Like Peter Parker or Gordon Freeman, some people are just in the right place at the right time, and the same is true for a lot of the big corporations nowadays. They don't like to admit it, but luck plays a huge role in the success or failure of a lot of companies. 4Kids Entertainment got lucky when it decided to bring over a Japanese cartoon based on a popular video game called Pokémon, and it's been trying to replicate that success ever since, with franchise after franchise of children-marketed games and animation.
Viva Piñata is another example of being in the right place at the right time. While Rare was developing a sandbox game for the 360, it realized that it had a lot of marketing potential with its vibrant and cleverly named creatures, and when 4Kids got hold of it, they milked it for all it was worth. As of right now, this includes four games and a televised computer-animated cartoon, all closely tied together to try to enthrall children the way that Pokémon continues to with each new incarnation. While not as addictive and successful as the pocket monsters, Viva Piñata's brilliant world and creatures still hold up fantastically in its DS incarnation, Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise.
The concept is simple enough: You start out with an empty garden, and by fulfilling various conditions, you try to get as many wild piñatas to live there as possible. The more lively your garden is, the more money you can make by selling the colorful creatures when you have more of them than you can handle. If you fulfill further conditions, you can convince the piñatas to "romance" and produce a baby piñata by doing a very kid-friendly (but still amusing) "romance dance."
It's an endless cycle to be sure, and one that many other simulation games have tried to emulate. You make things breed, you sell them, your stats get better, and you can have better things. It's a tiresome formula, but it worked in the original Viva Piñata, which had a bright cast of characters and an easy and intuitive way to spice up your garden. It may not have been Pokémon, but it was surely hours of distraction for thousands of kids and adults alike.
Pocket Paradise for the DS is a double-edged sword for Viva Piñata fans, though. For every convenience and simplification that is newly implemented, you have to step back and wonder if the game is still a delight with the dumbed-down and almost bland graphics of the DS.
It's clear from the get-go that Rare wanted to do a lot more than they could with the little handheld. As soon as the company logos flash by, the game tries to run an abbreviated intro from the "Viva Piñata" TV show and highlight all of the color and fun of the world. Unfortunately, all it really showcases is the DS' grainy and inadequate video codec, and the torture you'll have to go through every time it wants to show off some high-powered 3-D animation. Throughout the intro, the video lags massively behind the sound, and a sinking feeling starts to set in.
Fortunately, you don't have to put up with the DS' video processing too much. What you do have to see for the rest of the game is still a huge disappointment after the beauty and charm of the 360 title. It gets to be tiring when these chunky graphics are all you have to look at for the extended periods of garden care, unlike the 360's vibrant and detailed character models and backgrounds. The garden is entirely 2-D, and the 3-D piñatas, while adequate, just aren't as good eye candy as you're used to seeing.
While the garden is underwhelming, you do have all that improved, streamlined gameplay to distract you. It distracts pretty easily once you reach higher levels of gardening, with a bigger area to work with, more tools and (hopefully) more money. Everything is controlled handily by the stylus and a few menus, and it all works fantastically together. To help your omnipotent camera get around the garden better, you can go to an overhead map and zoom to anywhere with it. The same map icon keeps you up to date on any important events in the garden.
The shop menu is easy to access, but not quite as friendly as the rest of the menus. It's one of the few instances when it's easier to get around with the d-pad. The shop menu would have really benefited from a way to buy multiple things at once because it's a huge pain to enter, buy, re-enter, buy, re-enter, and so on. Still, it's not game-breaking, and no worse than it was before.
Tending the garden is as easy as scrawling out your name. The stylus controls are very responsive when modeling the garden, and can even make you feel like a bit of an artist. It's so simple and straightforward that it makes you wonder how you ever crafted a garden before or kept up with all of the goings-on.
To make things more soothing, there's even a playground mode, where you don't have to build your garden from the ground up and don't have to worry about the threats to your piñatas, such as roving ruffians. You can simply arrange a few tiles, and the game will generate a "just for fun" garden, where you can import as many piñatas as you want, as long as they're in your encyclopedia. You can experiment and do just about anything to try to see what new piñatas you can draw in. It's an extremely relaxing mode in an already relaxing game, but without the graphical power to back it up, you can't really justify sitting back and watching your garden grow.
In many ways, Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise is a perfect game for the DS. The system's portability lends itself well to the quick and easy garden-tending gameplay. With three save slots and a just-for-fun playground mode, you can create a garden any way you want it to be, as many times as you want. Fans of the first Viva Piñata will probably get a huge kick out of playing it again (and again) on this new platform, and it might even be enough to draw in a few new players to its unique play style. The gameplay is as solid as it's going to get, but it gets boring a bit more quickly than it should thanks to the DS' shoddy graphics. Rare had to find a way to compromise between game and graphics on the weakest system on the market, and they did it to the best of their ability, but Pocket Paradise still comes out a lot less shiny than its predecessor. It's still a nice return to the piñata's world, and well worth the $30 asking price.
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