What do you get if you cross The Sims, Pokémon and Ground Force? A hundred million billion pounds, that's what.
Well, that's what Rare and Microsoft must be hoping, anyway. Viva Piñata, you see, isn't just a new game; it's a whole new franchise, complete with its own TV show and all manner of merchandising. The idea is that the VP characters will eventually become just as popular as the likes of Pikachu, Spongebob, Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Lala and Po - and just as profitable.
But that's not to say that the Viva Piñata game is just another cash-in aimed at young children and wacky students. For starters, the characters have been designed from scratch by Rare - best known for bringing us the likes of Banjo Kazooie and Conker, and a lot of games which are really rather good.
However, it has been developed with kids in mind, which is why - as we found out when we got to sit down and have a go recently - it's very easy to pick up and play.
You start off with a small patch of garden, and not much to see other than a few slabs of rock and bits of junk. And a lady called Leafos, who's there to offer advice and supply you with a spade so you can set about prettying the place up.
Initially, this involves getting rid of the rocks and the junk by splatting them with the spade. This will leave you with fertile soil so you can start planting grass seeds, and it only takes a few minutes to create a beautiful lush green lawn out of what looked like Catford.
Gotta catch 'em all
Once you've done that, the Pokémon element comes into play. Viva Piñata sees you collecting a wide range of brightly coloured creatures with stupid names, in this case by making your garden so pretty that they come and set up home in it.
The first piñatas to arrive will be the Syrupents - grass snakes, basically, who will be attracted by your nice lawn. Later on, you might plant carrots to attract the rabbit-like Bunnycombs, or flowers for the Buzzlegum bees. Other species include the Sparrowmint, Fudgehog and Horsetachio, plus nocturnal piñatas such as the Mothdrop, who only come out when it's dark. There are around 60 species in total, but you'll have to do an awful lot of work on your garden to collect the lot.
For the most part, the piñatas are cute, good natured little creatures. But there are also bad piñatas, known as sours, who are liable to start fights and generally cause problems. If you train them well, though, they can prove useful; for example, you could build a pen for the sheep piñatas, and teach a sour to act as a kind of collie to keep them in line. "Come by, weird purple snake-type thing," etc.
As soon as you've got a couple of piñatas running about, a character called Willy the Builder will pop up and kindly offer to build them a house. You can place this anywhere you like in the garden, though it's worth thinking about whether certain species are likely to fight if they're put in close quarters.
Then comes the romantic bit. When two piñatas take a fancy to each other, heart icons will appear above their heads. You can encourage them to mate by playing a short mini-game (these vary depending on the species, but in the example we saw, you had to navigate a simple maze).
If you're successful, you'll get to see their mating ritual, which takes the form of a little dance (again, unique to the individual species). As if by magic, an egg will then appear in your garden, and will break open to reveal a brand new baby piñata. Because that's how it really happens, kids, and not just because Daddy bought the supermarket own-brand ones.
So that's the miracle of birth, but like pokémon and nintendogs, piñata never die. However, you can break them open and make them spill their sugary guts all over the place. There's a doctor character to heal them, but also an evil bloke called Dastardos (probably didn't need to point out the fact he's evil there) who will swoop in and nick any ill piñatas he can find.
Breaking piñatas open will release chocolate coins (also earned by managing your garden), which you can use down the local shop. There are all sorts of piñata accessories to choose from, including sunglasses, hats and comedy bunny ears.
Live and kicking
More accessories will be available via Xbox Live Marketplace, which is also where you can trade piñata. To identify them, each piñata has a special tag revealing its name (chosen by you), how old it is and how much ground it's covered in your garden. Xbox Live will determine what each piñata is worth in terms of gold coins, and then you can swap them about with your friends. The tags don't change, so you'll always be able to tell where each piñata started out.
And that's about it for online features - although there is an achievements system (for example, if you attract five different species of piñata to your garden, you'll earn 20 gamerpoints). However, Rare is planning to launch other features once the game is out; you might get the option to visit other players' gardens, just as you can visit other towns in Animal Crossing. Apparently, though, they want to see how the game is received and find out what players want first.
So we're unlikely to see any other online features until after Viva Piñata hits the shops, which will be some time before Christmas. The TV show, which has just started showing in the US, will be on UK screens next spring; and what with all the bright colours, high pitched noises and extensive marketing it's sure to be a big hit with kids.
Chances are they'll like the game, too, seeing as it's so easy to pick up and play and contains all the elements kids like - collecting things, splatting things, building things and owning things they've seen on the telly.
But what about grown-ups? Well, it's not yet clear whether there's enough depth here for older players; it could be that the gameplay's just a bit too simple and a bit too familiar for some. But a much more thorough playtest will be needed before there's a definitive answer to that one - so keep an eye out for the review...
Viva Piñata is due out exclusively on Xbox 360 this Christmas.