an HGTV show hosted by Will Wright. Different party favors will visit the garden, move in and eventually breed if the conditions are just so. Much of the game is spent discovering the needs and behaviors of the piñatas while growing a variety of plants, produce and trees on your patch. Viva Piñata's ecosystem is intricate. Plants can be coaxed into extra growth, piñatas imbued with new colors and evolved. Just as soon as the game's big picture comes into view the really interesting questions are posed. Do you play ruthlessly, cashing the creatures in for coin like cattle, or name the paper animals and treat them like pets? Either way Viva Piñata's mulch of experimentation and resource juggling provides an unexpected and engrossing venue to ponder the complex relationship between man and beast.

Beyond the game: The CG animated kid's show that synergizes with Viva Piñata is as insipid as the game is charming. More dedicated growers will watch anyway for the agriculture tips that the writers slide into the plots.

Worth playing for: Piñata husbandry culminates in a unique "romance dance" for each breed. The game's cheeky British designers programmed the Lickitoads to break into a sort of can-can.

Frustration sets in when: It's too easy to max out the number of plants and animals on your property. Culling the flock is no kind of fun.

Final judgment: A Mallowolf in Goobaa's clothing; killer fun masquerading as a crappy cartoon tie-in.

Filed Under: Games

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