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July 13, 2006

PREVIEW: Viva Piñata (a.k.a. "Good Fuzzy")

About a week after I launched GameFam last year, I warned parents about a game created by renowned developer Rare. That game, Conker: Live & Reloaded, starred a fuzzy little critter who was just as cute as the dickens. As it turned out, he was also quite the violent, profane, disgusting little bastard.

That would be a prime example of the phenomenon known as "Bad Fuzzy".

Later this year (Holiday, '06), Rare and Microsoft will be releasing Viva Piñata for the Xbox 360, and based on my up-close-and-personal look-see at E3, it looks to be a prime example of "Good Fuzzy".

As I wrote in awarding Viva Piñata the coveted Best New IP Award in my E3 2006 Fammy Awards:

Viva Piñata is not only bright, colorful and whimsical, but it also allows for a great deal of choices for customization and control, which lets kids find their own comfort level. If we had a 360, Viva Piñata would be at the top of my wish list (along with Fight Night Round 3 for after the kids go to bed).

A Plethora of Piñatas

So, how 'bout them piñatas?
You know 'em. You love 'em. They're fun at parties.

Actually, while those last two statements are certainly true, how well do you really know your friendly neighborhood piñata? Rare's take on the matter is that just as we didn't really know the secret lives of toys before Toy Story, we've been similarly clueless about what goes on when the piñatas are not busy spewing forth their birthday party bounty.

Well, starting in a few months, we'll be able to see how piñatas act in their downtime. In Viva Piñata, there are more than 60 piñatas to play with, and each has its own personality. Your job is to develop each one from its initial state into the kind of piñata that would make a papa piñata proud.

Along the way, you meet many other piñatas. Most are friendly, but there are a few that aren't so pleasant. Sure, you could bust one open and eat the candy. But candy from a "sour" piñata will make your piñatas ill, and nobody likes a sick piñata (quick side note: when you break open a piñata, it doesn't die. It gets banished outside the garden, and has to start over from square one).

So instead of getting any ideas about having your own little Whacking Day celebration, you're encouraged to rehabilitate the bad egg, by figuring out just what it needs to become tame.

In addition to the piñatas, you can also create, customize and develop every item in the garden. Some kids will absolutely love that part of the game, but the kids that prefer a lower-maintenance experience can craft just that for themselves. There are also "helper" characters who can guide them along the way.

As far as my kids are concerned, my daughter is going to love all the customization, while my son will definitely lean toward the lazily aimless free exploration that is at the heart of open-ended sandbox games.

There's also co-op play, and since the game is on the Xbox 360, Xbox Live will obviously be at the heart of the multiplayer experience. You'll be able to team up with other payers and explore other custom-made environments.

"Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you."

If I can take Henry Kissinger's famous line and shamelessly bastardize it for my own purposes, I'd say the following:

Just because Viva Piñata is part of a calculated, engineered-to-be-kid-friendly multimedia (there's also going to be a Viva Piñata TV show, launching in the Fall) strategy that is a central part of Microsoft's goal to make the Xbox 360 more kid-friendly than the Xbox is, doesn't mean it's not a good game for kids (whew!).

I approached cautiously, and came away genuinely impressed. So before you start muttering "that's how they getcha" about big bad Microsoft, give Viva Piñata a chance to win you and your kids over.

Once Microsoft finally drops the price of the Xbox 360 (soon may it be. amen.), Viva Piñata will definitely be the first game we buy.

If you already have an Xbox 360, and you want your kids to get in on the gaming joy (or even if you don't want to share, but your significant other said you need to find kids' games to justify the expense), I highly recommend that you get in on the good fuzziness of Viva Piñata.

And just because my kids love SpongeBob...


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